On popes and their resignations

Cardinal Josef Ratzinger once again

“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.

The soon to be deposed “antipope” John XXIII presiding over discussions at the Council of Constance (1414-1418)

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).

Pius VI’s successor Pius VII as a rather acquiescent spectator at Napoleon’s coronation

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.

Groping the pope

I’ve just finished teaching CTHTHEO 254/354 Continuity and Change, a survey of the history of Christianity between c500 and c1600. It coincided happily with TV3’s screening of The Borgias.

In the first episode Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (played by Jeremy Irons) is elected Pope Alexander VI (r1492-1503) and before his election is announced, he’s required to sit on a portable throne while his nether regions are groped by a functionary. The assembled cardinals are then assured: habet duos testiculos et bene pendentes (he has two well hung testicles).

Pope Joan giving birth during a procession. Illustration from Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium et reconditarum centenarii XVI (1600)

Some of the students in Continuity and Change already knew about the ritual and its connection with the story of Pope Joan. It’s alleged that this test of the pope’s masculinity was introduced after “Agnes” a German woman of English descent managed get herself elected as “Pope John” in the 9th century. Her subterfuge was only found out when she gave birth somewhere between the Colosseum and the basilica of San Clemente while on a procession to Saint John Lateran (there’s a little edicule at the corner of via dei Querceti and via Santi Quattro which is said to mark the spot — but probably doesn’t).

People I once thought quite reliable have assured me that the ritual shown on the Borgias (or something like it) was performed well into the 20th century. Ex-MP and raconteur Giles Brandreth likewise claims on BBC’s QI, that it “still happens”. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve even passed this anecdote on to a class or two.

Habet! ("He's got them") illustration from Johann Wolf, Lectionum memorabilium et reconditarum centenarii XVI (1600)

But in fact it doesn’t happen and and never did. It’s not clear whether the story of Pope Joan or that of the ceremonial grope came first. However, as Alain Boureau suggests in The Myth of Pope Joan, the two became connected in a well circulated rumour which coloured what eye-witnesses to mediaeval and early modern papal coronations believed they were watching. The result was the oft-repeated report of a, “a public rite always seen by others, never by the narrator” (Boureau, 27).

In fact there were at least two rituals involving seats or chairs around the Lateran basilica, both of them connected with the papal election and coronation. One of these seats was called the sedes stercoraria or stercorata (the “dung seat” or commode). Cardinals ritually seated and then raised the pope from the chair in the portico of the Lateran basilica. This was supposed to represent the words from Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:8 (“He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap – de stercore erigit pauperem — to make them sit with princes, and inherit a seat of honour). The pope then went into the Lateran basilica and was invested with symbols of office as he sat alternately on two seats made of porphyry. Both seats had holes in them; they were originally either posh toilets or birthing chairs. One is apparently preserved today in the Vatican Museums (though I don’t trust anything anyone tells me about this stuff any more). The 15th century historian of the papacy Bartolomeo Platina confused matters by claiming (understandably) that the “dung seat” was the one with the hole in it. Whatever the case, rumours of a gender test became attached to the ritual involving a seat with a hole, and thus handy access to the papal undercarriage.

The mediaeval sources relating to the legend of Pope Joan and the gender test were collected together in 1600 by the German legal scholar and antiquarian Johann Wolf in a book with the racy title, Sixteen centuries of memorable and abstruse reading matter. This became the chief source for later purveyors of the Pope Joan legend and of the papal gender test. Thanks to the wonders of Google Books, a digitized version can now be read online, and it’s the source of the illustrations above.

All of this leaves unanswered the question of where the original rumour came from. Alain Boureau’s Myth of Pope Joan deals in lavish and entertaining detail with the origins and long life of Pope Joan story. The female pope may have her origins in Roman carnival rituals designed to mark and mock the papal coronation. Interestingly, too, the oldest surviving version of the story is from the mid-13th century, about the time a cult developed in Italy around Saint Guglielma, who was venerated by her followers as the Holy Spirit incarnate. Her successor, a Sister Maifreda was described as a “popess” and Guglielma’s “vicar” on earth.

Regarding the test itself, I haven’t been able to find any source earlier than the connection made between Pope Joan and the ritual chairs. I wonder whether the rumour echoed some earlier procedure for ascertaining whether or not a bishop was a eunuch. The Canons of the Council of Nicea (and western canon law subsequently) forbade the ordination of those who’d deliberately castrated themselves. On the other hand they permitted the ordination of those who’d been involuntarily castrated — e.g. by barbarians or doctors — so this conjecture is a pretty flimsy one.

I’d welcome any further information.