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Look to the Church’s past for understanding
On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation.
As a Jew, this does not affect me directly, but I find it interesting to note the focus people have been putting on the last abdication, involving the various popes and antipopes of the Western Schism six centuries ago, a bit misleading.
Rather, people seeking to understand this event should look at the resignation of Celestine V in 1294 for guidance.
Celestine V’s papacy lasted from July to December 1294.
His election took place after a two-year hiatus and the cardinals elected a hermit to the pontifical office in desperation.
Like Benedict, he was supposed to be a caretaker pope while the real internal disputes were resolved.
One of the few real accomplishments of Celestine’s pontificate was the restoration of Pope Gregory X’s conclave system for electing popes.
It has been used ever since and has largely been successful in avoiding the crises that led to his election in the first place.
The Western Schism, ending in the early 1400s, was the result of an entirely different set of problems caused more by the French kings than by any internal Church division.
What is less well known is that Celestine formalized the rules for papal resignations.
While yes, he did this in part because he realized he had no power to use the pontiff’s office for positive change, he also realized that he needed a graceful exit that would leave the path to succession clear.
As he resigned, he cited a desire for a “stainless conscience” because he knew that staying in Rome would mean doing things he disapproved of but unscrupulous cardinals, such as the one who would later be elected pope as Boniface VIII, would do in his name.
In effect, he refused to be held accountable for actions over which he had no control.
Celestine also cited the “deficiencies in his own physical strength” since he was 79 at his election.
The present pontiff has in fact cited both of those as causes for his resignation.
However, literature has not been kind to Celestine, occasionally charging him with cowardice.
Dante placed him head downward in a hole in hell in his Inferno in part because he opened the way for the abuses of Boniface’s papacy and the “Babylonian Captivity” that moved the papal see to Avignon.
This placement has unjustly colored much of the subsequent historical commentary.
Instead, Celestine should be seen as making the best of a bad situation and a model for Benedict’s graceful exit.
J. Holder Bennett is a history Ph.D. student. He can be reached at JasonBennett2@my.unt.edu.