“Unprecedented in modern times” “first pope in over seven hundred years,” “first pope in six hundred years” were already media clichés within hours of the news that Benedict the XVI was to resign the papal office at 8pm on 28 February 2013.
The fact that these phrases were recycled over and over yesterday doesn’t make them any less true. Benedict has made a radical decision. But it would be wrong to assume, as some of the coverage did, that his decision throws the Catholic church into some sort of theological or pastoral tailspin. It’s well recognised that Benedict XVI is a man of tradition, and anyone familiar with the rich, complex and extremely messy history of Catholic Christianity will know that (a) the church has survived far worse than this, and (b) it long ago developed fairly robust theological, legal and political procedures for dealing with failures and disruptions in the papal office.
TV news last night informed us that the last pope to resign was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 (hence the “600 years”). What wasn’t mentioned was that Gregory XII was only one of three rival popes vying for recognition from western Europe at the time. There was also Benedict XIII, whose power-base was in southern France and then eastern Spain, and John XXIII, who’d recently been elected pope by a group of cardinals who had defected from the courts of the existing papal rivals. The defectors’ hope was the election a new compromise papacy would encourage the existing rivals to resign. It didn’t.
It was Gregory’s good luck that history deemed his two rivals “antipopes.” However, at the time it was anything but clear who was the real pope and who wasn’t. It took a remarkable effort of international diplomacy to convene a council of the church, which met in the
Swiss Imperial city of Constance in 1414 and then cajoled, bribed and bullied the three rival popes into standing down (with mixed success; Benedict XIII refused to resign, and was accordingly excommunicated). The Council then elected Martin V as their replacement. Unfortunately this wasn’t quite the last time that western Christendom had two popes, but that’s another story.
Officially the Council of Constance ended what’s known as the ‘Western’ Schism (1378-1417), but it wasn’t the first time that the papacy had been split between rival claimants or had become a plaything in the rivalries of feuding Italian dynasties or European governments. The fact that popes haven’t resigned since the early fifteenth century to some extent reflects an institutional fear that a powerful politician, political clique or church faction could bend the pope to its will by threatening to replace him. It’s significant, for example, that even though Napoleon was able to bully, kidnap and imprison Pius VI, the pope’s resignation wasn’t in question (though it should be added that Pius VI then obligingly died).
There’s still still no agreement about whether there are circumstances under which the pope can legitimately be forced to resign. For example, there was a broad consensus in the Middle Ages that a pope who fell into heresy could be forced from office. But it was never clear whose job it was to judge whether or not the pope was a heretic. It’s still not.
However, what did emerge clearly from mediaeval papal politics was an agreement that the pope could resign, if he made it clear that his decision was freely taken and unconstrained. This principle is still enshrined in the Catholic Church’s modern code of canon law.
What the Middle Ages also made clear is that the church doesn’t always need a pope there to run it. In fact, it’s not the pope’s job to “run” the church, anyway. When the Queen of New Zealand (and her other realms and territories) dies, she will immediately be succeeded by the next in line to the throne (even before they get around to crowning him). However, in the past the church has gone for weeks, months and sometimes years without a pope. Likewise, as we’ve seen, it’s sometimes had more than one pope to choose from!
The popular notion that it’s the pope’s job to have an infallible opinion about everything, and to offer what the North Koreans call “on the spot guidance” to Catholics about every aspect of their daily life is a false one. It’s arguably a creation of the celebrity papacy that has only been possible since the invention of the mass media in the 19th century. Before this the relationship between individual Catholics and the papacy was a far more distant one, and the thought that the church might manage quite nicely without the pope — at least for a while — was far more thinkable.
It’s often observed (not always fairly) that Benedict XVI doesn’t possess the “star quality” of his predecessor John Paul II. But it’s quite possible that Benedict has quite deliberately taken two steps back from the limelight in which the last pope seemed to revel. While Benedict is visibly far more frail than he was when he began his pontificate, his resignation may also be a way of drawing attention to the fact that the church is always more than the pope, who is first and foremost its servant. It was notable, too, that in resigning yesterday, he stressed that Jesus is the “supreme pastor” of the church. In the same statement, he chose not to describe himself as the “Vicar of Christ” (Christ’s representative), but instead used the much older title of “successor of Peter.” He is probably more aware than most that Peter was a particularly fallible and fragile follower of Christ.