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In the Entire History of the Catholic Church, Only a Handful of Popes Have Resigned

Today, Pope Benedict XVI told the world that he would resign

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Today, Pope Benedict XVI told the world that he would resign. No one saw this coming, really, because no one resigns from the position. The last time a pope resigned was in 1415, and there have been only a handful of other cases of papal abdication:

308: Pope Marcellinus stepped down from the position shortly before dying. No one is sure why.

366: Pope Liberius also stepped down without a clear reason.

1009: Pope John XVIII ended his time as pope and retired to a monastery. Many accounts suggest that John was beholden to the Crescentii family, a powerful Roman clan.

1045: Pope Benedict IX was the first pope to very clearly step down. (Earlier accounts are fuzzy, historically.) This Benedict was apparently quite a handful. His resignation was a business deal of sorts: he sold his seat for a large sum of money to the Archpriest John Gratain. This transaction was so scandalous that the king intervened, reinstating Benedict as pope. Benedict IX was then deposed again, reinstated once more, and finally driven away to make room for Damasus II.

1294: Pope Celestine V is probably the most famous of abdicators. After just five months in the seat, Celestine wrote a decree that allowed popes to step down, before doing so himself. The site Catholic Online puts it this way:

He was Pope only about five months. Because he was so humble and simple, everyone took advantage of him. He could not say “no” to anyone, and soon matters were in great confusion. At last, the Saint decided that he had better give up his position as Pope. He did so and then threw himself at the feet of the Cardinals for not having been capable of governing the Church.

About.com puts it this way:

Celestine V inherited a troubled papacy which was largely under the thumb of Charles II of Sicily. Through his reign Celestine was unable to do much of anything without approval and support from Charles – something Celestine himself recognized. This was probably the reason why he abdicated his position after only 5 months.

1415: Pope Gregory XII resigned in an attempt to end the Western Schism, a forty year period during which three different people—Roman Pope Gregory XII, Avignon Antipope Benedict XIII, and Pisan Antipope John XXIII—claimed to be the head of the Catholic Church.

2013: Which brings us to today. Here’s the full resignation from Benedict XVI.

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

BENEDICTUS PP XVI

People will surely wonder exactly why Benedict stepped down, since it’s such a rare occurrence. The New York Times points out that during his predecessor’s tenure, the pope (then Cardinal Ratzinger) indicated that a pope who “sees that he absolutely cannot do anymore” would resign. But no one knows yet what exactly pushed him to make this decision.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Pope’s Tweets Are Official Church Doctrine
Does Rugby Predict Pope’s Doom?

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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