From late antiquity until now, the popes who wished or were obligated to renounce their ministry
Benedict XVI's response in the book-interview Light of the World was explicit. He answered in the affirmative to the question put to him by the journalist Peter Seewald: "Is it possible then to imagine a situation in which you would consider a resignation by the Pope appropriate?". "Yes. If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign".
Actually the historical reconstruction of cases in which an end has been put to a pontificate before the Pope's death takes us back to very few figures and never to a situation such as Benedict xvi's decision.
At the dawn of the Church, when the Apostles' preaching was a living reality and was still remembered by first-hand witnesses, we find Pope Clement on the list of Bishops of Rome passed down by Irenaeus of Lyons and mentioned as the third successor of Peter after Linus and Anacletus [or Cletus]. Not all sources are unanimous in reconstructing an exact date for his pontificate. According to Eusebius of Caesarea he succeeded Anacletus in the twelfth year of Domitian, that is in the year 92 (Ecclesiastical History, 111, 15).
Jerome, however, in addition to this, also cited the tradition that claimed Clement as Peter's immediate successor. Epiphanius of Salamis wondered how on earth it could be possible for a contemporary of the Apostles to have succeeded as Bishop of Rome only much later; and he hypothesized that the Apostles might have ordered him to be replaced in the governance of the Church of Rome while they were engaged in their apostolic ministry. On the basis of the Letter of the Church of the Romans to that of the Corinthians (cf. 54:2) — traditionally attributed to Clement, even though this is not actually documented and in which the most generous are urged to distance themselves rather than to fuel sedition, division or dissent — which in this passage reflects a personal situation of the author who, in order to avoid creating problems within the community, was to abstain from exercising his episcopal functions until he was constrained by the death of Peter, Linus and Cletus.
However, we are in a context in which the conditional tense is obligatory and information for the essential historical foundations is lacking. This is partly because — in line with the orientation of current studies — at least until the second century the guidance of the Church of Rome seems to have seen a college of priests in the lead role, rather than a dominant figure.
Let us move on from Clement to Pontianus, the 18th Bishop of the Church of Rome. His episcopate has had to be established, on conjecture, as beginning in 230. The most reliable source, the Catalogus Liberianus, determines the duration of his ministry as five years, two months and seven days. In the year 235 Pontianus was banished to Sardinia, together with the priest Hippolytus. The harshness of this measure is shown by the text of the sentence: in insula nociva, an expression that in all likelihood referred to the unhealthy climate and the condemnation to forced labour in the mines. The Catalogus thus recalls the date of the renunciation of his office by Pope Pontianus, expressed with the technical term discinctus est (cf. Thesaurus linguae Latinae, v, 1, Lipsiae 1909-34, col. 1316), which he made in Sardinia (in eadem insula) on 28 September, and the ordination on 21 November of Anterus as his successor.
Pontianus, as the Enciclopedia dei Papi hypothesizes, "might well have been impelled by an admirable realism, given that he certainly would not have survived the exile and returned alive, while the absence of a shepherd would have damaged the flock. Yet particular circumstances might have led him to make a highly significant symbolic gesture. Whether or not the priest Hippolytus, exiled with him, was the author of the Elenchos, had he been the head of a dissident Roman community at that time, when Pontianus represented the majority, Pontianus' act wouldhave acquired greater credibility since it aspired to encouraging or sanctioning a reconciliation. And should we wish to go beyond the field of the conjecture, the election in Rome of Anterus, a Greek of oriental origin — as Hippolytus must have been — would suggest a further opening to the assembly of the various members of the Roman community".
Leaping ahead some 300 years we come to Pope Silverius. Upon the death of his father (Pope Hormisdas) in 523 he wrote the epitaph, today no longer extant, in which he celebrated his attempts at reconciliation with the East and Africa's return to freedom. It is not known whether at that time Silverius had already entered the clergy, since the inscription bears no title at all; but it is known that upon the death of Pope Agapetus in Constantinople on 22 April 536, Silverius was a sub-deacon of the Church of Rome.
His candidature to the papal throne, thrust upon him by King Theodatus, according to the chronicler of the Liber Pontificalis, gave rise to widespread discontent among the clergy as a reaction to the candidate's modest hierarchical rank. It was the first time that a sub-deacon had acceded to the pontificate. Silverius strove in the battle against the Monophysites in the Council held from 2 to 4 June 536, during, which, in his absence, Antimus was condemned and deposed from his See of Trebizond. This policy of repression of Monophysitism disturbed the Empress Theodora, who decided on the ruin of Silverius. She sent a letter to General Belisarius in which she informed him that he should deport the Pope.
