Papal resignation

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A papal renunciation (Latin: renuntiatio) occurs when the reigning pope of the Roman Catholic Church voluntarily steps down from his position. As the reign of the pope has conventionally been from election until death, papal resignation is an uncommon event. Before the 21st century, only five popes unambiguously resigned with historical certainty, all between the 10th and 15th centuries. Additionally, disputed claims of four popes having resigned date between the 3rd and 11th centuries; a fifth disputed case may have involved an antipope.

Additionally, a few popes during the saeculum obscurum were "deposed," meaning driven from office by force. The history and canonical question here is complicated; generally, the official Vatican list of popes seems to recognize such "depositions" as valid resignations if the pope acquiesced, but not if he did not. The later development of canon law has been in favor of papal supremacy, leaving no recourse to remove a pope involuntarily.[1]

The most recent pope to resign was Benedict XVI, who vacated the Holy See on 28 February 2013 at 19:00 UTC. He was the first pope to do so since Gregory XII in 1415.

Despite its common usage in discussion of papal resignations,[2] the term "abdication" is not used in the official documents of the Church for resignation by a pope.


The 1983 Code of Canon Law mentions papal resignation in Canon 332, where it states:

If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.[3]

This corresponds to Canon 221 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law,

If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is not required for validity that the resignation is accepted by the Cardinals or by anyone else.[4]

Both the 1983 Code and the 1917 Code make explicit that there is no particular individual or body of people to whom the pope must manifest his resignation. This addresses a concern raised in earlier centuries, specifically by 18th-century canonist Lucius Ferraris, who held that the College of Cardinals or at least its Dean must be informed, since the cardinals must be absolutely certain that the pope has renounced the dignity before they can validly proceed to elect a successor.[2][5]


The Catholic Encyclopedia notes the historically obscure resignations of Pontian[6] (230–235) and Marcellinus (296–308), the historically postulated resignation of Liberius (352–366),[2] and that one (unspecified) catalogue of popes lists John XVIII as resigning office in 1009 and ending his life as a monk.[7][8]

During the saeculum obscurum several popes were "deposed" or coerced into resignation by political and military force. John X is considered to have been deposed by some, but he seems to have died in prison before his successor Leo VI was elected anyway. As another example, consider the story of John XII, Leo VIII, and Benedict V. John XII had been invalidly deposed by the Emperor Otto in 963, never renouncing his claim. Leo VIII was set up as an antipope by Otto at this time. However, John XII won back his rightful place in 964. When John XII died in 964, Benedict V was elected. However, Otto wanted Leo VIII put back on the papal throne and, using military might, forced Benedict to abdicate later that same summer; Benedict's resignation is considered valid. Leo VIII is then considered the legitimate pope until his death in 965, thus having been (at various points in his life) both an antipope and a valid pope. Benedict V never again attempted to claim the papacy, and did not contest the election of John XIII after Leo VIII (Benedict died shortly into the reign of John XIII anyway), and so his abdication is considered valid though some treated him as the valid pope until his death (after which John XIII was recognized from that point forward).

The first historically unquestionable[2] papal resignation is that of Benedict IX in 1045. Benedict had also previously been deposed by Sylvester III in 1044, and though he returned to take up the office again the next year, the Vatican considers Sylvester III to have been a legitimate pope in the intervening months (meaning that Benedict IX must be considered to have validly resigned by acquiescing to the deposition in 1044). Then, in 1045, having regained the papacy for a few months, in order to rid the Church of the scandalous Benedict, Gregory VI gave Benedict "valuable possessions"[2] to resign the papacy in his favour.[9] Gregory himself resigned in 1046 because the arrangement he had entered into with Benedict could have been considered simony. Gregory was followed by Clement II, and when Clement died, Benedict IX returned to be elected to the papacy for a third time, only to resign yet again before dying in a monastery. He thus reigned as pope for three non-consecutive terms, and resigned (or was deposed) three separate times.

A well-known resignation of a pope is that of Celestine V, in 1294. After only five months of pontificate, he issued a solemn decree declaring it permissible for a pope to resign, and then did so himself. He lived two more years as a hermit and then prisoner of his successor Boniface VIII and was later canonised. Celestine's decree, and Boniface concurring (not revoking it), ended any doubt among canonists about the possibility of a valid papal resignation.[10]

Gregory XII (1406–1415) resigned in 1415 in order to end the Western Schism, which had reached the point where there were three claimants to the papal throne: Roman Pope Gregory XII, Avignon Antipope Benedict XIII, and Pisan Antipope John XXIII. Before resigning, he formally convened the already existing Council of Constance and authorized it to elect his successor.

