A Brief History
On December 24, 1294, Pope Boniface VIII (born Benedetto Caetani) was elected Pope of the Roman Catholic Church to replace the previous Pope, St. Celestine V, who had resigned to return to his humble, monastic pre-papal life. Fearing Celestine becoming an Anti-pope (pretender to the papacy), Boniface jailed Celestine, his predecessor (not the first Pope to ever resign the office, despite legend that he was). Celestine spent the rest of his life imprisoned.
Celestine, born Pietro Angelerio in 1215 in Sicily, had become a Benedictine monk at the age of 17. He led an austere and humble life, preferring solitude. During a papal crisis in 1292 that stretched to 1294, the College of Cardinals was unable to agree upon a new Pope after the death of Pope Nicholas IV. Celestine was finally selected as a compromise choice in July of 1294. After only 5 months in office, Celestine declared an edict stating the right of a reigning Pope to resign his office, after consulting with Cardinal Caetani, his eventual successor. Shortly after taking office, the new Pope Boniface VIII, nee Fr. Caetani, decided to eliminate the chance of Celestine or others reinstating Celestine as Pope with the expedient of imprisoning the former Pope. Celestine had attempted to quietly retire in seclusion, but when Boniface came calling Celestine learned of the plan to imprison him and tried to flee.
Boniface had Celestine kept in a castle in Southern Italy near Campagna, and denied his free choice to return to life as a monastic hermit, Celestine died only 10 months later at the age of 81. Although Celestine’s edict that allowed a Pope to resign remained in effect, no other Pope would voluntarily resign until Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, over 700 years later. (Pope Gregory XII was forced to resign in 1415 to resolve the Western Schism in the Church.) Apparently, the 4 Popes that resigned prior to Celestine V had done so under duress, due to criminal charges and court intrigue that plagued the papacy and Church in the first millennium or so of its existence. Some had admitted buying the papacy through bribery! Celestine was likely the first Pope to resign for personal reasons and not under pressure to do so.
In 2013 when Pope Benedict XVI resigned, the reason given was ill health resulting in a lack of strength and energy, and yet over 4 years later Benedict, Pope Emeritus if you will, is still alive and makes occasional appearances, usually alongside Pope Francis. He is now 90 years old, and thus was 85 when he resigned, so his plea of lack of strength and energy seems plausible, despite constant speculation about why he “really” resigned abruptly.
The corruption, bribery, fraud, intrigue and plotting, sex scandals and even murder that have tarnished the papacy through the ages have undermined support of the Catholic Church and created distrust against the Church by non-Catholic Christians. At least the biggest Church scandals of recent decades (child sex abuse and monetary shenanigans) have not reached all the way to the Pope, at least as far as we know.
If any of this information is new to you, we recommend you follow up this article with some other reading on the subject of the papacy. (See below.) The history of the men that walk in the shoes of St. Peter is colorful and fascinating to say the least, amazing and entertaining to say a bit more.
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For more information, please see…
Norwich, John Julius. Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012.