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The surprise announcement by the Holy See this morning, left me stumped on the historical significance of a pope resigning.   I know there had been popes who had given up the office prior to Benedict XVI, but I was unsure of the situations that lead to those resignations.   I decided to explore the history of the events, and to write a diary on these histories to help put the pope's announcement in historical context.  Please follow me below the Kos papal seal for an exploration of the events that have historically lead to papal resignation.

Celestine V, the Hermit Pope

    The first papal resignation I found in my research occurred with the abdication of Celestine V in 1294.  Celestine was a hermit, who was elected pope via the conclave of cardinals after the death of Nicholas IV.  It took 2 years for the conclave to decide and when they did they had elected Pietro del Morrone as the pope, which was odd considering the hermit was not a cardinal.  

Much of the reason for delay was the political aspects of the decision,
as for years the disputed the status of Sicily had caused a schism, and Pope Nicholas IV had intervened in this hoping for peace.

The division of Sicily from Aragon in 1285 helped the papacy negotiate a truce between Alfonso, James of Sicily and their Angevin captive Charles II, who in his despair at hisimprisonment was even willing to abandon his claim to the island of Sicily, a concession the pope could not countenance. Acting as an impartial arbiter, King Edward I of England drew up a plan whereby Charles would be exchanged for three of his sons, and would agree to implement a final peace accord within three years.   In 1288, despite hostility at the papal curia, this approach was finally adopted, but this did not bring peace any nearer, particularly in the view of the bellicose attitude of the French king , Philip IV, who had yet to learn what a morass the Sicilian Question had become, and who still had expectations that Charles of Valois, his brother, might gain the Aragonese throne.
Thus, any new pope would have to deal with the ongoing dispute over Sicily. So, the papal conclave had difficulty coming to a decision.  A new pope was not selected until 1294, when according to Anura Gurugé's book:
On July 5th 1294, the Dean, the Dominican Cardinal Bishop Latino Malabranca Orsini, notified the remaining cardinals of a letter he received from a hermit well known for his devoutness, Pietro del Morrone [Pietro “Angelerio”].  The “Morrone” in his name referred to the mountain in central Italy on which he had once lived, in a cave. The letter warned the cardinals of divine retribution if they delayed any longer.  There are those that claim Charles II, once rebuffed by the cardinals, went to see Pietro to suggest that he write a letter such as this. What transpired later suggests that there might be some valid basis for this allegation.

Other scholars suggest it was the conclave who wanted to elevate the hermit:

As scholar Bernard Ginn characterizes him, Pietro was an "an aged, simple and almost illiterate Benedictine hermit," loathe to use power, unpretentious, retiring, a lover of solitude -- and totally without political experience or worldly acumen. Who better than to control and manipulate? reasoned the cardinals.
Once selected by acclamation (h/t Fiddler On A Hot Tin Roof), Pope Celestine V would serve by all accounts a short and frustrating papacy.   With almost all factions hoping to manipulate the new pope, Celestine grew frustrated with heading the church.  
His immediate decision was to create several new cardinals who were all French or Neapolitan. He became a puppet of both civil and curial authorities. The curial officials were soon selling blank bulls. The projects dreamed of by this saintly man were systematically opposed and frustrated by the ecclesiastical hierarchy that ought to have put them in place. Celestine, old and sincerely pious, was no ruler. His decision, based on an election decree of Pope Gregory X, was to resign. He announced this decision in a papal bull where he affirmed he had this right. Dressed in full papal regalia, he read the decree, stepped down and stripped himself of all papal insignia. Dante called it, the great refusal. It is not known for sure if he was forced into this decision or freely made it, but the end result was his resignation and continued suffering.
In all he had served as pope for less than six months.  

THe Great Schism and the Resignation of Gregory XII

Prior to Benedict XVI, the last papal resignation took place in 1415, with the resignation of pope Gregory XII.  

Gregory XII was one of three claimants to the papacy in the early 1400s, along with John XXIII and Benedict XIII.  This period became known as the Great Schism.  The Great Schism lasted from 1378-1415 and ended with the Council of Constance and the resignation of Gregory XII.  Dr. Lynn Nelson, Prof. Emeritus at the University of Kansas, describes how this schism occurred:

At the death of Gregory XI in Rome, the cardinals were forced by a Roman mob to elect an Italian pope. They chose Urban VI in hopes that he would be compliant to their advice. They were mistaken in this hope. Urban decided that both pope and papal administration should resume its residence in Rome, and threatened to reform the college of cardinals to increase Italian representation up to a majority in the body. Unable to control their new paper as they had hoped, the French cardinals fled Rome. The Italian cardinals, naturally, remained with Rome's new champion. When the French cardinals reached a point where they were safe from the pope's power and the pressure of the Roman mobs, they assembled and declared that the election of Urban was invalid and void because they had acted under duress. They held another, rump, election, chose a Frenchman and returned to Avignon.

