Pope Benedict XVI's reign is officially over, as he gave his last public appearance on February 28, 2013, before departing from public life and leaving the papacy behind. People have been asking my thoughts on the Pope's resignation. While I don't have an answer why he resigned, I certainly have been able to put in context what it means for the Catholic Church.
To make things clear, there is no doubt that a Pope can resign. Several popes -- at least six -- have resigned the papacy in the past, and several hundred years ago, a Pope even had a formal ceremony created for a public "abdication" where he was stripped of his papal vestments in front of onlookers. The papacy, like any other institution, can change officeholders while the previous officeholder is still alive.
That being said, before Benedict XVI, no Pope had resigned in nearly 600 years. How many Popes have resigned is difficult to say, especially since church records during the first 300 years of Christianity are extremely sketchy due to Christianity being an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. It's like that Pope St. Pontian (reigned 230–235), Pope St. Marcellinus (reigned 296–304), Pope Liberius (reigned 352– 366), and Pope John XVIII (reigned 1004 – 1009) all resigned, but there's no way of saying for sure.
It's undisputed that the following Popes resigned:
- Pope Benedict V (reigned May 22, 964 – June 23, 964)
He was deposed against his will by Emperor Otto, although his abdication is considered valid. The former Pope retained the rank of deacon and lived out the rest of his life in Hamburg under the care of Adaldag, Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen.
- Pope Benedict IX (reigned October 1032–September 1044, April 1045–May 1045 & November 1047–July 1048)
The only man in history to be Pope three times, he resigned for less than ethical reasons. He was a young Pope and resigned the first time in order to get married (there were no married Popes during that time, but married priests were still allowed until the 1100s). He was bribed to resign his second term after several reputed scandals, and also resigned his third term.
- Pope Gregory VI (reigned 1045 – 1046)
He was accused of simony, and he had bribed his way into the Papacy and pressured his predecessor, Benedict IX, to resign. Once the scandal became public and it was clear he had gotten the papacy through unethical means, he too was pressured to abdicate at the Council of Sutri.
- Pope St. Celestine V, O.S.B. (reigned July 5, 1294 – December 13, 1294)
Celestine was a simple, prayerful hermit that had been elected Pope in a huge upset. With no administrative experience, the Church feel into chaos under his reign even though he had the best of intentions. Celestine realized he lacked the competence for the office, and resigned to protect the church. He was the first pope to formally establish canons for a papal resignation. His selfless act is part of the reason he was named a saint.
- Pope Gregory XII ( reigned November 30, 1406 – July 4, 1415)
He was Pope during a troubling time for the church, where two other rival "Popes" had been "elected" by schismatic groups, and these anti-Popes were reigning simultaneously. To end the Western Schism and get all factions within the Catholic Church to agree on a consensus Pope, he abdicated, along with the two anti-Popes, during the Council of Constance. The Catholic Church was then able to convene a unified conclave that elected a Pope that all factions would accept.
Now Pope Benedict XVI's name must be added to the list (reigned April 19, 2005 – February 28, 2013). What is unique about his resignation is he is the only Pope ever to resign due to physical infirmity and advanced age. No Pope in the 2000 year old history of the Catholic Church has resigned for such reasons. This is not to say that Pope Benedict cannot resign for these reasons or that his resignation is invalid. He certainly can, and as Catholics we must accept his resignation and wish him well. (Just as if the Pope died, the Fisherman’s Ring worn by Pope Benedict and his official seal will both be destroyed). However, there is no denying that the Pope's resignation puts the Catholic Church in uncharted waters. For the first time in history, a retired Pope will have the title of "Pope Emeritus" and continue to be addressed as "Your Holiness" in person, even if he makes no more public appearances (in all likelihood, he will not be seen in public again, as Pope Benedict XVI has indicated he plans to quietly retire to a monastery and fully accept the next Pope's decisions)
What many people -- both Catholic and non-Catholic alike -- fail to seem to grasp is how important tradition is to the Catholic Church. Chicago's own Cardinal Francis George is now headed to Rome for a papal conclave, and there is little doubt the next Pope will come from the college of Cardinals. This is not because of a "rule" that requires it, but because of tradition in the Catholic Church that a Cardinal is chosen. The last time they chose someone who was not a cardinal was at the 1378 election of Pope Urban VI. They certainly could choose a non-Cardinal if they wanted to, or even a lay Catholic -- even though no lay Catholic has ever been chosen in the 2000 year history of the church (even one Pope was ordained a priest a day before becoming Cardinal!) The selection of a lay Catholic, like the Pope resigning because of advanced age, would put the Catholic Church in uncharted waters.
An American Pope is possible, but very unlikely. The website bet365 estimates the odds of Chicago's Cardinal George becoming Pope at 150-1, whereas another online site, Paddy Power, puts George’s chances at 200-1. The American with the best odds is the head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, and he's still a long shot with an average odds being 33-1. Some of my Byzantine Catholic friends are holding out hoping for an eastern rite Cardinal to be named Pope. This is also very unlikely. Although eligible, retired Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir of Lebanon, Patriarch Emeritus of Maronite Catholic Church), is 92 years old, and Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly of Iraq, Patriarch Emeritus of the Chaldean Catholic Church, is 85 years old. Two eastern Catholic Cardinals that are under 80 and still voting members of the College of Cardinals are Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rahi of Lebanon, age 73 , who was elevated to Cardinal very recently (November 2012), and Cardinal Antonios Naguib of Egypt, age 77, who is the retired Archbishop of Alexandria and Patriarch Emeritus of the Coptic Catholic Church.
In short, while Benedict XVI has retired, don't expect it to happen again anytime soon, as I believe it would set a bad precedent for the Catholic Church if future Popes treated the office like a secular job and simply "retired" after the age of 65 or so. Who will succeed Benedict XVI remains to be seen, but we should all pray that the Pope's successor will have the strength and wisdom to lead the Catholic Church through what is sure to be very difficult times ahead.