Papal renunciation

A papal renunciation (Latin: renuntiatio) occurs when the reigning pope of the Catholic Church voluntarily steps down from his position. As the reign of the pope has conventionally been from election until death, papal renunciation is an uncommon event. Before the 21st century, only five popes unambiguously resigned with historical certainty, all between the 10th and 15th centuries. Additionally, there are disputed claims of four popes having resigned, dating from the 3rd to the 11th centuries; a fifth disputed case may have involved an antipope.

Additionally, a few popes during the saeculum obscurum were "deposed", meaning driven from office by force. The history and canonical question here is complicated; generally, the official Vatican list of popes seems to recognize such "depositions" as valid renunciations if the pope acquiesced, but not if he did not. The later development of canon law has been in favor of papal supremacy, leaving no recourse to the removal of a pope involuntarily.[1]

The most recent pope to resign was Benedict XVI, who vacated the Holy See on 28 February 2013 at 19:00 UTC. He was the first pope to do so since Gregory XII in 1415.

Despite its common usage in discussion of papal renunciations,[2] the term abdication is not used in the official documents of the church for renunciation by a pope.


In the Catholic Church, in the Latin Rite, the official laws on all matters are codified in the Latin edition of the 1983 Code of Canon Law which regulates papal renunciations in Canon 332 §2, where it states:

  • Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex muneri suo renuntiet, ad validitatem requiritur ut renuntiatio libere fiat et rite manifestetur, non vero ut a quopiam acceptetur.[3] (In English[4]: 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.[5]

This corresponds to Canon 221 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which in Latin is:

  • Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex renuntiet, ad eiusdem renuntiationis validitatem non est necessaria Cardinalium aliorumve acceptatio. (In English[6] If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is not required for validity that the resignation is accepted by the Cardinals or by anyone else.[7])

Both the 1983 Code and the 1917 Code make explicit that there is no particular individual or body of people to whom the pope must manifest his renunciation. This addresses a concern raised in earlier centuries, specifically by 18th-century canonist Lucius Ferraris, who held that the College of Cardinals or at least its Dean must be informed, since the cardinals must be absolutely certain that the pope has renounced the dignity before they can validly proceed to elect a successor.[2][8]

In 1996, Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici gregis, anticipated the possibility of resignation when he specified that the procedures he set out in that document should be observed "even if the vacancy of the Apostolic See should occur as a result of the resignation of the Supreme Pontiff".[9]


The Catholic Encyclopedia notes the historically obscure renunciations of Pontian[10] (230–235) and Marcellinus (296–308), the historically postulated renunciation of Liberius (352–366),[2] and that one (unspecified) catalogue of popes lists John XVIII as resigning office in 1009 and finishing his life as a monk.[11][12]

The chaotic era of the papacy

During the saeculum obscurum several popes were "deposed" or coerced into renunciation by political and military force. John X is considered to have been deposed by some, but he seems to have died in prison before his successor Leo VI was elected anyway. As another example, consider the story of John XII, Leo VIII, and Benedict V. John XII had been invalidly deposed by the Emperor Otto in 963, never renouncing his claim. Leo VIII was set up as an antipope by Otto at this time. However, John XII won back his rightful place in 964. When John XII died in 964, Benedict V was elected. However, Otto wanted Leo VIII put back on the papal throne and, using military might, forced Benedict to abdicate later that same summer; Benedict's renunciation is considered valid. Leo VIII is then considered the legitimate pope until his death in 965, thus having been (at various points in his life) both an antipope and a valid pope. Benedict V never again attempted to claim the papacy, and so his abdication is considered valid though some treated him as the valid pope until his death (which, either way, occurred before the election of the next pope, John XIII).

The first historically unquestionable[2] papal renunciation is that of Benedict IX in 1045. Benedict had also previously been deposed by Sylvester III in 1044, and though he returned to take up the office again the next year, the Vatican considers Sylvester III to have been a legitimate pope in the intervening months (meaning that Benedict IX must be considered to have validly resigned by acquiescing to the deposition in 1044). Then, in 1045, having regained the papacy for a few months, in order to rid the church of the scandalous Benedict, Gregory VI gave Benedict "valuable possessions"[2] to resign the papacy in his favour.[13] Gregory himself resigned in 1046 because the arrangement he had entered into with Benedict could have been considered simony. Gregory was followed by Clement II, and when Clement died, Benedict IX returned to be elected to the papacy for a third time, only to resign yet again before dying in a monastery. He thus reigned as pope for three non-consecutive terms, and resigned (or was deposed) three separate times.

