Julian Schvindlerman

Francis, Under the Shadow of Papal Resignations

(Source: Times of Israel. Credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images via JTA)

To understand the climate of intrigue surrounding the Tenth anniversary of Francis’ pontificate, it is necessary to go back a few centuries in the history of the Catholic Church. Specifically, to a 13th century dramatic papal resignation.

Pietro Angeleri di Murrone was born in Isernia in 1215. His biography, taken from Catholic portals, recounts that he was possessed by a strong ascetic impulse. At the age of 24 he isolated himself in a cave located on Mount Murrone, where he lived for five years. He left that extreme isolation only to join two companions in another voluntary seclusion in a new cave on the Maiella mountain in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. There he founded the order of the Celestines. In July 1294, three eminent dignitaries, accompanied by a host of monks and laymen, went to the mountains to find him and informed him that he had been proclaimed Pope by unanimous vote. It was a troubled context: the Throne of Peter had been vacant for 27 months, due to the political confrontation between the Colonna and Orsini families, with implications within the college of cardinals. The new Pope adopted the name of Celestine V.

Barely five months later, he resigned from the Petrine ministry to return to his life as a hermit. He mentioned “the malice of people” among the causes that pushed him to make that decision. According to Vatican News, Celestine V “matures the decision to resign from the Pontificate, also supported by the opinion of Cardinal Benedicto Caetani, an expert in canon law.” Adds James F. Loughlin, in an article in the Online Catholic Encyclopedia, that the idea of the abdication was originated by Caetani himself, although he would later deny it. As a jurist respected for his knowledge of canon law, he “seeks the legal arguments for the resignation.” In Liber Sextus I, VII, 1 Caetani decrees (fragment): “It is up to the Roman Pontiff to renounce the papacy with honor, especially when he acknowledges himself incapable of governing the Universal Catholic Church and considering the burden that this entails for the Supreme Pontiff.”

In a column published in National Geographic, Abel G.M., a journalist specializing in history and paleontology, specifies the role played by the unscrupulous Cardinal Caetani: “Rumors spread in the Vatican that, at night, Pope Celestine heard the voice of an angel asking him to abdicate, whereas in reality, it was Caetani himself speaking through a hole in the wall.” (In an academic paper published in Kyklos, professors Fabio Padovano and Ronald Wintrobe present the same version, with the difference that Caetani was hiding behind the curtains of the papal room.) Persistence paid off; the horrified pontiff finally abdicated. Ten days later, in just 24 hours, Cardinal Caetani was elected as the new Pope and called himself Boniface VIII. Soon enough, he had Celestine V imprisoned in the tower of the Fumone castle, in Ferentino. There he died after ten months of confinement, this time a forced one, on May 19, 1296.

Seven centuries and two more Papal resignations later, Benedict XVI´s turn will arrive. He abdicated in February 2013. Four years earlier, in 2009, he had visited the tomb of Celestine V, in the Basilica of Collemaggio, where he prostrated himself and prayed, a gesture that was interpreted by many vaticanists as a prelude to a possible future departure. Therefore, when the successor of the German pontiff, the Argentinean Francis, traveled to L’Aquila in August 2022 to pray in private at the tomb of Celestine V, whom he also publicly praised for his humility and for his “courageous testimony of the Gospel,” all the alarms went off in the Vatican environment.

Francis, who is 86 years old and uses a wheelchair, had been giving signs of a possible abdication for some time. In 2014, he told journalists that if his state of health limited his pontifical functions, he would not hesitate to leave the throne. In addition, he described Benedict XVI as “an institution that opened a door, the door of emeritus popes.” But it was last year when a succession of statements and deeds increased speculation. In May 2022, the Italian press reported that during a closed-door meeting with bishops, Francis joked: “Before having a surgery, I´d rather resign.” After a trip to Canada in July, the Pope stated: “I think that at my age and with this limitation, I must save myself a little to be able to serve the Church. Or, alternatively, think about the possibility of stepping back.” He also declared: “Honesty, it is not a catastrophe, it is possible to change popes.”

He even imagined his retirement, saying during an interview with the Mexican television channel Televisa Univisión last July that if he resigned, he would not remain in Vatican City or return to his native Argentina, but would move to the Lateran palace and continue to confess and visit the sick. In an interview that same month with Reuters he was ambivalent when asked about it -“God will tell”- but he welcomed his predecessor’s decision: “He told the popes to stop in time. Benedict is a great man.” Last December, he announced that he had already written a letter of resignation in case of physical disability. “I have already signed my resignation,” he said during an interview with the Spanish newspaper ABC and recalled that other 20th-century pontiffs had also done so. When, in August, he summoned all the cardinals of the world to Rome to increase the number of voters for the next conclave, the specialists saw a new warning.

The abdication of Benedict XVI legitimized papal resignations in the 21st century. But it was his death on the last day of 2022 that paved the way for Francis to eventually depart as well. A new papal resignation with Ratzinger alive would have been strange. For as The Economist observed, “if having two living popes was considered unfortunate, three would have been unthinkable.” Thus, the rumors of a new papal resignation were strengthened. Francis sought to put a stop to these chatter last month during conversations with Congolese Jesuits in Sudan: “I believe that the ministry of the Pope is ad vitam […] Think that the ministry of the great patriarchs is always for life. And historical tradition is important,” he said. His words were published in the semi-official Vatican newspaper La Civilta Cattolica.

Thus, Francis arrives at his Tenth anniversary as Pope surrounded by rumors and much speculation about his potential resignation; a conjecture largely encouraged by himself. “The door is open,” he once said, “but so far I have not knocked on this door.” Will he do it in the future? Time will tell.

About the Author
Julian Schvindlerman is an Argentine writer and journalist specializing in Middle East affairs. He lectures on World Politics at the University of Palermo (in Buenos Aires) and is a regular contributor to Infobae and Perfil. He is the editor of Coloquio, the flagship publication of the Latin American Jewish Congress. He is the author of Escape to Utopia: Mao's Red Book and Gaddafi's Green Book; The Hidden Letter: A History of an Arab-Jewish Family; Triangle of Infamy: Richard Wagner, the Nazis and Israel; Rome and Jerusalem: Vatican policy toward the Jewish state; and Land for Peace, Land for War.