Pope Benedict XVI Resignation, 2013
Moving on gracefully (or not), the history of papal resignations is not strewn with official HR documents signed in triplicate.
Haven’t we all had a day when we just wanted to pack it all in? Everybody does. Too many emails, yet another pointless meeting, life just getting you down. Most of us know, however trying things get, that the prospect of retirement is always there, and some day we can put down our work, put up our feet, and spend our final years doing whatever we want.
Not everybody is so lucky, particularly if you’re a hereditary monarch, ruthless despot, or superhero. Age and infirmity don’t matter, you’re the job and the job is you. It takes a special sort of person to decide to buck that system and declare they’re just not up to it any more, an act of finality and definition that also tells us something about authority and legitimacy and how we record those.
I’m Joe Janes of the University of Washington Information School. There have been prior papal resignations, most of which are a bit sketchy because of the passage of so much time, reaching all the way back to Pontianus in 235 and Marcellinus in 304, through to Benedict IX who somehow managed to become pope three times, might have sold the papacy to his godfather and resigned once or twice in the 1040’s. Better known is the case of Celestine V, almost universally described as “a very holy hermit” which seems to be a euphemism for “oblivious to the real world” who lived in a small wooden cell, largely refused to see his cardinals or do much of anything and gave up after five months in 1294. A story, likely apocryphal, nonetheless survives, that one Cardinal Caetani had a small speaking tube inserted into the cell so that the “voice of the Holy Spirit” could encourage Celestine in the dead of night to retire or face the fires of hell, and who helpfully drafted the document for him.
Then there’s the now much-discussed saga of Gregory XII, one of many, many popes and people who claimed to be pope in the early 15th century, in a time now referred to as the Great Western Schism. This was a period of much to-ing and fro-ing, back and forth, with rival popes, colleges of cardinals, councils and courts. Trying to sort this out involved a lot of “I’ll quit if he does, I’ll quit if he does, let’s quit together, I don’t want to quit.” Gregory and another claimant, Benedict XIII, now referred to as an antipope, had both actually already been declared deposed by one church council at Pisa in 1409, though that didn’t take; the crux of the matter there was that without agreement as to who is official, it’s hard to officiate with any finality.
Another council was finally called for the German city of Constance in 1415. More chicanery, intrigue, yet another antipope briefly escaping while everybody was outside watching a tournament; it must have been quite a scene. A deal is finally struck, and after a few last attempts at delay, Gregory’s protector, the unfortunately named Lord Carlo Malatesta, read out and submitted what one source calls Gregory’s “document of cession,” which the council quickly accepted, and the deed was done, just 2 days before the same council condemned and burned the Czech reformer Jan Hus for heresy, and only a few months before the Battle of Agincourt.
In a situation like this there has to be a document, or at least it feels as though there has to be, to make it feel official, final, no take backs. Canon Law 332 says “it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested,” presumably meaning that it be somehow recorded, published and made known, though without specifying how. It then goes on to say “but not that it is accepted by anyone.” True, though Benedict’s announcement was delivered to his colleagues as “dear brothers” and also fixed a time and hour when his resignation would take effect.
This isn’t unlike Edward VIII’s 1936 instrument of abdication, somewhat ignominiously typed on a sheet of letterhead, signed by everybody in sight, and addressed to no one in particular; contrast this to Richard Nixon’s one-sentence 1974 resignation letter, addressed and delivered to Secretary of State Kissinger.
And it’s not as though the pope just has to nip down to Human Resources to fill out form PR-001. One imagines calligraphy in circumlocutory Latin, a seal, gold leaf, perhaps some tasteful illumination, to reflect the dignity, gravity and solemnity of the act and the occasion, and also in the Vatican’s case, something to stick in the archives for centuries to come.
There have been hints and suggestions that other popes have made provisions for a resignation but never acted on them. Pius VII thought he might not be allowed to leave France after presiding over Napoleon’s imperial coronation in 1804, though Napoleon spared him the trouble by plunking the crown on his own head instead. Pius XII is said to have prepared a document declaring himself resigned if the Nazis took him prisoner, and even the indefatigable John Paul II wrote a letter of resignation as early as 1989 to be used if he became incapacitated physically or mentally.
This question of disability is an important, if unpleasant, one. The American constitution deals with this in the 25th Amendment so memorably trampled by Alexander Haig in the wake of President Reagan’s shooting in 1981. The amendment requires a president to declare, in writing, that he’s going to be unable to serve, as President George W. Bush did twice, for a couple of hours each time, for colonoscopies; Dick Cheney was Acting President in both circumstances until President Bush woke up and signed another document reclaiming his authority. There’s also a provision, not yet invoked, that the Vice President and a majority of the cabinet could declare the president incapacitated, again in writing, with a convoluted process of resolution thereafter.
It’s hard to ease out the boss, especially if he’s got more titles than you have fingers, supreme dominion over the earthly and eternal church, not to mention God as a direct report. Unlike democracies or hereditary monarchies, there’s no Vice Pope or heir apparent; it’s almost more like a Board of Directors having to choose a new CEO. Canon law says that “special laws” are to be followed when the Roman see is “entirely impeded,” also taken to mean exile or imprisonment, which is a great idea except that apparently no such laws exist.
Of course, Benedict’s successor will go on to lead the church in his own way and thus it will change in ways large and small. In addition, Benedict’s act opens the door for future popes to consider resignation or retirement as an option, long seen as anathema. It might also recalibrate the calculus for elections and church administration going forward; lots of things might be seen in new light when death is no longer the only viable means of a change at the top.
In Gregory’s case, it likely took a long time for word to spread across the Christian world; in Benedict’s case the world knew within minutes. He didn’t tweet it personally via the @pontifex Twitter handle; Vatican Radio did report that one of the first reactions to their Facebook posting of the news was “Hacked??,” the 21st century equivalent, I suppose, of questioning whether a proclamation read out at Mass or posted on the church door was authentic, which gave rise to the use of seals on documents.
And ultimately, that’s what all this is about; all these various forms and kinds of documents serve as definite end points; at one moment, you’re the pope or president or king, and at the next you’re not, markers of legitimacy, authority, and continuity. Tangible evidence, public, and able to be seen and verified, to record what was said and intended, for the end of one era and the unquestioned beginning of the next.
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Vatican Radio - Facebook reaction to Pope Benedict XVI plan to resign papacy. Retrieved February 14, 2013, from http://en.radiovaticana.va/articolo.asp?c=663859