Pope resigning: Historian Jon M. Sweeney shares the story behind the last pope who quit
With the news that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning, historian Sweeney discusses why popes rarely leave office and the bond between Benedict and Celestine V, the last pope to resign.
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There were many times in history where groups of cardinals got together and made arguments for firing a pope, but the conclusion was that it's impossible. Even if they were awful or evil, the office is higher than the man. There is no one who has authority on earth to fire him.
Q: But that didn't stop officials from ridding themselves of troublesome popes, correct?
A: It used to be in the Middle Ages that when they wanted to fire a pope, they killed him in a Corleone kind of way. There have been 20 popes in history who were likely murdered, and they were probably all cases where they wanted the guy to resign.
Q: Why haven't more popes resigned?
A: The idea is that it's a job for life. When you become pope, one of the first things you do is you walk into the Room of Tears in the Vatican. You're crying with poignancy about how your life is dead now, it's over. You are now a pope until you die.
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It's fascinating that it's now changing, and almost in a businesslike way. It's like Benedict gave two weeks' notice. Maybe we will see popes most routinely resign the office.
Q: According to some accounts, the last papal resignation was in 1415, not 1294. What's the truth?
A: That was the Great Schism [also known as the Western Schism], and there were three popes. There was something like a negotiated truce: Two of them resigned. A third disagreed, and they excommunicated him and had him resign against his will.
That's a different kind of animal. It's not someone resigning for personal reasons.
Q: Going back to Celestine: You wrote an entire book about a man who spent just a few months as pope. What makes him fascinating?
A: He was a monk, a very independent-minded monk who never could quite fit into a religious order and created his own. The real fascinating thing is about how he became pope, what happened while he was pope, and afterwards.
Q: Initially, he was upset that the church was taking its sweet time choosing a pope, right?
A: He was an 84-year-old man living as a hermit and wrote an incendiary letter to one of the cardinals saying, in essence, "God will smite us all if you don't act right now, and I can't believe you're dragging your feet like you are."
Then the cardinal announced he wanted him to be the next pope, and in the next 24 hours he was.
Q: So he was really an accidental pope?
A: Absolutely. He actually fled when they told him. They almost grabbed him by the arm and led him down the mountain.
He never went to Rome and was under the thumb of the king of Naples. It was a disaster. He ended up quitting, and the guy who replaced him helped craft his letter of resignation and then had him hunted down and imprisoned because he was a threat.
The idea was you can't have another pope running around. What happens if everybody listens to him?
Q: Is there any chance that Benedict will be a holy pain in the papal regalia for his successor?
A: I would imagine that Benedict has given his last rally, given his last sermon, and that he will lead a quiet life, and we'll never see him again. There might be a book or two published, but only after his death.
That's certainly what he ought to do, and I can't imagine it would be otherwise. But we'll see.
Want to read more Monitor Q&As with authors of recent books about Christianity? Check my chats with religious scholars Elaine Pagels ("Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation"), Bart Ehrman ("Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth"), and Adam C. English ("The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra").
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.