Celestine V

A well-known renunciation of a pope is that of Celestine V, in 1294. After only five months of pontificate, he issued a solemn decree declaring it permissible for a pope to resign, and then did so himself. He lived two more years as a hermit and then prisoner of his successor Boniface VIII and was later canonised. Celestine's decree, and Boniface concurring (not revoking it), ended any doubt among canonists about the possibility of a valid papal renunciation.[14]

The Great Schism

Gregory XII (1406–1415) resigned in 1415 in order to end the Western Schism, which had reached the point where there were three claimants to the papal throne: Roman Pope Gregory XII, Avignon Antipope Benedict XIII, and Pisan Antipope John XXIII. Before resigning, he formally convened the already existing Council of Constance and authorized it to elect his successor.

Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI's renunciation of the papacy took effect on 28 February 2013 at 20:00 (8:00 PM) CET (19:00 UTC), after being announced on the morning of 11 February by the Vatican.[15][16][17] He was the first pope to relinquish the office since Gregory XII resigned to end the Western Schism in 1415[18] and the first to do so on his own initiative since Celestine V in 1294.[19] His action was unexpected,[20] given that the modern era popes have held the position from election until death.[20] He said he was motivated by his declining health due to old age.[21] The conclave to select his successor began on 12 March 2013[22] and elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who took the name Francis.

List of papal renunciations

Pontificate Portrait Regnal name Personal name Reason for renunciation Notes
21 July 230
– 28 September 235
(5 years+)
Pope Pontian St Pontian Pontianus Exiled by Roman authorities Renunciation documented only in the Liberian Catalogue, which records his renunciation as 28 September 235, the earliest exact date in papal history[23][24]
30 June 296
– 25 October 304
(7 years+)
Marcellinus St Marcellinus Marcellinus Said to have been tainted by offerings to the pagan gods during the Diocletian persecution Renunciation is documented only in the Liberian Catalogue.
17 May 352
– 24 September 366
(14 years+)
Liberius Liberius Liberius Banished by Emperor Constantius II[2] Renunciation is speculated to explain the succession of Antipope Felix II,[2] although Liber Pontificalis argues that Liberius retained office in exile.
January 1004
– July 1009
(5 years+)
Ioannes XVIII John XVIII Fasanius Abdicated and he retired to a monastery Renunciation documented only in one catalog of popes
20 January 1045
– 10 February 1045
(1 month)
Silvestro3 Sylvester III Giovanni dei Crescenzi–Ottaviani Driven out of office by the return of Benedict IX Some claim he was never pope, but an antipope. The official Vatican list includes him however, which assumes Benedict IX acquiesced to his first deposition and that the new election was valid. Sylvester returned to his old bishopric, seemingly accepting the deposition.
22 May 964
– 23 June 964
(1 month)
Scherbe vom Grab Benedikt V Benedict V Benedict Grammaticus Deposed by the Emperor Otto Deposed in favor of the antipope Leo VIII, who then reigned as valid pope. His abdication is considered valid. Retained the rank of deacon. Lived out the rest of his life in Hamburg under the care of Adaldag, Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen.
October 1032–September 1044 & April 1045–May 1045 & November 1047–July 1048 Benoit IX Benedict IX Theophylactus III, Conti di Tusculum Deposed briefly from his first term as pope, bribed to resign his second term after several reputed scandals, and also resigned his third term Earliest renunciation recognized in the ordering of popes. He was pope on three occasions between 1032 and 1048.[25] One of the youngest popes, he was the only man to have been pope on more than one occasion and the only man ever to have sold the papacy
April/May 1045
– 20 December 1046
B Gregor VI Gregory VI Johannes Gratianus Accused of simony for bribing Benedict IX to resign Abdicated or deposed at the Council of Sutri
5 July 1294
– 13 December 1294
(161 days)
B Colestin V St Celestine V, O.S.B. Pietro da Morrone Lack of competence for the office With no administrative experience, Celestine fell under the control of secular politicians. To protect the church, he resigned. He was the first pope to establish canons for renunciation.
30 November 1406
– 4 July 1415
(8 years, 216 days)
Gregory XII Gregory XII Angelo Correr To end the Western Schism Abdicated during the Council of Constance which had been called by his opponent, Antipope John XXIII
19 April 2005
– 28 February 2013
(7 years, 315 days)
Benedykt XVI (2010-10-17) 2 Benedict XVI Joseph Ratzinger Physical infirmity/advanced age (Nearly 86 at the time of his renunciation) Became Pope emeritus upon renunciation.

