QUAERITUR: Why can a Pope resign? Why isn’t being Pope “for life”?

I have received a lot of emotional email in the last couple days.  I am a bit emotional myself.

Many questions have been raised by the Holy Father’s impending abdication.

This is from a reader:

Can you please shed light on the question on why, in the first place, can popes resign? Why is there a provision for such in canon law? Why shouldn’t the petrine ministry be mandatorily “ad vitam”?

I would also appreciate it if you could further clarify the difference/s between the effects (and exigencies) of the sacrament of Holy Orders (one is priest – or deacon or bishop – forever) and “ministries” or “elections” or “assignments” of the ordained which they can resign from.

Priesthood – a sacrament – causes a change at the level of the soul.  The sacramental character placed on the soul by ordination can never removed.  This is also how it is with baptism and confirmation.

However, the Church has offices – which are not sacraments – which are related to the sacrament of holy orders but not so tied to orders that they cannot be separated.  For example, a man who is a priest can be given jurisdiction over a parish, a bishop over a diocese.  Those offices can be removed or renounced.   Priesthood can’t be removed but permission to function as a priest can be (as in the case of all the priests and bishops of the SSPX).   A man can be made a cardinal, which is an office that carries certain functions.  A cardinal’s cardinalatial office can be removed or renounced (which I hope in one case to see happen before the upcoming conclave).  “Bishop of Rome” is an office.  It can’t be removed from a man by anyone but God (by means of death) or by the office holder himself abdicating the office.

“Abdicate” is a better word than “resign” for what Benedict did.  Resignations are accepted by someone.  Abdications are not.

Why can the Pope abdicate his office?  The office of Pope carries with it the fullness of jurisdiction in the Church.  The “Petrine Ministry” is a little different from other offices in the Church, but it is an office.  The Successor of Peter does what other successors of the apostles do in that he teaches, governs and sanctifies.  His role also includes being a visible sign of the unity Christ desired for the Church and a point of reference as Christ’s “stand in” or Vicar (vicarius).

As Vicar of Christ, the Successor of Peter is also the one who determines the Church’s law, for the sake of the Church’s good order.

The Pope has this authority by virtue of his being the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, to whom Christ entrusted supreme jurisdiction over the Church He founded.  “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16: 18)  He gave Peter His own authority.  In this office he has the task also of “strengthening the brethren”. “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22: 31-32). This is a “hereditary” office, so that when a man succeeds to Peter’s office, he receives the authority and role that Peter had. We understand that Christ intended that the office be passed on because of the image He used in speaking of “keys” and the authority to “bind and loose”, which harks to another “hereditary” office in the Old Testament.

Over the centuries – between Peter and Benedict XVI – we have come as a Church to understand more deeply the implications of this office.  It has always been as I described, but only slowly did its practical implications emerge.  Historical circumstances helped us clarify who the Successor of Peter is and what he does in and for the Church, so that the office of “Pope” is what it is today.  I suppose that, over the years, we will learn more about the office and it will shift a bit in how it is manifested.  Perhaps that is what we are seeing now in Pope Benedict’s choice to abdicate.  Joseph Ratzinger has been thinking about the Petrine Ministry for a long time, in the scheme of a man’s life.  He has a perspective on the office that no other living person can possibly have.

Back to the questions.  How can a Pope put this ministry aside?  Why is in not mandatory for life?

No one can force the Pope to do anything.  No one but Christ has the authority to make something “mandatory” for the Vicar of Christ.

The Holy Father, from the moment he accepts the role at his election, has supreme jurisdiction in the Church.  No other person or groups of people together can exercise authority in the same way he does.  He establishes the laws.  Beyond him there is no appeal on earth.  He can act and teach for the entire Church on his own.   So, when he makes a decision he does not have to consult (though smart Popes usually do).  His decisions have effect even if he hasn’t consulted.  His decisions don’t have to be accepted by anyone or any group in order to be licit.  If the Pope decides he will lay down the office, that’s his decision.  There is no other person or group who have the competence or authority to judge his act or accept his act so that it is thereby licit.  The Pope acts freely.  Smart Popes make sure that his intentions are clear.  Therefore smart Popes follow their own laws so that there is not chaos in the Church and people more willingly obey his laws and listen to his teaching and accept him as the visible point of unity Christ intends him to be.  A smart Pope will consult and rely on people and groups to whom he delegates authority in certain areas.  He is human after all and cannot on his own do everything.  But it must not be forgotten that when the Vicar of Christ acts, he does so with an authority and jurisdiction that no other person or group has.

