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The Proud Tradition of Popes Resigning

Posted by Ethan Clow on February 11, 2013

News broke that Pope Benedict “I look like Emperor Palpatine” the XVI aka Joseph Ratzinger has resigned as Pope. Ratzinger sighted advanced age as one of the reasons for his resignation,

“However, 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 fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

So no worries. The Pope didn’t suddenly get an attack of the conscience for the decades of child abuse he covered up or the horrible polices the Vatican has been promoting in Africa like condoms spreading HIV.

In fact, Ratzinger is joining a proud tradition of Popes throughout history who have quit. Five Pope’s have resigned over history and an additional four more are “said” to have resigned but the history books are less clear on them. Let’s take a look at the quitters now.



First we have Pope Pontian who wore the hat from July 230 to September 235 CE. Little is known of this fellow, and we have only a few sources of his life to go by, however in a nut shell, this Pope found himself in the ire of Roman Emperor Maximinus Thrax who decided to have Pontian and his rival Hippolytus of Rome sent to the “unhealthy island of Sardinia.” Pontain resigned to prevent a power struggle in the papacy during his captivity. He died in the mines of Sardinia.


Next comes Pope Marcellinus who also was Pope during the reign of an Roman Emperor who wasn’t a fan of Christianity. It is believed that his papacy was from June 296 to April 304. There is some debate as to what happened to Marcellinus, did he resign? Was he martyred? Did he renounce his faith to save himself? What we can say for sure is that at some point during Emperor Diocletian’s reign, Marcellinus said “bugger this…I’m out.”Marcellinus

Next in our list is Pope Liberius, (May of 352 to September of 366 CE) who is only postulated to have resigned. Since digging through pages of obscure Catholic pseudo history is boring. I’m going to just agree.

The last of the historically mysterious Popes is John XVIII. The story for this guy is that he was basically installed as Pope by powerful Crescentii family, who ruled Rome from about 950 to 1012 CE. John actually poped from Pisa and apparently got tired to being bossed around and died as a monk in 1009. Way to keep your dignity dude.


BenedictusIXPope Benedict IX. Boy was this guy fun. He was Pope multiple times from October 1032 to July 1048. Installed by his dad who was super rich and well connected, Benedict IX was known for being the youngest Pope at 18 years old (maybe younger) and for his wild and crazy times. He was called “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest…” and “a disgrace to the Chair of Peter” and that he “feast[ed] on immorality” Oh and he might have been gay. So when he finally got bored of having orgies in the Vatican and potentially being a murdering rapist, his grandfather bribed/bought the Papacy from him. His grandfather became Pope Gregory VI but after resigning and the money never arrived, Benedict had a not so surprising change of heart and returned to Rome with an army. He retook the throne but was no longer recognized by organized Catholicism as being Pope.

Benedict IX leads us directly to next quitter-pope. That is, his grandpa Gregory the VI. Catholicism breathed a sigh of relief when Benedict was bought out. But as I said, that quickly didn’t last. There were actually three Popes at this time. Benedict, Gregory and this jerk Pope Sylvester III. By this time, Holy Roman Emperor Henry III had had enough of this Pope-musical chairs and came down and drove Benedict from Rome. Henry favored Gregory and Sylvester was declared “you were never Pope in the first place” and sent home. However, Gregory also was slapped on the wrist for buying the Papacy. He resigned while spluttering “what? what? but…but…but…I’m a hero!”




(Gregory’s successor was Pope Clement II who poped until his death in 1047 when Benedict became Pope again. Ha.)

Next comes probably the most sensible Pope ever. Pope Celestine V. (July 1294 to December 13 1294) Known as a hermit and solitary guy, he sent the cardinals (who were trying and failing to elect a new pope) a letter warning them of dire consequences if they don’t elect someone soon. Mistaking this letter as a poorly worded resume they elected Celestine. To his credit, Celestine refused and according to Petrarch, tried to flee. One of his most important degrees as Pope was that any Pope could resign from the papacy, which he did five months into his reign as Pope. For some reason, his successor, Pope Boniface VIII (aka the pope that Dante put in hell in his Divine Comedy) had him imprisoned and may have murdered him.

And now the (previously) last Pope to resign. Pope Gregory XII. Gregory XII was elected pope during the Western Schism. In a nut shell, this schism was mostly about location. Prior to Gregory XII, Gregory the XI was a Pope at Avignon in France, however he moved the papacy back to Rome. This created a kerfuffle. Remember that guy Boniface the VIII? Well because of his wars with European monarchs, the cardinals elected a French Pope, who refused to move to Rome, choosing to stay at Avignon. This allowed France to essentially control the papacy for about 68 years. Anyway, along comes Gregory XI who wants to head back to Rome. So another Pope was declared in Avignon. So when Gregory the XI dies, his successor Gregory the XII has the following conditions, he must resign if the Avignon Pope also resigns; thus ending the schism.

Gregory XII

Gregory XII

Eventually, that’s what happened. Once both rival popes had resigned and any other upstart popes had been declared anti-popes, the church unified, elected Pope Martin V.

Bonus “almost” resignations include Pope Pius VII who before traveling to Paris to crown Napoleon emperor, left instruction that if he was held prisoner he was to be considered ‘resigned.’  It’s also claimed that Pope Pius XII had a similar condition that if he was captured by the Nazis, he was also defacto resigned. And apparently Pope John Paul II also had left instructions that 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.

So. Fear not, Ratzinger. Your legacy as a quitter, while not as spectacular as some of your predecessors, is secured in a time honed tradition of disgraceful people quitting a disgraceful position.


One Response to “The Proud Tradition of Popes Resigning”

  1. Great article Ethan!

    I really like your last line, especially “disgraceful people quitting a disgraceful position.”

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