Pope Benedict’s Resignation in Historical Context

In shocking news that quickly demonstrated the ongoing relevance of medieval historians, Pope Benedict announced that he will lay down his governance of the Church of Rome at the end of this month.  Such an event has not happened for nearly 600 years when his predecessor, Gregory XII, sacrificed himself in 1415 to bring an end to the Great Western Schism.  It is appropriate, in an historical Church, to look back.  Rooted in tradition, we see that we do have the resources to cope with such a stunning and in some ways heartbreaking announcement.

Benedict XVI used the occasion of a canonization consistory to make this most momentous of announcements.  In canonizing the pope exercises his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians in an extraordinary way, making this consistory a solemn moment for such an announcement.  The consistory was held with the cardinals, who will govern the Church in a sede vacante, therefore it was highly fitting for the Pope to address this message to them.  It was also fitting in such a moment that the Pontiff expressed himself in the universal language of the Catholic Church: Latin.  Just as he had in the first address to his Cardinals after election, Benedict underscored the universality of the Church spread throughout the world, by speaking its catholic language at this most solemn of moments.  Further, in fixing the date for the canonization after his own resignation, Benedict emphasized the continuity of the Petrine office, for on 12 May, we will have a new supreme pontiff to undertake that blessed ceremony.

It is well too to see if we can glean any significance from the saints to be honored.  Two are holy foundresses of female orders.  After his resignation, Benedict will retire to such a monastery to live out his life in prayer and reflection, and indeed, in penance for the Church that he loves so much.  Also to be canonized are Antonio Primaldi and the 800 martyrs of Otranto, brutally killed in an Ottoman raid in 1480, when they refused to convert to Islam.

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By the end of the 1470s Mehmed II, called “The Conqueror” was preparing a death blow to Europe.  Having taken the impregnable city of Constantinople, and having pacified the Balkans, his fleet was freely sailing the Mediterranean.  Having taken “New Rome” he set his sights on “Old Rome.”  He launched a raiding party in 1480 on the maritime city of Otranto, at the heel of Italy’s boot.  Thousands were massacred in what was probably an expedition meant to instill terror in seafaring Italy.  After a two week siege, the city fell. The civil and religious leaders of the city were either beheaded or sawed in half.  800 of the leading men of the town refused to convert to Islam and were sentenced to death.  Led by Antonio Primaldi, who had been a spokesman for the group, they were beheaded, one by one on a hill outside town.  Antonio and his townsmen had, in reality, saved Europe for the unstoppable Mehmed II died at only 49 the next year, frustrating Ottoman plans for expansion.

What can this seemingly incongruous thing tell us about Benedict?  In the first place he, like the martyrs of Otranto, had been on the vanguard of the fight to save Europe.  Like them he confronted an aggressive Islam.  More than that however, soon-to-be Saint Antonio and his companions died for their Catholic faith and their freedom to practice it.  They are martyrs of religious intolerance.  In reality they are living echoes of the Regensburg address, they gave their lives for the principles the Pope enunciated there.  In response to violence and intolerance they laid down their lives.  In a similar way the aging Pope has laid down his responsibilities after giving his whole life for the religion of Faith and Reason.  How appropriate and beautiful that the pope selected this moment to make his announcement.

I have no insight into the reasons for the Pope’s decision, though I fear that rapidly declining health is at the head of the list.  How blessed we were to have a man who inherited the hardest job in the world, at an age where others feel the bitter decline of old age.  For eight years he has governed the Church with a steady hand, righting the bark of Peter so inundated by the forces of the world.  Perhaps he was fearful of manipulation by those who so often surround the centers of power.  He refused to let his bodily weakness be a vehicle for damage to the Church.  For all of these we are profoundly grateful.  His legacy in doctrine, liturgy, and theology far outstrips the relative brevity of his pontificate.  He is truly a worthy successor to St. Benedict, Father of monks and patron of Europe, to Benedict XIV -the shining light of learning, and to Benedict XV—the great Pope of Peace.

Perhaps in our initial shock we may have neglected to think of some of the advantages of this development.  Benedict will be able to advise his successor, ensuring a continuity of governance that will be unparalleled in the recent history of the Church.  He will be able to give the new pope “the lay of the land.”  In this way Benedict helps to disintermediate various curial interests, which, like any bureaucracy, make it difficult to begin a reign.  I believe this will be the most orderly transition of authority witnessed in historical memory, even in an age of peaceful conclaves.  I offer one final thought: Benedict has offered us a witness of the exceptional sovereignty of the pope.  Truly he is the successor of Peter who has freely manifested his resignation, which can be accepted by no power on earth.  Such a demonstration of papal authority is astonishing in its constitutional implications.  St. Peter Celestine pray for us and for your successors!


  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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