Conditional renunciations not put into effect

Before setting out for Paris to crown Napoleon in 1804, Pope Pius VII (1800–1823) signed a document of renunciation to take effect if he were imprisoned in France.[2]

During World War II, Pope Pius XII drew up a document ordering that his resignation take effect immediately if he were kidnapped by the Nazis, as was thought likely in August 1943. It was thought that the College of Cardinals would evacuate to a neutral country, perhaps Portugal, and elect his successor.[26]

According to longtime curial official Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Pope Paul VI hand wrote two letters in the late 1960s or 1970, well before his death, in anticipation of an incapacitating illness. One letter was addressed to the College of Cardinals, the other to the Secretary of State, whose name was not specified. Pope John Paul II showed them to Re, and they were shown to Pope Benedict XVI in 2003.[27][28] In 2018, Paul's letter dated 2 May 1965 and addressed to the dean of the College of Cardinals was published. He wrote that "In case of infirmity, which is believed to be incurable or is of long duration and which impedes us from sufficiently exercising the functions of our apostolic ministry; or in the case of another serious and prolonged impediment", he renounced his office "both as bishop of Rome as well as head of the same holy Catholic Church".[29]

Pope John Paul II wrote a letter in 1989 offering to resign if he became incapacitated. The first said that if ill health or some other unforeseen difficulty prevented him from "sufficiently carrying out the functions of my apostolic ministry ... I renounce my sacred and canonical office, both as bishop of Rome as well as head of the holy Catholic Church." In 1994 he wrote a document that he apparently planned to read aloud, that explained that he had determined he could not resign merely because of age, as other bishops are required to do, but only "in the presence of an incurable illness or an impediment", and that he would therefore continue in office.[30][31] He prayed in his will, written in 2000, that God "would help me to recognise how long I must continue this service", suggesting that renunciation was possible.[32] In the weeks before his death in 2005, there was press speculation that John Paul might resign because of his failing health.[33]


Canon law makes no provision for a pope being incapacitated for reasons of health, either temporarily or permanently; nor does it specify what body has the authority to certify that the pope is incapacitated.[34] It does state that "When the Roman See is vacant, or completely impeded, no innovation is to be made in the governance of the universal Church."[35][36]

A diocesan bishop is expected to offer his renunciation of the governance of his diocese when he turns 75[37] and cardinals are excluded from voting in a conclave once they turn 80. There is no age limitation set for a pope. Since the enactment of these rules concerning diocesan bishops and cardinals, four popes—Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis—have reached the age of 80 during their pontificates. (John Paul I died at 65.)

See also


  1. ^ Beam, Christopher (17 March 2010). "You're defrocked! Can the pope be fired?". Slate. Retrieved 16 February 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Abdication" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  3. ^ "Codex Iuris Canonici - Liber II (Cann. 204-746)". Retrieved 1 April 2019.
  4. ^ Note, that the Latin uses the verb, Renuntiare, to renounce, but the English says resign. Also note that the Latin says munus, but the English says office.
  5. ^ CIC 1983, c. 332.
  6. ^ Note, that in the English translation which follows, the translator hs used the verb resign and added the words his office, though the Latin speaks of renuntiare and renuntiatio and omits words for his office.
  7. ^ CIC 1917 Can. 221. Si contingat ut Romanus Pontifex renuntiet, ad eiusdem renuntiationis validitatem non est necessaria Cardinalium aliorumve acceptatio.
  8. ^ New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Canon Law Society of America, Paulist Press, 2002 ISBN 0-8091-4066-7, ISBN 978-0-8091-4066-4), p. 438
  9. ^ Pope John Paul II (22 February 1996). "Universi Dominici Gregis". The Holy See. Libreria Editrice Vaticana. para. 77. Retrieved 8 September 2017.
  10. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Pope St. Pontian" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  11. ^ Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to Benedict XVI, (HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 168.
  12. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Pope John XVIII (XIX)" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  13. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Pope Benedict IX" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  14. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Pope St. Celestine V" . Catholic Encyclopedia. 1913.
  15. ^ Cullinane, Susannah (12 February 2013). "Pope Benedict XVI's resignation explained". CNN. Retrieved 18 February 2013.
  16. ^ Davies, Lizzy; Hooper, John; Connelly, Kate (11 February 2013). "Pope Benedict XVI resigns due to age and declining health". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
  17. ^ "BBC News - Benedict XVI: 10 things about the Pope's retirement". 2 May 2013. Retrieved 17 July 2013.
  18. ^ Messia, Hada (11 February 2013). "Pope Benedict to resign at the end of the month, Vatican says". CNN. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
  19. ^ Father Raymond J. de Souza (12 February 2013). "The Holy Father takes his leave". The National Post. Archived from the original on 23 March 2013. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  20. ^ a b "Pope Benedict XVI in shock resignation". BBC News. BBC. 11 February 2013. Retrieved 11 February 2013.
  21. ^ "Pope Benedict in shock resignation". 11 February 2013. Retrieved 11 February 2013. I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
  22. ^ "Conclave to begin Tuesday March 12th". Vatican Radio. 8 March 2013.
  23. ^ Mcbrien, Richard P. (31 October 2006). The Pocket Guide to the Popes. HarperCollins. pp. 30–31. ISBN 978-0-06-113773-0. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
  24. ^ "The Chronography of 354 AD. Part 13: Bishops of Rome". pp. from Theosodr Mommsen, MGH Chronica Minora I (1892), pp.73–6. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
  25. ^ Coulombe, Charles A., Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes, (Citadel Press, 2003), 198.
  26. ^ Squires, Nick and Simon Caldwell (22 April 2009). "Vatican planned to move to Portugal if Nazis captured wartime Pope". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
  27. ^ Tornielli, Andrea (27 August 2017). "The autographed letters with Paul VI's preventive resignation". La Stampa. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
  28. ^ Allen Jr., John L. (27 August 2017). "On popes and the problem with preemptive resignation". CRUX. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
  29. ^ Wooden, Cindy (16 May 2018). "Pope Paul VI prepared 'resignation letter'". The Tablet. Catholic News Service. Retrieved 16 May 2018.
  30. ^ Wooden, Cindy (26 January 2010). "Pope John Paul practiced self-mortification". National Catholic Reporter. Catholic News Service. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
  31. ^ Oder, Slawomir; Gaeta, Saverio (2010). Why He Is a Saint: The Life and Faith of Pope John Paul II and the Case for Canonization. Rizzoli International Publications.
  32. ^ "Pope 'considered standing down'". BBC News. 7 April 2005. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
  33. ^ Johnston, Bruce; Jonathan Petre (8 February 2005). "Cardinal hints that ailing Pope may resign". The Telegraph.
  34. ^ The Code of Canon Law Annotated. Montréal: Wilson & Lafleur Limitée. 1993. p. note on canon 335. ISBN 2891272323.
  35. ^ Codex Iuris Canonici Art. 1 DE ROMANO PONTIFICE Can. 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. The Roman Pontiff (Code of Canon Law, canons 331-335), Vatican-supplied English translation.
  36. ^ Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 47)
  37. ^ "Code of Canon Law, canon 401 §1". 4 May 2007. Retrieved 18 February 2013.

Works cited

External links

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A Congregation of diocesan right (or Institute of diocesan right) is a type of religious congregation codified by the laws of the Catholic church, wherein the congregation is under the authority of a particular local bishop, rather than that of the pope. A congregation responsible directly to the pope is a congregation of pontifical right. Most of the major religious orders are congregations of pontifical right.The major types of religious associations recognized by canon law are:

1. Public Association of the Faithful2. Institutes of Consecrated Life

a. Institute of diocesan right

b. Institute of pontifical right


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Decretum laudis

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