Papal Resignations and Elections: A Beginner’s Guide

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of his successor raise some fascinating questions, most of which find their answers in the distant past.

  • Can the Pope really resign? Several Popes have resigned, starting with Pontian in 235 C.E., who quit because the Roman Empire condemned him to labor in the mines. But the Church wasn’t sure about resignation until Pope Celestine V issued a decree authorizing it in 1294 — and then promptly quit. The next Pope, Boniface VIII, annulled almost all Celestine’s decrees, but not that one, and the two Popes’ concurrence resolved the question: Popes can quit. Boniface, however, still wasn’t taking any chances. He imprisoned Celestine to prevent a return to power, and he may have murdered him. (Celestine had the last laugh. In 1313 he rose to a position higher than Pope: he became a saint.) Continue reading “Papal Resignations and Elections: A Beginner’s Guide”