Belisarius obeyed immediately, convoking the presbyters, the deacons and the entire clergy to elect Vigilius, who was consecrated on 29 March 537, although the Liber Pontificalis designates him as a deacon until his Predecessor's death. The same source claims that Silverius was imprisoned on the Island of
Palmarola, one of the Pontine Islands, and reduced to the status of monk. Liberatus, however, spoke instead of a first exile to Patara, in Lycia, more or less in agreement with Procopius who mentioned that Belisarius exiled the Pope accused of betrayal "in Greece".
Benedict IX, in the world Count Theophylactus of Tusculum, belonged to a quite different time. He reigned from October 1032 to September 1044. It fell to him to be a sign of how papal power had utterly become manipulated, as well as worldly and exploited. In the complex vicissitudes of his life the Pontiff was expelled from Rome, where he returned before being ousted once and for all. The date of his birth and his exact parentage are uncertain. Nevertheless it may be said that he was not young on his election as Pope, as has long been maintained. The Annales Romani report that in 1044 a rebellion broke out against the Pope and he was driven out. Immediately afterwards Bishop John of Sabina was elected. He took the name of Sylvester In his turn he was toppled by Benedict IX, who returned to the papal throne.
Benedict IX remained at the helm of the Church from 10 March to 1 May 1045, when he ceded his office to Giovanni Graziano who become Pope, taking the name of Gregory VI.
The succession took place in accordance with the then usual mechanism: commissions in return for money. Nor did the new Pope remain on the papal throne for long. Having arrived in Italy in the autumn of 1046, Henry III convoked a Council at Sutri, inviting the three Pontiffs who had played the lead in the events of the past two years. Sylvester III did not turn up. Gregory VI, the only one present, recognized his sin, while also affirming his good faith.
Benedict IX made no appearance either and, at the Roman Council that followed straight away, at Christmas 1046, the new Pontiff, Clement II declared him deposed. Nevertheless after Clement's sudden death on 9 October 1047, Benedict IX succeeded once again in returning to Peter's Chair, with the powerful support of Boniface of Canossa and making the most of Henry III's distance from Italy.
However he did not last long. Henry asked Boniface to escort to Rome the new Pope whom he himself had chosen: Popponius of Brixen, who took the name Damasus II. After an initial reluctance, Boniface was obliged to yield to the sovereign's threats and against his will escorted the Germanic Pope to the Eternal City, having ensured the definitive removal of Benedict IX — who sought refuge in the Sabine castles. Here Theophylactus continued to considered himself in charge in an unworthy retirement.
After the case of Celestine V. of whom we have also written here, we come to the last Pontiff to step down
from the throne of Peter: Angelo Correr, son of Nicolò di Pietro, a Venetian patrician. He was Pope with the name of Gregory XII from 1406 to 1415 and resigned from the office of Vicar of St Peter (but at the request of the Council of Constance). Pope Gregory XII set in motion a solution to the extraordinary tangle of complex problems: years of strife and juridical wrangling, wars and diplomatic disputes with the anti-popes Benedict XIII, an expression of the Avignonese faction, and John XXIII (whose name was to be used again later by Pope Roncalli), during the Great Western Schism.
In March 1415, he appointed Carlo Malatesta as his procurator, while at the same time delegating his own representatives with the power of convoking a Council on his behalf. Had the Council accepted this procedure Gregory would have appeared the only legitimate Pope; it was a question of a formal, but important, recognition. The Council however deemed it opportune to accept the request, destined to smooth out the way to unity. So it was that on 4 July 1415, Cardinal Dominici read the Bull convoking the Council, following which Malatesta made the official announcement of Gregory XII's abdication. The Council had decided to confer upon Gregory XII the title of Cardinal Bishop of Porto, first in rank after the Pope, and the lifelong appointment as legate to the March of Ancona. The news of what had happened in Constance on 4 July 1415 reached his ears on 19 July and the following day, at the last Consistory he chose to convoke, he stripped himself of the symbols of papal power, and put on the cardinal's habit. From January 1416, having returned to being Angelo Correr, he lived at Recanati where he died on 18 October 1417. On 11 November that same year, with the election of Oddone Colonna, who took the name of Martin V, the Great Schism was healed, once and for all.