Benedict XVI

The resignation[11] of Pope Benedict XVI occurred on 28 February 2013 at 20:00 (8:00 PM) CET (19:00 UTC). The resignation was first announced on the morning of 11 February 2013 by the Vatican.[12][13][14] Benedict's decision to step down as leader of the Catholic Church made him the first pope to relinquish the office since Pope Gregory XII in 1415[15] (who did so in order to end the Western Schism), and the first to do so on his own initiative since Pope Celestine V in 1294.[16] The move was unexpected,[17] given that the modern era popes have held the position from election until death.[17] The Pope stated that the reason for his decision was his declining health due to old age.[18] The resignation took place as planned on 28 February 2013. The conclave to select his successor began on 12 March 2013[19] and elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who took the name of Francis.

List of papal resignations

Pontificate Portrait Regnal name Personal name Reason for Resignation Notes
21 July 230
– 28 September 235
(5 years+)
St Pontian Pontianus Exiled by Roman authorities Resignation documented only in the Liberian Catalogue, which records his resignation as 28 September 235, the earliest exact date in papal history.[20][21]
30 June 296
– 1 April 304
(7 years+)
St Marcellinus Marcellinus Said to have been tainted by offerings to the pagan gods during the Diocletian persecution Resignation is documented only in the Liberian Catalogue.
17 May 352
– 24 September 366
(14 years+)
Liberius Liberius Banished by Emperor Constantius II[2] Resignation is speculated to explain the succession of Antipope Felix II,[2] although Liber Pontificalis argues that Liberius retained office in exile.
January 1004
– July 1009
(5 years+)
John XVIII Fasanius Abdicated and he retired to a monastery Resignation documented only in one catalog of popes.
20 January 1045
– 10 February 1045
(1 month)
Sylvester III Giovanni dei Crescenzi–Ottaviani Driven out of office by the return of Benedict IX Some claim he was never pope, but an antipope. The official Vatican list includes him however, which assumes Benedict IX acquiesced to his first deposition and that the new election was valid. Sylvester returned to his old bishopric, seemingly accepting the deposition.
22 May 964
– 23 June 964
(1 month)
Benedict V Benedict Grammaticus Deposed by the Emperor Otto Deposed in favor of the antipope Leo VIII, who then reigned as valid pope. His abdication is considered valid. Retained the rank of deacon. Lived out the rest of his life in Hamburg under the care of Adaldag, Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen
October 1032–September 1044 & April 1045–May 1045 & November 1047–July 1048 Benedict IX Theophylactus III, Conti di Tusculum Deposed briefly from his first term as pope, bribed to resign his second term after several reputed scandals, and also resigned his third term. Earliest resignation recognized in the ordering of popes. He was pope on three occasions between 1032 and 1048.[22] One of the youngest popes, he was the only man to have been pope on more than one occasion and the only man ever to have sold the papacy
April/May 1045
– 20 December 1046
Gregory VI Johannes Gratianus Accused of simony for bribing Benedict IX to resign Abdicated or deposed at the Council of Sutri
5 July 1294
– 13 December 1294
(161 days)
St Celestine V, O.S.B. Pietro da Morrone Lack of competence for the office With no administrative experience, Celestine fell under the control of secular politicians. To protect the church, he resigned. He was the first pope to establish canons for resignation.
30 November 1406
– 4 July 1415
(8 years, 216 days)
Gregory XII Angelo Correr To end the Western Schism Abdicated during the Council of Constance which had been called by his opponent, Antipope John XXIII.
19 April 2005
– 28 February 2013
(7 years, 315 days)
Benedict XVI Joseph Ratzinger Physical infirmity/advanced age (86 at the time of his resignation) Became Pope emeritus upon resignation. Under regulations of Ingravescentem Aetatem established in 1970, mandatory retirement ages were instituted for Priests, Bishops, and Cardinals.