The split in the church leadership would have large repercussions, including financial, as with the establishment of a second papacy, came the need for upkeep and security for the pope and his headquarters.  Moreover, the split among the leadership formed a competition between the factions that resulted in high spending on a lavish lifestyle, as well as competing doctrines, and competition for the followers of each faction.  The competition was so bad that:

Not only did each papal administration declare the other and its clergy to be heretical, but they reached the point of declaring that anyone accepting sacraments from a heretical - for which you may read "rival" - cleric would be considered excommunicate. It didn't take a genius to figure out that, since the rival popes each enjoyed the support of about half of Europe, half the population might be receiving the sacraments from a true priest, but the other half were being attended by a heretic, were dying excommunicate.
The great schism could make several diaries in of itself, so I am not going to cover all of the problems associated with competing papacies, but I do want to cover quickly the failed attempt at resolving this schism, and the rise of a third faction that came from the Council of Pisa in 1408.  

The clergy were not all obsessed with papal politics, and there were many who wanted to do what was best for the church, and the people it served.   They decided to hold a council to resolve this schism, and in doing so made the fateful error of trying to appease both sides.  

They made the serious error, however, of trying to please all sides and deposed both claimants and selecting a new, compromise, candidate as pope.

It was pointed out, and not too gently, that, by deposing both claimants, they had assuredly assumed the right to dethrone a true pope. This logical failing made little difference, however, since neither papal claimant would obey the decision of the council, but excommunicated the participants and their electee along with anyone who would support or work with him. There were now three papal claimants, and the situation had grown even worse.

The schism remained until 1415, where several events took place that lead to the deposition of one papal claimant, the resignation of another and the eventual end to the schism that had become a serious problem for the catholic faith.  
The Council of Constance was convoked in 1414 by the Anti-Pope John XXIII, one of three rival claimants to the papal throne, the other two being Gregory XII and Benedict XIII. The Council was called to resolve all doubts as to the true successor of Peter, and end the Great Schism. John agreed to resign if his rivals would do the same, then he fled the city. In the absence of a papal convenor, the Council enacted Haec Sancta (fifth session, 15 April 1415), which purported to subject even papal authority to the authority of the Council. John was brought back and deposed for scandalous conduct. Gregory convoked the Council anew, rejected all its prior proceedings (including Haec Sancta), and then resigned. The Council acquiesced in these actions, passed decrees on reform, condemned the heresies of Hus and Wyclif and, after deposing Benedict, elected Martin V, under whom unity was restored to the Church.
So, for the next 600 years no pope would resign the leadership of the church, until today!  As was reported in Deutsche Welle earlier today, it is rumored that in the 20th century, three popes had written letters of resignation, but none had to follow through on delivering those letters.
Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, wrote his after the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Pius is reported to have signed a letter that stated that should he be kidnapped by the Nazis, he should be considered as having resigned his as pope.

In the cases of Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) and Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), there were concerns about the possibility of the church finding itself left with a pontiff who had become incapacitated due to failing health.

The last development I could find with regard to the history of papal resignation were that the laws of resignation were rewritten in 1983, under John Paul II, where the law was amended to read:
Can. 332 §1 The Roman Pontiff acquires full and supreme power in the Church when, together with episcopal consecration, he has been lawfully elected and has accepted the election. Accordingly, if he already has the episcopal character, he receives this power from the moment he accepts election to the supreme pontificate. If he does not have the episcopal character, he is immediately to be ordained Bishop.

§2 Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.

So, while Benedict XVI is certainly not the first pope to resign, he is to my knowledge the only one to resign under the circumstances of advanced age, and not solely political influence.   While it can be debated the validity of his reasons to resign, he has abdicated his power for reasons which are unprecedented and that alone makes today's events historically fascinating.  

11:19 AM PT: From the Kalil in the comments:

"Benedict IX resigned the Papacy in a notorious simony scandal in 1045.  He returned to the papacy to briefly serve a third (!) term from 1047-1048.

Also, Wikipedia mentions another four popes preceding Benedict IX who are said to have resigned, although those are somewhat more questionable."

Originally posted to Jorybu on Mon Feb 11, 2013 at 10:43 AM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Street Prophets .

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