The announcement of Benedict XVI’s decision to step down from the papal seat has, unsurprisingly, led to a flurry of media attention. A fair amount of the initial reaction has focused on the medieval precedents for a papal resignation (or abdication, depending on whose view is taken of the nature of the papacy). Those precedents which are being cited are mainly those of Gregory XII (1406-1415), the most recent pope to resign the office, or Celestine V (1294), the last to do so for apparently self-determined reasons (Gregory XII’s resignation, triggered by the Council of Constance’s efforts to end the Western Schism, was technically involuntary).
Both are of interest–particularly Celestine, whose relics Benedict XVI has visited multiple times and whose resignation Benedict has publicly called a humble act demonstrating great courage. But, as it is a long-recognized papal tradition to use one’s choice of name to signal a bit of historical precedent, it’s worth noting that, though fewer than a dozen popes are known to have resigned, Benedict isn’t the first of his name to be among them. In fact, with two medieval antecessors, Benedict XVI will be (by most reckoning) the third Benedict to resign the position, making Benedict the most-resigned name in papal history and breaking a tie with the Gregorys (VI and XII) that has stood for nearly 600 years. As we’ll see, the names have been linked in this category before…
Benedict V (964)
Benedict V Grammaticus was elevated to the papacy in May of 964 against the wishes of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. In retaliation, Otto besieged Rome and set about starving the city into submission. After a month (during which Benedict repeatedly threatened to excommunicate Otto and his entire army) the gates were opened and Benedict was handed over. Otto tried Benedict on the grounds that his elevation constituted an usurpation, since Otto’s preferred candidate (the then-antipope Leo VIII) was alive and well. Faced with the possibility of execution and promised mercy if he capitulated, Benedict admitted his “guilt” and abdicated. He died the following year in Hamburg. He was buried in the cathedral there, but was moved to Rome sometime around 988…whereupon the record of his reburial location was lost and, if you will, remains unknown.
Benedict IX (1032-1045; 1045; 1047-1048)
The last Benedict to resign was Benedict IX, one of history’s worst popes and the only one to hold the office three separate times. Benedict IX was somewhere between 12 and 20 when he first became pope through the political favor of his father, Count Alberic of Tusculum. Benedict was actually the third consecutive member of the family to hold the office–Alberic’s brothers Theophlyactus and Romanus were elevated as Benedict VIII (1012-1024) and John XIX (1024-1032) respectively. Four other relatives had held the office in recent history as well–Sergius III (904-911), John XI (931-935), John XII (955-964), and Benedict VII (974-983)–but the level of nepotism shown here was notable even for its time.
Benedict IX was a deeply unpopular pope, known and reviled primarily for his dissolute lifestyle. Commentators of his time accused him of adultery, rape, murder, orgies held within the Vatican, and “other unspeakable acts,” and the Catholic Encyclopedia calls him a “disgrace to the chair of St. Peter” who treated the papacy as a sort of family heirloom. He lost the papacy for the first time in 1045 when one of many dissatisfied factions forced him out of Rome and placed Sylvester III in his stead. Months later, Benedict returned and forced Sylvester out (though some sources still considered Sylvester the legitimate pope). His second papacy lasted only a few months, however, before he was convinced (with a hefty bribe) to resign the seat in favor of his godfather, the soon-to-be Gregory VI. Benedict would regret this decision and attempt to reclaim the seat the following year when Gregory VI was forced to abdicate after his bribery of Benedict led to a charge of simony. The German-born Clement II (who had helped to force Benedict and Gregory out of office) was elected in his place, but when Clement died only a year later (of what we now know was a poisonous dose of sugar of lead–possibly those whisperings about Benedict’s murderous tendencies weren’t exaggerating), Benedict returned to the papacy–by taking the Lateran Palace and investing it with armed troops. In 1048, a German militia was needed to oust Benedict for the third and final time, replacing him with Damascus II. A year later, Benedict refused to appear for his own trial for simony and was excommunicated, after which the historical record becomes a little fuzzy as to his ultimate fate. Two stories often told are that he either became a monk and truly repented of his youthful arrogance or that he lived in exile for decades and never stopped plotting to take back the papacy.
So as we prepare to witness the historic transfer of authority from one living pope to another, let’s be grateful (or perhaps wistful, depending on your personal bent) that the process is almost certainly to be the dullest abdication by a Benedict in Church history…although, if you’re the sort of person to credit the alleged prophecy of the 12th century St. Malachy, things could get a lot more interesting fairly quickly.