Conditional resignations not put into effect

Before setting out for Paris to crown Napoleon in 1804, Pope Pius VII (1800–1823) signed a document of resignation to take effect if he were imprisoned in France.[2]

It has been claimed that during World War II, Pius XII drew up a document with instructions that, if he were kidnapped by the Nazis, he was to be considered to have resigned his office, and that the College of Cardinals were to evacuate to neutral Portugal and elect a successor.[23]

In February 1989, John Paul II wrote a letter of resignation to the Dean of the College of Cardinals, which said that he would resign from the papacy in one of two cases: if he had an incurable disease that would prevent him from exercising the apostolic ministry; or in case of a "severe and prolonged impairment" that would have kept him from being the pope.[24]


Canon law makes no provision for a pope being incapacitated for reasons of health, either temporarily or permanently; nor does it specify what body has the authority to certify that the pope is incapacitated.[25] It does state that "When the Roman See is vacant, or completely impeded, no innovation is to be made in the governance of the universal Church."[26][27]

If requested, a diocesan bishop must offer his resignation from the governance of his diocese on completion of his seventy-fifth year of age[28] and cardinals are not allowed to join a conclave after reaching eighty. However, there is no requirement for a pope to resign upon reaching any particular age. Since the enactment of these rules concerning diocesan bishops and cardinals, three popes—Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—have reached the age of 80 during their pontificates. (John Paul I only reached the age of 65.)

In the years leading up to his death in 2005, some sources suggested that John Paul II ought to resign due to his failing health,[29] but Vatican officials always ruled out this possibility (although it was later revealed that he had considered standing down in 2000,[30] when he turned 80, so he clearly felt the possibility was there). However, Benedict XVI, his successor, resigned for just this reason.

See also


  1. Beam, Christopher (17 March 2010). "You're defrocked! Can the pope be fired?". Slate. Retrieved 16 February 2013.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8  Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Abdication". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  3. CIC 1983, c. 332.
  4. CIC 1917 Can. 221. Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex renuntiet, ad eiusdem renuntiationis validitatem non est necessaria Cardinalium aliorumve acceptatio.
  5. New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Canon Law Society of America, Paulist Press, 2002 ISBN 0-8091-4066-7, ISBN 978-0-8091-4066-4), p. 438
  6.  Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Pope St. Pontian". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  7. Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to Benedict XVI, (HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 168.
  8.  Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Pope John XVIII (XIX)". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  9.  Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Pope Benedict IX". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  10.  "Pope St. Celestine V". Catholic Encyclopedia. 1913.
  11. From the Latin, "renuntiet" (cf. canon 332 §2, 1983 Code of Canon Law)
  12. Cullinane, Susannah (12 February 2013). "Pope Benedict XVI's resignation explained". CNN. Retrieved 18 February 2013.
  13. Davies, Lizzy; Hooper, John; Connelly, Kate (11 February 2013). "Pope Benedict XVI resigns due to age and declining health". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
  14. "BBC News - Benedict XVI: 10 things about the Pope's retirement". 2013-05-02. Retrieved 2013-07-17.
  15. Messia, Hada (11 February 2013). "Pope Benedict to resign at the end of the month, Vatican says". CNN. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
  16. Father Raymond J. de Souza (12 February 2013). "The Holy Father takes his leave". The National Post. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  17. 1 2 "Pope Benedict XVI in shock resignation". BBC News. BBC. 11 February 2013. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
  18. "Pope Benedict in shock resignation". 11 February 2013. Retrieved 11 February 2013. 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.
  19. "Conclave to begin Tuesday March 12th". Vatican Radio. 8 March 2013.
  20. Mcbrien, Richard P. (31 October 2006). The Pocket Guide to the Popes. HarperCollins. pp. 30–31. ISBN 978-0-06-113773-0. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
  21. "The Chronography of 354 AD. Part 13: Bishops of Rome". pp. from Theosodr Mommsen, MGH Chronica Minora I (1892), pp.73–6. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
  22. Coulombe, Charles A., Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes, (Citadel Press, 2003), 198.
  23. Squires, Nick and Simon Caldwell (22 April 2009). "Vatican planned to move to Portugal if Nazis captured wartime Pope". The Daily Telegraph.
  24. John Paul II wrote a letter of resignation in case he was not able to fulfill his duties By Rome Reports
  25. The Code of Canon Law Annotated. Montréal: Wilson & Lafleur Limitée. 1993. p. note on canon 335. ISBN 2891272323.
  26. Codex Iuris Canonici Art. 1 DE ROMANO PONTIFICE Can. 332 - § 2. Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat et rite manifestetur, non vero ut a quopiam acceptetur. The Roman Pontiff (Code of Canon Law, canons 331-335), Vatican-supplied English translation.
  27. Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 47)
  28. "Code of Canon Law, canon 401 §1". 2007-05-04. Retrieved 2013-02-18.
  29. Johnston, Bruce; Jonathan Petre (8 February 2005). "Cardinal hints that ailing Pope may resign". The Telegraph.
  30. "Europe | Pope 'considered standing down'". BBC News. 2005-04-07. Retrieved 2013-02-23.

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