As startling as this news was for the world’s billion-plus Catholics, being a historically-rooted church with two millennia of history, there have been several occasions that a similar event has taken place. The first precedent was Pope St. Pontian who, in 235 A.D., was arrested and condemned to the mines of Sardinia. So that the Church of Rome would not be left headless, he resigned his office to allow another Bishop of Rome to be elected. Other popes of the first millenium were similarly pressured to resign, such as St. Silverius, who refused and was starved to death. Benedict IX, pope during the troubled times of the 1040s, resigned and attempted to regain the papacy on several occasions before dying in penitence in a Roman monastery.
More famous were two late medieval popes. By 1294, the Cardinals of the Church had been debating for three years without settling on a candidate. As a sort of compromise, they elected a rural hermit known for his piety and holiness. This hermit became Pope (later Saint) Celestine V. As can be expected, Celestine was unprepared for being thrust from obscurity to the heights of power and announced his resignation after only six months. His successor made his declaration of resignation part of Catholic Church law in 1298. The most recent pope to renounce the office was Gregory XII in 1415. He did so in order that the Council of Constance could elect a new pope and bring the great Western Schism to an end.
In the majority of these situations, the popes in question resigned for the good of the church. This is precisely what Benedict XVI has in mind. Though most of his predecessors remained in their office until death, Benedict considered that his time as an effective leader of a worldwide church, not to mention a fully functioning state, was at an end. It is likely that his sickness is far more serious than it appears. One could speculate also that having been witness to the decline of John Paul II at the end of his life, Benedict decided the church needed strong leadership to face its contemporary trials.
Modern technology has enabled people to live exceptionally long lives with all of the weakness that can sometimes entail. Benedict is one of the oldest popes in history, and the vast majority of popes, considering the grave responsibilities of their position, have died much younger. In spite of advanced age, Benedict has governed exceptionally well for eight years, undertaking the arduous office at an age when most men are 10 years into retirement. Significantly, Benedict made his announcement on the World Day for the Sick, expressing solidarity with those both aging and suffering around the globe.
The church is indeed faced by many problems. Benedict spent much of his papacy reinforcing Catholic identity, both doctrinally and liturgically. He faced the clergy sex-abuse scandal with penitence and fortitude. He attempted to recall Europe to its deepest values, and to engage Islam in rational dialogue. He stood up to civil powers who were attempting to restrict religious liberty all over the world. For this his influence will stretch far beyond his short pontificate.
Assailed by many outside the church as doctrinaire and unbending, all who meet him are disarmed by his simple affability and aura of deep learning. The author of dozens of books and a famous theologian and professor long before he became pope, Benedict will best be remembered as a staunch defender of the Catholic principle that faith and reason go hand in hand. There is no dichotomy between belief and science for, as Benedict constantly reminded people, both had the same author — God — and the same purpose — truth.
As one of his biographers put it, Benedict XVI lives a life which can be called a “love affair with the truth,” because in the end, for him, truth and love are two names for the same reality.
Donald Prudlo is associate professor of ancient and medieval history at Jacksonville State University. He has written one book, “The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (1252).”