So, it is up to the individual Pope to determine that his papacy will be “for life” … or not.

Another question that rises from this is – If a Pope has this supreme authority that cannot be overturned, could a Pope appoint his own successor?  But that is another question and won’t be dealt with here.  By the power of the keys I give to myself as supreme pontiff of this blog, I close that rabbit hole for the time being.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in ASK FATHER Question Box, Benedict XVI and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Semper Idem says:

    When you’re the Pope, you’re the Pope all the way, from your last consistory, to your abdication day

  2. Ben Trovato says:

    Before the Holy Father abdicated, I thought that he would not, and further that it would be wrong of him to do so. I have recanted. http://ccfather.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/on-holy-fathers-abdication.html

  3. Dr. Edward Peters says:


    1983 CIC 332 § 2. If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.

    1917 CIC 221. If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns, for the validity of this resignation, acceptance by a Cardinal or another is not necessary. [Oddly, this Pio-Benedictine norm is NOT listed as source for 1983 CIC 332, but, undoubtedly it is a source.]

    C. 1, de renunciatione, I, 7, in VIº [1298] … Pope Celestine the Fifth our predecessor, while he conducted the governance of the church, wanting to put an end to doubts about [the ability of a pope to resign], having deliberated with his cardinal brothers of the Roman church, among whom we were numbered, with the advice of us and of all agreeing, and by operation of apostolic authority, established and decreed that the Roman Pontiff could freely resign. And so we, concerned lest a provision of this sort be forgotten over the course of time, or that it might once again become the object of confusion or debate, place this decree among those other constitutions for perpetual remembrance of the matter, with the advice of our brothers, so we direct.

  4. Paul M. says:

    Father Z, perhaps an even better term than “resign” or “abdicate” would be the term that canon law and Pope Benedict himself used for this act: renounce. E.g., Canon 187 (“Quisquis sui compos potest officio ecclesiastico iusta de causa renuntiare.”); Canon 332 § 2 (“Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat et rite manifestetur, non vero ut a quopiam acceptetur.”).

  5. mamajen says:

    While I hate to see Pope Benedict go, I am grateful that the law does allow for resignation. [The law does not allow the Pope to abdicate. The Pope himself is the lawgiver. The Pope allows himself to abdicate. The canon is for the sake of clarity about that fact.] The papacy is a job. Or at least it ought to be. He is not merely a figurehead like most royalty nowadays. I would like to know that the man who has that job is fully capable in mind, body and spirit of fulfilling his role. I trust the pope. I do not necessarily trust the people below him not to take advantage of an incapacitated pope. I have great respect for Pope Benedict’s decision. He gave it a lot of thought and prayer, and that’s good enough for me. I believe he is doing God’s will.

  6. mamajen says:

    Oops, thanks for the clarification, Father. I should have read more carefully.

  7. Johnno says:

    Unfortunately it seems the secularists are going to think of the Papacy in the same way mamajen thinks of it. I’ll here quote how another commentor on Rotare Caeli put it succintly:

    “Unfortunately, a widely-referenced article in the “New York Times” regarding the abdication (or as they refer to it, “resignation”) ends with this quotation:

    “It’s revolutionary,” said Eamon Duffy, a professor of the history of Christianity at Cambridge. “He’s sweeping away the mystical in favor of the utilitarian: That being a pope is a job, and the pope must be in the condition to do the job.

    That’s the accomplishment of this abdication: the relegation of the See of St. Peter to a “job” and the final triumph of the Second Vatican Council’s “modernism motif”: the rinsing of the Papacy of a sense of the sacred.”

  8. Prof. Basto says:

    Gregory XII after his abdication was His Eminence Cardinal Angelo Correr, Cardinal Bishop of Porto. He was recreated a Cardinal, and given the title of the suburbicarian see of Porto, by the Council of Constance.

    The Council of Constance was by then a legitimate Ecumenical Council, given that it had already accepted the convokation issued by Gregory XII. Gregory’s bull of indiction of the Council was read to the Council and accepted by the assembly immediately before Gregory’s abdication was delivered by his attorney.

    In the same decree, the Council of Constance ruled that it would regulate the next papal elections, that Gregory XII and his Cardinals would be accepted as Cardinals, that the pseudocardinals created by the deposed John XXIII (antipope, who the majority of the people at the council at the time treated as a former pope deposed by the assembly) were also to be accepted as Cardinals, thus uniting the obediences of Gregory XII and antipope John XXIII. The former Gregory XII was made perpetual legate of Ancona.

    The Council further gave the former Gregory XII precedence immediately before the next Pope to be elected. Thus Angelo Correr ranked above the Cardinal Bishop of Ostia.

    It took two years for the Council of Constance to allow the start of the conclave, and Angelo Correr died before the election of Martin V.

    Antipope John XXIII (Baldassare Cossa) was alive when Martin V was elected, and he went to the new Pope and did homage to him in 1419. In turn, Martin created him a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, with the title of Cardinal Bishop of Tusculum.

    The situation of Baldassare Cossa is irrelevant, but the situation of Angelo Correr, a former legitimate Pope, is a relevant precedent. He had to be recreated a Cardinal, and received the title of Cardinal Bishop.

    However, presently there are no avaliable titles of Cardinal Bishop. Paul VI, however, amended the rules that govern the Sacred College, to allow for Cardinals without roman titles, the Cardinals Patriarchs of oriental rite, who rank in the order of Bishops, but below the holders of the titles to the suburbicarian sees.

    In like fashion, the future Pope could admit the former Benedict XVI to the College of Cardinals, granting him precedence above the Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, Dean of the College, and further establishing that former Popes, like Eastern Patriarchs, need no Roman title.

  9. JacobWall says:

    Thank you, Father. Your explanation comforts me. If only the Pope can choose to abdicate or hold the office for life, this means that there is a certain safety for future Popes.

    Let me explain myself; if some group (let’s say the College of Cardinals) could choose to refuse or not accept the resignation of the Pope, or dictate that his office must be for life, it would suggest that the same group would have some control over the matter. It may possibly be suggested, then, that in the future that group could request or force the resignation of a given Pope. That possibility would concern me greatly.

    However, as you’ve explained it, I’m comforted to know that the decision to abdicate or not abdicate lies entirely within the authority of the Pope.

  10. PA mom says:

    “sweeping mystical away..”. Many things in this world are a tension of concepts. At this time it is clear that the Papacy has very real physical demands it has never before had.
    It is not truly clear that Pope Benedict has in fact diminished the office in anyway. Just that Mr Duffy hopes that he has.

  11. The Masked Chicken says:

    I am very glad that no, as yet, has had the termerity to suggest either a co-adjudicator Pope or an auxiliary Pope.

    The Chicken

  12. mamajen says:


    I don’t see what’s wrong with acknowledging that it’s a job. It’s the most important job. Of course secularists are going to brush aside the mystical or the sacred. In my mind, however, they are not mutually exclusive. I believe he was informed by God in making this very difficult decision. I’m rather tired of this notion that Pope Benedict’s decision was somehow misguided because of what it might make people (and mostly those who hate Catholicism already) think.

  13. JacobWall says:


    I agree with you about the concern – the (mis-)perception that the Papacy is just a job, kind of like being a president. It’s not the case at all.

    However, I don’t think we can let the secularists determine our “approval” or “disapproval” of Pope Benedict’s abdication. Secular media and commentators will misinterpret and distort anything the Church (and with her, the Pope) does. If we were going to use their reaction to support or disapprove of an action, then we’ve already lost.

    I don’t think we need to be concerned that the secularists are misinterpreting this abdication. That’s a given. While I’m saddened by this, as I just said, I am comforted by the fact that, as Fr. Z points out, the Pope makes the law and is subject to no one’s approval or disapproval. Since no one else can decide that this has to be for life, likewise no one else (including secularists or even the Cardinals) can decide that a Pope must resign. For me that’s comforting.

    I think to understand what is happening, in this case we have to put ourselves in a bubble; if we pay attention to the noise and movement outside, to the criticisms and “praises” coming from the world, it will necessarily distort our understanding of what Pope Benedict has decided to do.

  14. Pingback: Pope Benedict XVI and Media Coverage

  15. While it’s obviously a precedent, [Except to the nitwits of the NYT and NSR.] I wouldn’t make too much of it. It doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of the papacy, as Eamon Duffy says, all respect to him. It doesn’t demystify the papacy.

    It would not surprise me at all if the next pope faced with this sort of situation chooses not to follow Benedict’s lead, and instead follows that of John Paul. In the sense of Blessed John Paul’s death agony being so public, that is a precedent too, and full of merit.

    To be plain, a lot of it depends on how confident a pope is that the necessary machinery of governing the Church can, and should, be run while he’s in decline. But almost everything can be handled by others.

  16. catholicmidwest says:

    The distinction between being ordained and holding an office is an interesting one. There are a variety of offices and a variety of types of ordinations though, which makes it kind of confusing. I believe bishops are ordained, on top of their priestly ordination, no?

    I know there is a different but similar amount of confusion around religious life, but that stems from the antiquity of the founding of the whole system, since it developed organically in stages. Perhaps this is similar.

  17. Stumbler but trying says:

    The secularists can think what they want. While it is still emotional for me to comprehend, I do so as best I can while praying and hoping and asking the Lord to grant us all a sense of what has taken place (his resignation) in the days and years to come. I will miss our beloved Holy Father and I am sure our Papa knew with a heavy heart, that what he was contemplating would cause alarm among the faithful but once again, this was no easy decision and he did not do it of his own accord. He shared with us all “that after examining his conscience before God, many times over, he had come to that certainty.” I trust him for such clarity.

    I cannot even begin to imagine that our Holy Father would see the Petrine Ministry as just a job. That is impossible, in my opinion. The weight and beauty of such a calling can only as we all know, come from Christ. Our Holy Father also clarified this:
    “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.”

    As I ponder this all over again and will continue to do so, so as to try to understand that were it just a job, he would have acted like that is what it was by his demeanor and or actions. But his love of Christ and of the Church and her people forbade him such…he has the heart of Christ and could not withhold that love from us all. He embraced it full on for as long as he could with trembling and fear and a great trust in God’s loving providence.

    I smile when I think that perhaps when he went to our Lady with his sufferings, she, with much affection, took him in her arms and consoled him by telling him, “now, my little son, be of steady heart for love of my Son and in humble service to his bride, the Church. For a little while longer, be courageous and trust that soon, very soon, your burden will be made light by the very same yoke with which you took upon your shoulders the day of your call to serve with an even greater trust and surrender.”

    Holy Mother Mary pray for us, your children, who have so many mixed emotions, who feel abandoned, who do not understand, who are hurt or angry. Pray for us to pray along with you and St. Joseph for the sanctification and protection of the Church throughout the world in this trying time.

  18. boxerpaws1952 says:

    The secularists will always have a say that lacks any understanding of the spiritual realm and the Catholic Church. They never understood the Petrine office to begin with and it’s highly unlikely they are going to have any real insights now. Whether or not the Pope resigned,abdicated,retired or passed away their role is to attack with the mistaken belief they will either destroy the Church or change it to their liking (the same thing).

    This is a difficult time in the Church but it is not the first nor will it be the last. It is a good time though for both deep prayer and reflection. In the end the Holy Spirit will have the final say. Pope Benedict said it will be for the good of the Church. Am still shocked and sad;not quite wanting to believe it actually happened but i have to think since he examined his conscience before God there is more here than meets the eye.
    I was thinking though. What if he had not abdicated and stayed until he passed away? The Church would still be electing a new pope. Finally,knowing the gravity of this decision I’m sure Pope Benedict had very good reason and we will realize the good reason (just as he did)in due time. I heard someone on EWTN today say that 2 abdications in a 600 yr period is quite the record. It’s not as if it’s likely to happen on a regular basis. Jesus gave Peter the keys and said Hell would not prevail;gave the power to bind and loose. So much for the secularist take on Pope Benedict’s decision.

  19. Catholicmidwest:

    Ordination pertains to who one is; office does not.

    My ordination as a deacon and as a priest changed me. We call that an “ontological” change, meaning at the level of being, which is the most fundamental level there is. The idea is that a bishop, being ordained, has the “completion” or fullness of a priestly configuration, again at the level of his very being. (I think there is some theological debate over this, but it is not a subject with which I am familiar, so I will move on.)

    To hold an office does not change ones being: vicar, pastor, chancery functionary, professor, monsignor, ordinary (as in the one governing a diocese), cardinal, curial official, pope. No matter how venerable the posting, and even if the office is routinely, and rightly, for life.

  20. jbosco88 says:

    The National Heretical is having a field day with all this – Benedict XVI is only staying in the Vatican because he will face trial for sex-abuse coverups; the Holy Father has realised tradition has had its day and is making way for someone much younger to implement the Spirit of Vatican Two.

    Yaddah Yaddah Yaddah. Unfortunately, their voice will be heard, not the voice of Truth. As is always the way.

  21. boxerpaws1952 says:

    post script; i agree. the next Pope may follow Blessed John Paul II’s lead and that is the MOST likely but since they are human beings we can’t say that with ABSOLUTE certainty.Since John Paul II’s papacy it has become a question of what if-and he answered it by staying until his last breathe. He examined his conscience and concluded that for the benefit of the Church he would stay until his last breathe. He felt strongly that a Pope should remain until death. Pope Benedict in several statements seemed to be saying that the Pope is free to make the decision,including resignation.Were that not true and the Popes felt compelled to do either-resign or remain even if incapacitated-then John Paul II might have been forced to step down or in this case forced to stay on.

  22. Magash says:

    I wonder if the Holy Father’s reason for abdication, that is his belief that the papacy at this time requires a man of physical, mental and spiritual strength, will cause the Cardinals to ponder on the merits of selecting one of the younger men rather than those who are near the age Benedict was when he was elected. It is in the hands of the Holy Spirit of course, but if the Spirit has led the Holy Father to believe that his age is a problem it seems possible that He will point that fact out to the Cardinal electors also.

  23. FidelisV says:

    interesting and comprehensive doc about canon law vs. Pope resignation

    SUMARIO: 1. Los precedentes históricos. 2. La posibilidad de la renuncia y sus causas. 3. El carácter
    constitutivo de la renuncia. 4. La libertad de la renuncia. 5. Manifestación de la renuncia. 6. Irrevocabilidad de la renuncia.

  24. WesleyD says:

    Prof. Basto, the history you cite here is clearly the key. Can you suggest some sources to consult regarding the fact that Gregory XII (Angelo Correr) had to be re-created a cardinal after his resignation, as opposed to Constance recognizing him as such?

    That does make more sense to me than the idea that the pope would automatically be a cardinal upon resignation, because that would require that today he is simultaneously both pope and cardinal — a very strange idea.

    My tentative prediction is that the Holy Father will issue a motu proprio in the next week or two clarifying these matters. The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter would be a nice date for this!

  25. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Yes, the key is here is office, and offices by their nature are resign-able. A Supreme Court Justice holds office for life, s/he can resign anytime. Reading Fr.Z, I think the Code should come up with a better word that “resign” for a pope. “Abdicate” works for me, etymologically and historically. “Renounce”? I dunno, I already renounced Satan, and all his evil works, and all his empty promises. Ya know?

  26. WesleyD says:

    Fr. Z wrote:

    The law does not allow the Pope to abdicate. The Pope himself is the lawgiver. The Pope allows himself to abdicate. The canon is for the sake of clarity about that fact.

    Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but I wonder if perhaps the pope is both the lawgiver and bound by the law. What I mean is this: The pope can freely alter canon law by manifesting his intention in the appropriate manner. But he cannot just ignore the law. For example, if two first cousins asked the pope to marry them, he could grant a dispensation from their impediment, but if he were to simply ignore the impediment and celebrate the marriage, the marriage would be invalid.

    It seems to me that this is why Celestine promulgated a law saying that the pope can abdicate, rather than simply abdicating. Am I off base here?

  27. poohbear says:

    The Holy Father continues to guide us in learning more about our wonderful Church. So many conversations that never would have been are going on, both among the faithful and non-believers. Many non-Catholics and fallen away Catholics I know are asking sincere questions about this. Thank you Fr Z for giving us the information we need to discuss this situation.

  28. While speculation about the conclave is worth less than spit, especially mine (my speculation I mean), I think many of the cardinals will want a strong administrator. I suspect many will also want him to be a good “face” to the world; the interesting question is, if push comes to shove, which of those characteristics will be more in demand?

    When Blessed John Paul died, I recall a fair amount of anxiety about whether the new pope would continue to be solid on doctrine; thankfully, after Benedict, I think there will few votes for anyone who isn’t.

    If the cardinals take a cue from Pope Benedict’s explanation of his decision to abdicate–that he lacks the needed strength–that may indeed point many toward a less aged pope. Perhaps they will look for someone no older than 70 or even 65; but too young and you face other problems: he’s too unknown or untested, and if you err, you have him for a long time!

    Also, if you want someone who can knock heads, he needs to be able to deal with the bureaucracy of the Curia effectively. It may be that bringing in someone who is too “outside” might not work? I don’t know the personalities involved, so I won’t suggest names; but those are the things that occur to me.

    Now I dread the disembodied Hand (of the all-seeing Eye!) that will add comments in red, signifying my observations have been “weighed and found wanting”! [Did someone call?]

  29. Papabile says:

    Alas… I cannot comment yet on our Holy Father’s abdication. I am still too emotional.

    Weirdly, I feel ok talking about the election though…. Father Fox…. Note that Benedict has created 66 of the 119 eligible Cardinals. Between Benedict and John Paul II, enough change has been made to ensure we’ll be OK.

  30. The Pope’s jurisdiction is supreme, but I take it that it is not so supreme that he could make a law prohibiting future popes from abdicating. Because then their jurisdiction would be less than supreme.

  31. catholicmidwest says:

    Fr. Fox,

    About the difference between an office and an ordination, I agree and understand your point.

    I was making a comment about the antiquity of the structure of the Church, which makes these things somewhat more difficult for post-modern people to understand, since the structure does not use the categories we are accustomed to thinking about in business and society. Much of the structure of both Holy Orders and consecrated religious life predates all of our contemporary secular categories of doing and being. The variety and organic development of consecrated religious life illustrates this property very well, and I was using it to make a point.

    There is one other point of difficulty associated with the office vs. ordination idea. Many people think of an office as a job or a position, in a secular sense. That’s not what an office, such as pope, is in the Church either. We don’t just hire someone to fill a chair, etc. We don’t even “just elect” new popes when the old ones are gone, the insouciant quips of Italians notwithstanding. The Holy Spirit has something to do with it, even in the case that we don’t listen very well. The Holy Spirit is always there and always guiding these things towards the future he has for us, with infinite patience and providence.

  32. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I would echo and expand upon WesleyD request in asking Prof. Basto – and/or anyone else – to “suggest some sources to consult” (preferably online) – also about the course of the Council of Constance generally.

    Prof. Basto speaks of ” the deposed John XXIII (antipope, who the majority of the people at the council at the time treated as a former pope deposed by the assembly)”. But was it not (anti-)Pope John (Dr. Cossa) who on 1 November 1414 opened the Council – or what its constituents thought was a Council – which later deposed – or thought it was deposing – him on 29 May 1415? Did a non-Council which thought it was a Council in fact depose a non-Pope which it thought was a Pope? Did it realize it only really became a Council subsequently? I have seen Gregory XII action expressed in terms of making it into the Sixteen Ecumenical Council in order to give it the right to elect a pope. Prof. Basto speaks of “the Council of Constance […] allow[ing] the start of the conclave”. Was there, in the strict sense instituted by Gregory X in 1274 (and restored by St. Celestine V, in 1294) a conclave – somehow within the Council? A complicated business!

  33. catholicmidwest says:

    Venerator, I like your post. The history of the Catholic Church is more interesting and more intricate than many people realize. We have been called back from the abyss a great many times, by the grace of God. People now seem to think it should run like General Motors.

  34. VLL says:

    LOL. Even General Motors doesn’t run like General Motors. I lived in the motor city and got to see all kinds of stuff first hand. Toyota runs more like GM than GM these days.

    What I find funny is that the history points to the fact that this situation is not as dire or unprecedented as we think. It reminds me of a Chesterton quote: “The questions have been discussed and settled so long ago that people have forgotten that they ever took place.”

    Granted, for us, the current situation is not settled. Also, if I remember correctly, the Church uses norms, not forms, therefore they can do something different if it’s appropriate. What truly frightens us is that we worry that the secular prophets — or our deepest fears– are true, and that we will find ourselves having to accept a direction that is contrary to our notion of the Church. The faithful have been so buffeted by so many changes recently, it’s hard not to respond in a form of shell-shock.

    I think the constancy of our own traditions (as perceived in the past) gives us the sense that the church should run like a river through a perpetually calm atmosphere. Yes, we have the River of Tradition guiding the boat, but the winds are courtesy of the Spirit of the Age– and only a firm hand on the tiller will keep us true.

    God grant us another sure and steady hand, leading us perpetually to Christ! I seem to remember promises made along those lines… made by God himself. We may hope it continues, with lots of prayer and penance for our past folly and distrust.

  35. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Thanks! I have just read Hella Haasse’s historical novel (how much of which is history and how much imagination I do not know) The Scarlet City (1952), which includes a vivid, terrible impression of the sack of Rome of 6 May 1527.

    How much there is to learn of the interesting and intricate – with a lot of abyss -and how little I know of where best to go reliably to learn more, so much of the time!

  36. WesleyD says:

    Venerator Sti Lot:

    John XXIII (and Emperor Sigismund) called the Council of Constance initially, and it gathered on 5 November 1414. The pope in Rome, Gregory XII, did not initially recognize the council. But finally, for the good of the Church, he agreed with its aim of removing all three claimants and electing a new pope. Believing that the council was not yet valid, he made an agreement with them: he would abdicate, if they allowed him to formally convoke the council first, and formally endorse its authority to elect his successor. They agreed, and on 4 July 1415 (session 14 of the council) he formally convoked the council and abdicated the papacy.

    Therefore, for those who hold Gregory XII to have been the legitimate pope at the time (a view shared today by almost all — but not all! — orthodox Catholics), the decrees passed in sessions 1 to 13 of Constance (including the conciliarist statement Haec sancta) are not valid conciliar documents, because the council at that point had not been convoked by a true pope.

    After his abdication, some theologians believe the council’s authority was limited to electing a new pope, while others argue that its decrees could be valid with subsequent papal approbation. The new pope, Martin V, was elected on 11 November 1417. He then formally approved most of the council’s documents (but explicitly rejected Haec sancta.) It’s still debated whether these decrees actually have conciliar authority, but if they don’t, they presumably possess at least some level of papal authority.

  37. WesleyD says:

    But in response to your other question: Most of the bishops at the council were conciliarists and they considered the council valid throughout, and they actually believed that they could “depose” a pope. The conciliarist heresy was not yet formally condemned, although the best theologians rejected it even in this era. But, in order to keep unity, they allowed Gregory XII to convoke the council — which assured that the election of Martin V would be valid in the eyes of conciliarists and in the eyes of those who (correctly) believed in papal supremacy. Quite clever!

  38. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Thank you for all the clear detail! Any recomendations for further reading (on- or offline)?

  39. BLB Oregon says:

    I was astonished by the Pope’s announcement, but I was not upset by it. I think that was primarily because there is no one on the planet whom I trust more to play “according to Hoyle” in both the spirit and the letter of what law and virtue demands than Pope Benedict XVI. There is no one I trust more profoundly to do not what he is personally inclined to do, but what he believes to be according to God’s will for the Church. Neither have I any sense that the gift of his intellect is dimmed in the slightest. Therefore, while I was eager to have an explanation, I had no doubt at all that the explanation would not be lacking even in the smallest detail.

  40. WesleyD says:

    Also, for the council documents themselves (including a chronology), the two-volume Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, edited by Alberigo and Tanner, is essential. Alberigo’s ecclesiology has some problems, but his historical introductions are pretty good, and the documents themselves are of course from the magisterium, not from Alberigo!

Comments are closed.