It’s remarkable, of course, completely unexpected and one has to look into the distant past for historical precedent. Though as George Weigel points out, we might have seen it coming:
Pope Benedict XVI has said on numerous public occasions including his most recent interview book that were he to come to the judgment that he did not have the physical stamina left to give the church the leadership it deserved, that he would abdicate.
Although many cite 1415 and Gregory XII as the most recent example. His resignation was forced by the Council of Constance in an attempt to overcome the Great Schism that had given rise to first two, then three, claimants to the office.
Celestine V was 79 years old when he was elected pope in the midst of a bitter conclave and deep divisions within the church. A hermit famous for his ascetical life, he was ill-suited to the office and stepped down after five months. He was succeeded by Boniface VIII who eventually imprisoned him. Celestine died after 10 months in prison.
Celestine became a figure of fascination in religion and popular culture. In a time of deep divisions within Christianity and among the European monarchies, his abdication and death became a matter of speculation. Did Boniface have him killed? Franciscans who had resisted that order’s accommodation with papal authority and church hierarchy saw in him a kindred spirit and some “spirituals” as they were called, regarded him the “Angelic Pope.” There were those who regarded his papacy as the last chance that institution had to be a spiritual, rather than a political and economic power.
Many see in lines in Dante’s Inferno III, 59-60, a reference to Celestine’s abdication, which Dante may have regarded as cowardice. Of course, while traveling through hell, Dante encounters a place already prepared for Boniface VIII, who was still alive.
Boniface was embroiled in conflict with King Philip IV of France that ended with his humiliation, a beating, and finally death.
When we contemplate the conflict within Christianity in the twenty-first century, it’s useful to remember that it’s hardly a new phenomenon.