Two popes in the light of history

Margaret Harvey, retired senior lecturer in History at Durham University, discusses the history of the Great Western Schism of the fourteenth century and what lessons we might learn from its legacy for today.

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned on 28 February 2013, followed rapidly by the election of Pope Francis on 13 March, thus leaving the Church with a pope and an emeritus, it was frequently pointed out how startlingly unprecedented the resignation was. The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in July 1415 during the Council of Constance, thus ending the Great Western Schism. Another precedent was Pope Celestine V who held office for about six months in 1294, and then resigned and retired back to his hermitage.

Neither of these precedents really resembles the present case. Celestine V certainly resigned, but his successor Boniface VIII in effect imprisoned him to make sure he did not re-emerge. Gregory XII resigned, and though he had been pressured, he seems to have done it freely. He never thereafter claimed to be pope, but he had two rivals who continued to claim the papacy until the Council of Constance deposed them. One of the rivals (John XXIII, 1410–15) accepted his deposition and resigned, but the other (Benedict XIII, 1394–1417, died 1422) maintained his claim and even had successors (with a small rump of supporters) until the 1440s.

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