Skip to main content

Echoes of past in pope's resignation

By David Perry, Special to CNN
updated 4:02 PM EST, Tue February 12, 2013
Pope Benedict XVI covers the relic of Pope Celestine V with a stole during his 2009 visit to L'Aquila.
Pope Benedict XVI covers the relic of Pope Celestine V with a stole during his 2009 visit to L'Aquila.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Perry: Pope Celestine V, from 1296, and Pope Benedict XVI both resigned
  • He says Benedict likely turned to example of Celestine, who codified pope's right to resign
  • Does Celestine's reference to "malignity" of people find echo in Benedict's resignation letter?
  • Perry: Some guess pope is fleeing scandal-plagued church; others think he seeks tranquility

Editor's note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois.

(CNN) -- On July 4, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Sulmona for his second visit to venerate the relics of his long-ago predecessor, Pope and St. Celestine V, who died in 1296. Few predicted then that just a few years later, Benedict and Celestine would be locked together in history as the two popes who retired, theoretically voluntarily, because of their age.

Here is what Celestine wrote: "We, Celestine, Pope V, moved by legitimate reasons, that is to say for the sake of humility, of a better life and an unspotted conscience, of weakness of body and of want of knowledge, the malignity of the people, and personal infirmity, to recover the tranquility and consolation of our former life, do freely and voluntarily resign the pontificate."

David Perry
David Perry

Compare that to Benedict's statement: "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."

When Pope Benedict went to write his letter of resignation, there can be little doubt that he turned to Celestine's example, the "papal bull" (official letter) from 1294 that affirmed the right of the pope to resign and the legal canons that followed codifying the practice. For the Catholic Church, those 13th-century words stand as relevant and legally valid.

Celestine was an interesting fellow, and his life, short papacy and long legacy offer some examples for us as we absorb the surprise of Benedict's resignation.

Stanley: Why pope will be remembered for generations

Celestine himself had quite the surprise in July of 1294, when a group of religious and lay Catholics ascended to his mountain retreat and informed him that the Sacred College of Cardinals had just unanimously elected him as the new pope. Celestine, born Pietro del Murrone, was a Benedictine ascetic who spent most of his religious life seeking isolation as a hermit in Abruzzo, but he emerged as a consensus candidate when the cardinals could not agree on any of the usual suspects.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The choice was a disaster. King Charles of Anjou (and Naples), a powerful ruler of the era, tried to use him as a pawn to gain legitimacy over Sicily. Celestine created new cardinals without due process, gave the same title to multiple people and in general seemed to have trouble saying no. Elected in July at 79 and crowned in August, he resigned the papacy in December.

Ten days later, his chief lawyer and likely author of the new papal bull permitting resignation, Benedetto Gaitani, became Pope Boniface VIII. Boniface eventually imprisoned the now ex-Pope Celestine and kept him under close watch until he died two years later.

Celestine's legacy, in some ways, became even more interesting than his life.

Boniface spent his early career undoing all of Celestine's acts and trying to restore the papacy to political prominence. But within a few years of Boniface's death in 1303, Pope Clement V, his successor, moved the papacy to Avignon, France, repudiated Boniface and quickly began canonization proceedings for the soon-to-be St. Celestine.

What does this have to do with Benedict? Did his two visits to Celestine's tomb and words of admiration for the saint, hermit and pontiff convey a secret message that Benedict was contemplating retirement? Are the parallels even stronger than Celestine and Benedict being the two popes to resign on account of age?

Historians regard Celestine's claim of "personal infirmity" with considerable skepticism, focusing instead on "the malignity of the people" and pressure from his eventual successor as the real reason for his unprecedented resignation.

Opinion: Huge challenges await next pope

For Benedict XVI, the line, "shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith" stands out to me. What are these questions of deep relevance? Benedict was speaking of a shaken world (the Latin version makes this clear), but is he perhaps shaken too by his time on the throne of St. Peter?

Who will be selected as the next pope?
Pope Benedict's legacy and controversies
Pope's friend 'not surprised'

Each reader may well imprint his or her own issues onto the mind of the aging pope.

Is he concerned about the ongoing, devastating revelations about pedophilia in the Catholic Church and related coverups? The "Vatileaks" scandal and the corruption it alleges? Does he just believe that the Catholic Church will need new leadership to face the challenges ahead? Or are his concerns more personal? Like Celestine, is he seeking "tranquility" and a quiet path to his final days?

I doubt we'll ever know more than we do right now.

Pope Benedict XVI's legacy is likely to be heavily contested in the years to come. Particularly since his election, Benedict has stood as the symbol on which those discontented with the direction of the church focus on their ire. Others, concerned about the changes of Vatican II -- the council convened in 1962 that transformed so many Catholic practices -- see in the current pope and his allies an attempt to restore the older, traditional church that they love.

Celestine's legacy, likewise, depended very much on the eye of the beholder. Ascetics revered him, seeing him in a true divine pontiff in contrast to the infernal anti-popes that followed. Petrarch, the great Italian poet, took a neutral stance, suggesting that Celestine was just embracing his true gifts of solitary contemplation.

Dante, on the other hand, condemned Celestine for his cowardice, writing, "che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto / Who made through cowardice the great refusal." (Dante, Inferno, Canto IIi 60).

How will our poets, prophets and people come to see Pope Benedict's resignation? To even begin to answer that, we will need to see who emerges from the basilica when the white smoke rises above St. Peter's Square.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David M. Perry.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT