Can the Pope retire?
The Holy Father may retire if he chooses. The Code of Canon Law states, “If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone” (Canon 332, #2). Nevertheless, when a Pope is elected as the Successor of St. Peter, the Church expects that he will remain in office until his death.
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However, in the history of the Church, a few Popes have resigned for various reasons, and a few have been deposed for various reasons. The first Pope to resign was Pope St. Pontian, who was elected as the Successor of St. Peter on July 21, 230. During the persecution of Christians under Emperor Maximinus Thrax, St. Pontian was exiled to Sardinia and condemned to work in the salt mines, which no one was meant to survive. Therefore, he resigned as Pope on September 28, 235, to enable the election of a new Pope, St. Anteros, who could govern the Church. Pope St. Pontian was martyred in 236 (237), either from ill treatment in general or from a mortal beating.
On the other hand, Pope St. Silverius, who was consecrated Pope on June 1, 536, was the first Pope forcibly deposed. In March 537, the wicked Byzantine Empress Theodora had Pope St. Silverius captured and removed from Rome for not approving her nominations of heretics for bishops. He was exiled to the island of Palmaria where he remained a prisoner until his death on November 11, 537. Since Pope St. Silverius had been declared “deposed,” the clergy and people of Rome elected Pope Vigilius, who was consecrated on March 29, 537 (and was favored by the Empress).
A similar situation befell Pope St. Martin I, who was consecrated Pope in July 649. Pope St. Martin opposed the Byzantine Emperor’s attempt to promote the monothelite heresy and to appoint heretical bishops. The Emperor had Pope St. Martin kidnapped, taken to Constantinople, deposed, condemned, and exiled. He died in the Crimea on September 16, 656 of ill-treatment and neglect. Pope St. Martin I is the last Pope to die a martyr.
Pope Benedict IX holds the honor notoriety for holding the papacy three separate times. He was the nephew of Pope Benedict VIII (1012 – 1024) and Pope John XIX (1024 – 1032), and a member of one of the powerful families. Upon the death of Pope John XIX in 1032, Benedict’s father, Alberic, bribed, manipulated, and threatened the Roman clergy to have him elected. Benedict was very young, without experience, and void of any ecclesiastical background. Most historians sadly cite Benedict IX’s papacy as the lowest point in the history of all of the Popes. After various scandalous intrigues, the clergy and people of Rome forced him to flee, deposed him, and elected a new Pope, Sylvester III (formerly John, Bishop of Sabina).
Pope Sylvester III was consecrated on January 20, 1045. However, Benedict and his forces managed to regroup, and they deposed Sylvester III on February 10, 1045; therefore, Sylvester III’s pontificate lasted all of twenty-two days.
So guess who is Pope again? Benedict IX. He was officially reinstated as Pope on April 10, 1045. However, he resigned twenty-one days later on May 1, 1045. Apparently, Benedict IX was promised a large sum of money and a woman in marriage if he resigned his office in favor of John Gratian, Archpriest of the Church of St. John at Porta Latina. John Gratian was consecrated Pope on May 5, 1045 as Pope Gregory VI.
However, the deal promised Benedict IX was broken, motivating Benedict IX to reclaim the papacy. King Henry III of Germany, who was very interested in reforming the Church, called the Council of Sutri in 1046 and summoned Benedict IX, Sylvester III, and Gregory VI. The council convened on December 20, 1046. Only the latter two appeared before the council, but all three were deposed. (Both Sylvester and Gregory would die in exile.) On December 23, the clergy and people of Rome elected Pope Clement II, who was consecrated on December 25.
Pope Clement II crowned Henry III as Holy Roman Emperor. He also decreed that anyone guilty of simony (the selling of Church offices) would be excommunicated. After Henry III returned to Germany, guess who appears again wanting to be Pope? Benedict IX. On October 9, 1047, Clement II died, poisoned, possibly by agents of Benedict IX. He installed himself as Pope on November 8,1047, technically his third pontificate. Emperor Henry III again intervened, removing Benedict IX from power forever on July 17, 1048. That same day, Pope Damasus II was consecrated Pope.
What happened to Pope Benedict IX, the three-time Pope? He retired to the Abbey of Grottaferrata, where he repented of his sins, officially resigned as Pope, and spent the rest of his life doing penance. While this story is painful to hear, good sprung forth. The next Popes introduced many reforms governing simony and clergy discipline. Also, in 1059, Pope Nicholas II regulated the process of electing the Pope, making the cardinals the papal electors.
Another Pope to resign was St. Celestine V, who was elected Pope on July 5, 1294 and consecrated on August 29. He was a Benedictine monk who enjoyed the life of a hermit and was renowned for his spirituality. To break a deadlocked College of Cardinals, he was elected as Pope even though he was eighty-four years old. Immediately, he became prey to scheming cardinals and nobility alike. He resigned on December 13, 1294, and returned to his monastery. His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, had him imprisoned so that there would be no attempt to place him on the throne again. (He must have remembered Benedict IX.) Pope St. Celestine died on May 19, 1295. Although canonized a saint, Dante placed him in Hell in The Divine Comedy for resigning.
Pope Gregory XII (1406 – 1415) was elected as the legitimate Pope at a time when there were two anti-popes: The Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII, who was supported by the French king; and the Pisa Pope, John XXIII, who was supported by conciliarists of the renegade Council of Pisa. (Please be sure to note that neither of these two latter mentioned Pope were really Pope.) Finally, at the Council of Constance (an official council), in order to heal the Church, Pope Gregory XII officially resigned, Benedict XIII resigned, and John XXIII was deposed; Pope Martin V (1417 – 1431) was then elected as the legitimate successor of St. Peter, following Gregory XII.
Therefore, we find some colorful history to the papacy, concerning resignations and depositions. However, there is much to learn from these stories: First, if a Pope resigns from office, there will always be the temptation to challenge the authority of the new Pope, pitting him against the old. Secondly, in modern times, the Church has been blessed with truly holy Popes who have been strong leaders. Third, the Church has definitely made itself more independent, free of political machinations from secular leaders.