June 15, 2009
vol 20, no. 166

The Precedents

    Many say a pope cannot resign, that he is elected for life. That is one of the arguments that many launch in trying to negate the possibility that there can be a vacancy on the throne of Peter whether the duration is nine days, four years, or 50 years, or even more. Of course, throughout the history of the Church such a vacancy exists everytime a Pope dies and this is precedence set by holy Mother Church and is called by Her, sede vacante. During these times between the elections of a true successor to replace a true predecessor, there is no living true Pope to act as the Authority reserved for the Office of the Primacy of Peter. During such time Ecclesia supplicet. That is the Church supplies in continuing to administer the holy sacraments and carrying on in the same manner done as when there was a true visible Pope on the Throne of Peter. Setting aside all bizarre precedents that can create chaos, there is an accurate and very viable precedence that has been established more than several times when Roman Pontiffs have resigned. The True Church survived and flourished during such time and even during the times of antipopes as well.

      "Over the history of the Church, there have been quite a number of squirrelly things that have occurred with Her Popes, as to their legitimacy, their rule, their loss of rule, and so forth. The relative order and stability enjoyed, say, from 1450 to 1950, is actually not representative of the most common situation of the Church. History is full of all sorts of more complicated events. You have prolonged papal vacancies, numerous antipopes (beyond the mere "41" commonly listed, though the other contenders are comparatively "small potatoes"), 13 or 15 papal resignations, 8 popes elected by a single layman (before there were Cardinals), popes who had also been themselves antipopes, popes who were never in Rome, or who left Rome, popes who were unspeakably corrupt and scandalous, popes who were captured and held prisoner, and even popes who delayed their consecration to the episcopacy until long after their election, or even until very shortly before their own death, and so forth."

    In Part One of this short series on the Anatomy of a Papal Resignation, titled The Procedure, I wrote of the possibility of investigating the resignation of a lawfully and validly elected pope. I have long meant to follow that up with an analysis of how a Pope can resign. So this is, in effect, the sequel of that essay of mine first run three years ago and repeated last week. As was pointed out before, a pope, once validly elected, can lose his papacy through only two basic means, namely his death and his resignation.

    There is of course one other category that seems to kind of fall in between these two categories, so I will deal with it here briefly, and that is the case of a pope who loses his mind, either through patent insanity, dementia, or unconsciousness (e. g. falling into a coma from which it is medically established that he will not recover). In this case, though the man is still alive and is therefore owed every reasonable medical means of keeping him alive (for example , if he were something akin to Terri Schiavo during the time that she was in the news), but if, to the best of medical knowledge, there is no expectation of recovery, "the pope" is effectively dead, and may, at the discretion of the Camerlingo or Cardinalate (this gets into canonical details that may well already exist but with which I am not familiar) to rule that it would be valid to elect a new pope. The point here is that loss of papacy due to simple medical loss of mind comes really under the heading of loss of the papacy by "death" rather than by "resignation" though the man may still be physically alive.

    Of course, I doubt there exists any clear and set procedure to follow should such an ex-pope subsequently and against all medical expectations recuperate, though I suppose one point of reference for such a case would be the man's own decision once his mind should return. If he accepts that the Church has elected another man during his convalescence and accepts that man's actions performed, then this would move to the category of resignation, about which the following would then apply. But in the event he decides to assert his continued papacy, even here he might still have a choice either to annul or to ratify the acts of the man elected to run the Church during his convalescence. If, say for political reasons, or if some doubt remains over the man's return to his senses and he does not resign, this could still get ugly I doubt there is any clear procedure to follow, however.

    All of this is the sort of thing that needs to be carefully thought out and rulings prepared (once better times return), in case such a scenario actually plays out sometime in the Church's future. That is not our present situation, and it is obviously too late to prepare such procedures in determining a papal resignation via any "standard rules" as none presently exist. For now, I must content myself with making a cursory study of all the different possible ways and means by which popes have resigned in history (whether it was specifically recognized as a resignation or not), followed by my explanation as to how and when exactly Paul VI resigned, and why his successors were never popes, and would not have been even had they been thoroughly orthodox Catholics.

    The current sede vacante situation with the Church forces us to consider either an invalid election, or else a subsequent loss of the papacy to one validly elected, and of course, the question of which of these would apply to which claimants. If it were possible for a pope to teach heresy and thereby lose the papacy, that would also be a resignation. But can the papacy be lost that way? Is it canonically possible? Is it doctrinally possible? For it seems to me that if this were possible, then papal infallibility would be a mere tautology. The Pope is right when he happens to be right, and when he is wrong he is therefore automatically no pope, so strip him of the office and of all honors! If that were all that papal infallibility means, then there would not have to be a "doctrine" about it at all.

    Along this line, there are those who posit that infallibility only protects a pope from any unintentional "material" error. By this rationale, a pope who formally decides to teach an error or heresy simply refuses interiorly to invoke his papal prerogative of infallibility, and if he is careful and subtle in the nature of the error or heresy he chooses to teach, no one need be any the wiser. He just secretly teaches his heresy and only centuries later, if at all, does the Church discover the nature of the error, and therefore of the "pope" who promulgated it

    See what a dangerous precedent that sets. A small group of laymen, or a single priest and his congregation, or even some few bishops one day decide that they don't agree with the pope. So they posit that the pope has erred and lost his office (by virtue of the "error" itself). Then they organize some "data" to show that the pope is wrong and thereby on their own authority depose the pope. And if one contends that the "data" cannot possibly support an invalid claim of this sort, just recall the case of Fr. Leonard Feeney and his "congregation," the St. Benedict's Center in Boston. It took 60 years for the full nature what he and his group had foisted upon an unsuspecting Church to be exposed for the outright scholastic fraud that it was. And in the meantime, it all seemed to be "data" proving the Holy Office under Pope Pius XII to be "heretical."

    Such a precedent is sheer chaos, and itself no less disorderly than a heretical "pope" being universally accepted by the Church (though no more disorderly either). That is one reason why such an observation must have no standing before the Church, even if correct. It is merely a private observation made by individuals to protect themselves from error. Without some other more objective "resignation" to point to it cannot go any further. This article is all about where and how to go further.

    Over the history of the Church, there have been quite a number of squirrelly things that have occurred with Her Popes, as to their legitimacy, their rule, their loss of rule, and so forth. The relative order and stability enjoyed, say, from 1450 to 1950, is actually not representative of the most common situation of the Church. History is full of all sorts of more complicated events. You have prolonged papal vacancies, numerous antipopes (beyond the mere "41" commonly listed, though the other contenders are comparatively "small potatoes"), 13 or 15 papal resignations, 8 popes elected by a single layman (before there were Cardinals), popes who had also been themselves antipopes, popes who were never in Rome, or who left Rome, popes who were unspeakably corrupt and scandalous, popes who were captured and held prisoner, and even popes who delayed their consecration to the episcopacy until long after their election, or even until very shortly before their own death, and so forth.

Pope St. MarcellinusPope St. Marcellus IPope Clement IV    For example, even the famous papal vacancy of thirty-three months between Popes Clement IV and Blessed Gregory X is not the longest papal vacancy in history. That distinction belongs to the vacancy between Popes St. Marcellinus and St. Marcellus I which extended from 304 to 308, during the height of the original Roman persecution of the Church, a full four years! The first thousand years of Church history records 2 vacancies of more than twelve months, 6 vacancies of between six and twelve months, and 11 vacancies between three and six months. At the opposite extreme, several popes appear to have been elected on the day of the death of the preceding pope!

   Pope St. EugeniusPope St. Martin There are several ways to discern from history a papal resignation, even where no one seems to have thought of it as a resignation at the time. For example, Pope St. Martin I is known to have recognized Pope St. Eugenius to be his papal successor, and in that I believe I detect a resignation on the part of Pope St. Martin.

    There are also some who have been listed as antipopes, but who may have been true popes even so, owing to the resignation (perhaps not actually recognized as such at the time, but it was) of the lawful pope through flight. If a pope leaves Rome, and does not take his papal court with him and does not attempt to rule the Church, there is considerable room to believe that he has resigned, under a basic canonical principle that forms the basis of Canon 188 subsection 8 in the 1917 Code. The popes who left Rome for Avignon took their papal court with them and continued to rule the Church, and so though they took flight from Rome, they obviously nevertheless continued as valid popes.

Pope Leo VIIPope Stephen VIIIPope Marinus IIPope Leo VIIIPope John XIIPope Agapitus II     Let's look at an interesting example of this situation. In 955, Octavian was elected Pope at the direction of his father Alberic (a layman who alone elected the four preceding popes, Popes Leo VII, Stephen VIII, Marinus II, and Agapetus II), taking the name of John XII. So far, so good, since he was promptly accepted by the Church then and now. But then John XII was driven out of Rome and Pope Leo VIII elected in his place in December 963. At the time, and for long afterwards, Leo VIII was accepted by the whole Church despite John XII still being alive.

    But John XII did merely flee Rome, not attempting to rule the Church, nor taking any of his papal court with him, so there is some valid basis for regarding him as having resigned, such that Leo really was pope. Modern convention seems to be to regard Leo as having been (at least while John XII was alive) only an antipope, but this is a comparatively late interpretation of events.

    In January 964, Leo was driven out of Rome and John XII was reelected. By this same standard of applying "resignation by flight" as well as by the modern conventions, John would be pope either way and the only question remaining would be whether his reelection was necessary. In May 964 John XII died and Pope Benedict V was elected to succeed him. Leo was still alive, but did not count since either he had resigned by flight, or else had only been an antipope.

Pope Benedict VPope John XIII    In June 964 (after only a one month reign) Benedict V was banished from Rome and Leo VIII again elected as pope, and serving as pope until his own death in 965. Upon his death, Pope John XIII was elected and ruled as pope until his own death in 972. Benedict V however meanwhile had passed on in 966. Now, there is no more historic evidence from the period regarding a resignation on the part of Benedict V than there is on the parts of John XII and Leo VIII in 963 and 964, and yet Leo whose entire final reign occurred within what putatively would have to be Benedict V's reign (had he not resigned), and John XIII whose election occurred while Benedict V was still alive are now recognized as having been popes.

    Clearly, whether one goes by the contemporary interpretation (in which Leo was first antipope and then later pope) or the interpretation proposed here, and seemingly was assumed at the time (in which Leo was pope, resigned, then was elected pope again), the fact one is constrained to admit is that Benedict V had to have resigned by flight. So you have here alone at least one, and in my opinion, three papal resignations right in this one brief period. That really is the cleanest and most elegant way to explain that period of time, canonically.

    There are a small number of such instances in which a pope is forcibly "deposed" or "run out of Rome" and the Church accepts another elected pope, though in most cases the newly elected is rejected as an antipope. But in some cases he is accepted as pope. One can only explain this as being a question of whether the former pope, on being "deposed" or "run out of Rome" simply went and hid and accepted his lot as ex-pope, versus if he attempted to continue to rule the Church from exile or to begin immediately to try to retake Rome (whether successfully or not). In any such case wherein the pope simply fled and accepted his lot I consider that to have been a "resignation by flight."

Pope Liberius    One other interesting time was that of Felix II. Now Felix II is often listed as an antipope since his reign occurred entirely within Pope Liberius' reign, from 355 to 365 (Liberius reigned from 352 to 366). And yet the next pope to take the name of Felix numbered himself the third, implying that either the Church back then took Felix II to have been a pope, or else that the Church's custom of ignoring antipopes in the numeric counts of a name were not yet in place.

    The common opinion in recent centuries has been the latter, with the understanding that a martyr named Felix from that time, originally thought to have been Felix II, was somebody else and Felix II may not have been a martyr at all, but that so long as the Church regarded Felix II to have been this holy martyr then perhaps She would honor that martyr by numbering the next Pope Felix to be the Third. Of course, a holy martyrdom does not a pope make, and it is irrelevant whether or not the martyr Felix was the same man as Felix II. But at any rate, the conventional interpretation is that Felix II was simply an antipope.

    But let me venture an alternate interpretation of events and let's see how this plays out. Pope Liberius is taken away and locked in a tower at the command of a hostile emperor. Perhaps for a time he may wish to continue to rule the Church as pope, but being held incommunicado he cannot. The papal electors for their part, seeing that the pope is put away and not likely to be released anytime soon elect another, Felix II, with the understanding that he will stay out of the "Arian versus Trinitarian" question for which Liberius was confined and suffered, and merely keep all other aspects of Church administration going.

    So now, Felix runs all other aspects of the Church, appointing bishops, making necessary decrees and so forth, serving as pope for ceremonial occasions and so forth, merely avoiding the particular issue as agreed upon, and the Church at the time universally recognizes him as pope. Now, Liberius finally gets released and Felix steps aside, and the Church universally accepts Liberius back into the Papal chair. Now it comes down to this: When Pope Liberius returned, did he nullify the acts of Felix, or did he let them stand? (Or alternatively, did he let some of them stand while nullifying others?) If Liberius allowed any acts of Felix to stand then that would have been an acceptance on his part of Felix to have served as pope, and his return (and universal acceptance) a kind of reelection (by acclamation). In that case, Felix II would properly be counted as one of the popes, and not an antipope (or at least not ONLY an antipope).

St. Athanasius    Given this scenario, imagine now one other thing, that for which Pope Liberius is most famous today, namely his supposed excommunication of Saint Athanasius and promulgation of a creed open to Arian interpretation. We say "supposed" because we don't know if he was forced, tricked, or even if his signature on the "creed" and the decree of excommunication might even have been forged, since it all happened within the secrecy of the prison tower where no one but those who were immediately present would know for sure the actual sequence of events that led to this.

    However, unless his signature was outright forged, him promulgating such a "creed" or excommunicating Athanasius was so decidedly outside what was considered possible for a pope could be explained in that he (and the whole Church) had allowed Felix to be the pope, so technically he really wasn't even pope when he did it.

    Surely, if a pope accepts the actions of a successor ruling as pope, that in itself evidences a resignation on his part, as Pope Martin I recognized Eugenius his papal successor as pope. I consider this "resignation by recognition of the acts of a papal successor."

Pope St. Celestine IPope St. Celestine VPope St. PontianusPope St. Antherus    And then of course you have your simple and obvious resignation of which that of Pope Celestine V is the most famous. However, there are others. The first such was Pope Pontian who resigned in the year 235, succeeded by Pope St. Antherus. Another was Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in an attempt to set an example (taking the moral high road) for the papal claimants of Avignon and Pisa to follow, but which they did not and therefore had to be forcibly deposed. After some discussion a new pope was elected and took the name of Pope Martin V.

    What all that goes to show is that there are far more ways for a Pope to resign than merely an official and direct and simple resignation. So history itself demonstrates a number of ways that a pope can resign, just as quite a number indeed have done. Let us enumerate the historical papal resignations here:

    Pope:          Resigned for/to:   Resigned by:
    Pope Gregory XII Pontian              Antherus               Direct Resignation: "I quit"
    Martin I              Eugene I                Recognition of Papal Acts of Successor
    John X               Leo VI                    Flight from Rome after being Deposed
    John XII              Leo VIII                  Flight from Rome after being Deposed
    Leo VIII              John XII                  Flight from Rome after being Deposed
    Benedict V         Leo VIII                  Flight from Rome after being Deposed
    Benedict IX        Sylvester III            Flight from Rome after being Deposed
    Sylvester III        Benedict IX            Flight from Rome after being Deposed
    Benedict IX        Gregory VI             Direct Resignation: "I quit"
    Pope Martin V Benedict IX        Damasas II             Flight from Rome after being Deposed
    Benedict X         Nicholus II              Flight from Rome after being Deposed
    Gregory XII        Martin V                 Direct Resignation: "I quit"
    Celestine V        Boniface VIII          Direct Resignation: "I quit"
Furthermore, if history bears out that Pope Liberius ever accepted any acts of Felix II, then the following must also be added to this list:
    Liberius              Felix II                   Recognition of Papal Acts of Successor
    Felix II                 Liberius                Flight from Rome after being Deposed
Now let us turn our attention to what Canon Law has to say about resignations.

    Canon 183 (of the 1917 Code of Canon Law - all references to canons of the Code of Canon Law herein are taken from the 1917 Code unless otherwise specified) states that "Ecclesiastical office is lost by resignation, privation, removal, transfer, or lapse of a predetermined time." Of course such an office is also lost by death, but perhaps that was so obvious as to be unworthy of mention in the Canon itself. Now in the case of the papacy, "privation" and "removal" (apart from maybe the possibility of a "self-removal" - and wouldn't that simply be another way of saying "resignation"?) do not apply since they refer to acts made upon the ecclesiastical officer by some Superior, or by some superior Tribunal duly authorized to perform such a function. The Pope, by the very definition of the office, cannot be subject to any such "Superior" and furthermore neither can there be any Tribunal to which he would be lawfully subjected to.

    This leaves from Canon 183 "resignation," "transfer," and "lapse of a predetermined time" (and of course, "death"). Let us look briefly at "lapse of a predetermined time." Canon 175 states that when a person is elected to an office, he has eight "useful" days to express his acceptance of the office, or else the election is null. Pope St. Pius X However, though that seems to apply to just about "any" ecclesiastical office (and therefore can be taken as a kind of "canonical norm" to fall back upon in the case that no other such acceptance period is specified) it is important to point out that Canon 160 states that the election of a Supreme Pontiff is to be guided solely by a constitution. That of 1904, namely Vacante Sede Apostolica by His Holiness Pope St. Pius X, is mentioned in the Code as originally published; other documents of similar and equivalent import have preceded and followed it. If this document (or whichever is in effect at a given time) states some other "predetermined time," or else specifically states that there is no such time limit for he that is elected to accept or refuse the election, then of course the "eight useful days" would not apply here. If however it doesn't specify such a time period, then the "8 useful days" would apply, especially if said document included any standard boilerplate clauses such as "except as specified within this document, regular canonical norms apply."

    It would however raise one somewhat interesting question in the case of a materially elected pope who never formally accepts his office. If, for example, John XXIII or Paul VI never formally accepted their elections to the papacy (something I consider highly probable), would they not have lost whatever status such an election confers upon them after eight days, or whatever arbitrary period may have been specified in the constitution regarding the election of the Supreme Pontiff? Much as I regard the Formaliter/Materialiter position of being quite possibly of merit, at least in the case of those two, this does raise yet another hurdle that must be addressed. For unless the "cardinals" be appointed within the eight-day (or whatever) period, even those would be of no effect.

    Next week, I will complete this three-part treatise on the Anatomy of a Papal Resignation by applying it to the present situation and, once again, pinpoint exactly where such, were they ever valid, would not be valid nor have any authority whatsoever as Canon Law and the Church have already pronounced for, indeed, the perennial Magisterium of the Church has set the precedence that supports the claim that we remain at this time in a state of sede vacante per the Church. I will document this with one Paul VI and the course he took into a new ecclesial organization of his creation and with that, into a new religion, one that was no longer Catholic.

Griff L. Ruby

Griff's book is available from Books for $26.95 or can be read on-line at We at The Daily Catholic strongly urge you to share it with all you can for that could be the gentle shove that moves your friends back to where the True Faith resides forever, rooted in the Truths and Traditions of Holy Mother Church as Christ intended and promised.

Griff Ruby's STRAIGHT STUFF Monday, June 15, 2009, Volume 20, no. 166