For our times the resignation or deposition of a pope comes as a shock, as something unheard of and unthinkable. This is in part due to a campaign going back more than five centuries which sought to obliterate any record of uncomfortable moments in the history of the papacy and the Church. To a student of medieval history and especially of the history and practice of church law over the centuries this is no surprise at all. Medieval canonists, i.e., scholars who taught and wrote on church law, took for granted that a pope could resign, that in circumstances he should resign and that for a good reason a pope could be removed from his office if he would not resign. The most common ground assumed for such a deposition would have been that he was guilty of heresy. Some canonists went beyond this charge to include if he were incompetent or were guilty of serious crime.
To be sure the common church law (The Decretum of Gratian from 1140 and the later collections of church law known as the Decretals clearly expressed the special position of the pope in the Church as the person who judged all and was judged by no one, but this common agreement included the all important phrase 'unless he deviated from the faith' (nisi devius in fide).
The canonists had also developed the idea that a person in office, e.g., a king, could be removed from office if he were incapable of fulfilling the duties of that office, and if he were encouraged to resign but refused to do this for the common good, then action could be taken and he could be removed. During the Middle ages, this doctrine (sometimes referred to as 'Rex inutilis' - the incapable king) was applied also to the papacy.
While there were a number of instances od papal deposition and or resignation in the earlier Middle Ages, two later examples stand out. In the late thirteenth century, after a long and disputed conclave at which the cardinals could not agree on the election of a new pope, they broke with the standard procedure and decided to go outside of the box and to elect someone totally removed from the curial circles. They chose a man who was known for his holiness as Celestine V but who was also a hermit and so completely divorced from and unacquainted with the demands put upon the leader of the Church in the 1290s. He was soon found to be completely inept and unable to fulfill his responsibilities. He had set up a hut in the papal residence and lived there as though he were still remote from day to day affairs. He was a kind and gentle man who did not want to offend anyone. Hence to all petitioners who came to him he said yes and the result as you might expect was chaos as conflicting claims and rights were all declared valid. After a few months he knew that this was not the right position for him and longed to go back to his hermitage. And so he resigned (some claimed under pressure) and the one chosen to succeed him was the authoritarian and autocratic Boniface VIII whose reign was marked by bitter disputes and an open attack on the pope by the adherents of the King of France. On his death, there followed the transfer of the residence of the popes to Avignon which has been often called the Babylonian Captivity since while Avignon was in theory an independent territory it was totally surrounded by French lands and the popes and most of the cardinals in those seven decades were from France. In 1378 the pope (Gregory XI) finally returned to Rome and promptly died. There followed another disputed election in a conclave threatened by the mob of Rome. A short time after the election of Urban VI he had alienated most of the cardinals who fled from Rome, denounced and revoked his election as invalid. They then proceeded to elect another cardinal as Pope Clement VII who moved back to Avignon. For almost 40 years, the western Latin Church was thus divided by the Great Western Schism.
Finally in 1408 the cardinals of the two papal claimants of that time (Gregory XII in Rome and Benedict XIII in Avignon), since neither claimant appeared ready to ever do anything to restore unity, took action to end the division. They summoned a general council to meet in 1409 at Pisa to act for unity, reform and preservation of the faith. At Pisa the council deposed both claimants as promoters and adherents of schism and hence guilty of heresy and acting against the unity of the Church. The council then elected a third person as Pope Alexander V who was accepted and recognized as the valid pope by the vast majority of the Western Church. Unfortunately Alexander V died after only one year and the cardinals then elected as pope a less desirable figure who took the name of Pope John XXIII.
However, complete unity and progress in reform had not been achieved. Each of the two other papal claimants had a small body of adherents (Benedict in Spain) and Gregory in Rimini in Italy) and so John XXIII was pressed by the cardinals, the emperor and the canonists to summon another general council to meet at Constance in Germany in 1414. Once the council met and began to take seriously the issues of unity and reform they faced problems. In early 1415 John XXIII in pursuit of his own interests secretly fled from Constance and had to be brought back as a prisoner and was required to resign his position. The two other papal claimants had to be dealt with although in the eyes of the council and the Church at large they were already ousted since they were still in the position of ex-popes after their deposition by the Council of Pisa in 1409. Nevertheless in order to proceed 'more easily and most securely' toward union (the words they used), the council allowed the small band of adherents of Gregory XII to take their place at the council and be recognized. Then the leader of this group acting for Gregrory XII resigned his claim to the papacy. The council then negotiated with the help of the Emperor Sigismund with the rulers in Spain for their territories to abandon Benedict and to join the council. They once again declared Benedict deposed and proceeded in 1417 to elect one pope accepted by almost all as Martin V. Benedict refused to accept his deposition and lived on in lonely defiance in Peniscola until the 1420s. The other two papal claimants (Gregory and John) were given honorable positions in the Church until their deaths a few years later.
These instances at Constance were the last incidents of a papal resignation or deposition until now. It may appear astonishing to many that a pope might resign but that has been part of the history of the Church which was covered over in the later centuries. One final note on this concerns the more recent Pope John XXIII (1958-1963). When he was elected, John XXIII said that he chose the name of John because of personal and familial devotion to that name and he was in no way claiming to solve the historical debates and disputes about the earlier Pope John XXIII and his comments appeared in the papers. On the next day the Vatican newspaper, Osservatore Romano, reported his remarks with the major change that it attributed to him that he intended to and was resolving the disputes over the earlier Pope John XXII by his choice of name. So it is easy to see why some events and issues can get covered over or covered up in history.
Thomas E. Morrissey is a professor at SUNY Fredonia.