Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

W&L Historians Analyze the Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI

Two Washington and Lee University historians, reflecting on Pope Benedict XVI’s stunning resignation this week, conclude that while Benedict has often been criticized for doctrinal rigidity, his decision to resign displays a capacity for innovative thinking.

“The history of the papacy suggests that pious Catholics who strive to lead holy lives do not think in the utilitarian terms that guide most organizations pondering whether a leader should step down,” said William Patch, Kenan Professor of History. “When a pope suffers illness or physical decline, they recall instead the sufferings of Christ on the cross and ponder what God seeks to teach us through suffering. Choosing to resign as he has, Benedict is effectively declaring that practical considerations about the effectiveness of a leader should guide this decision.”

The 85-year-old pontiff made his announcement on Monday, Feb. 11, citing his advanced age and deteriorating strength as the reasons for his decision to step down on Feb. 28. He was elected the 265th pope in April 2005.

Patch noted that since the reign of Pope Pius IX, there has been an expectation that a pope’s last illness should be “a role model for Christians everywhere for how we should confront death, how we experience in our own body the sufferings of Christ on the cross.”

Added Patch: “Pope Benedict’s letter says, ‘I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.’ He goes on to say that in the modern age, because of all the problems facing the church today, we need a more active pope. But he is, in essence, apologizing to those who will be disappointed that he did not die in office and show us an example of how a true Christian suffers.”

Meanwhile, another W&L historian, David Peterson, who studies medieval church history, added that in the Middle Ages, “if you were elected pope, it was almost as if a death sentence had been imposed,” because of an assumption that no pope would exceed the 25-year reign of St. Peter, who is regarded as the first pope.

While Benedict is technically the first pope to resign in office since Pope Gregory XII in 1415, Peterson said that the more apt comparison is with the resignation of Celestine V in 1294.

Gregory’s resignation, explained Peterson, was aimed at ending a schism in the church caused by the presence of three competing popes and came at the request of the Council of Constance.

“In Celestine’s time, the papacy was very much dominated by competing Roman aristocratic families,” said Peterson. “The College of Cardinals was deadlocked and couldn’t get a majority for any candidate. Celestine V was a very pious, devout man. When he was elected pope, he walked into St. Peter’s, which was filled with lawyers and judges because the papacy had become very bureaucratic, and he resigned. Celestine didn’t regard his position as offering much scope for spirituality.”

It was Celestine, added Peterson, who defined the circumstances under which a pope could resign. “He justified his own resignation. He gave advance notice that he was going to resign,” Peterson said. “What’s key is that the resignation has to be free. What church lawyers have been most concerned about is the possibility that a pope might be coerced or forced into resigning, and that would be illegitimate.”

Peterson and Patch hold slightly different views on Benedict’s papacy. Peterson said Benedict is identified with a “particularly monarchic vision of the church” and with the conservative principles of his predecessor, John Paul II. “Perhaps that is most striking — to see this pope who is so deeply committed to restoring papal monarchy resigning,” said Peterson.


Patch, meantime, called Benedict “truly a theologian by training and temperament,” adding that “it’s not clear to me that he had any great ambitions to increase the powers of his own office or any great interest in being a CEO of a multinational corporation.”

In addition, Patch thinks the trial of Benedict’s former butler last October offers some clues to the resignation. The butler, Paolo Gabriele, was convicted for stealing Benedict’s private correspondence. “This episode suggested strange things about Benedict’s loss of power within the Vatican,” Patch said. “The butler kept making the argument that the pope was no longer being informed about major decisions, that he was, in essence, out of the loop. That is one reason why rumors are flying that Benedict felt a sense of marginalization, or lack of interest, or lack of ability, to control the decision-making process.”

Neither Peterson nor Patch would hazard a guess about the identity of the next pope. Patch does think, however, that the age of the next pope will be an interesting signal about the future direction of the church.

“If the Vatican thinks that a lot more scandals are going to emerge with regard to priest sexual abuse, they will choose a very old candidate,” Patch said. “But if they think things are turning around, and they are in a constructive phase rather than a put-the-wagons-in-a-circle-and-be-defensive phase, they will choose a younger candidate.”

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
(540) 458-8459