Post-classical history

Peter of Morrone … great is your rank and your worthiness,

But the tempest around you is no less,

Why, then, within your mansion

do you sit, questionless?

“Epistle to Pope Celestine V”



One hundred and forty miles away from Naples, the inscription on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is taken from chapter sixteen of the Gospel of Matthew. It reads: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum. This was Latin that Peter actually knew, for he’d committed to memory most of the Gospels. “You art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

He also knew the words of Christ from the cross: Consummatum est—“It is finished.” It was this last utterance that Peter would emulate, much to the shocking of the world.

On the ceiling of the nave of the Church of Saint Peter of Maiella in Naples a Baroque fresco depicts Pope Celestine V removing his papal tiara from his head and handing it to someone else. Six monks look on with resignation and a single cherubim offers what appears to be a halfhearted blessing; the pudgy angel lackadaisically leans on his left hip and raises his right hand.

Celestine had renounced the papacy. How did it come to this? No pope ever before had resigned. There had been plenty of forced resignations by methods such as poison (John VIII, 872–82, and his successor, Adrian III, 884–85); strangulation (Stephen VI, 896–97, and Leo V, 903); and other sordid means (see the next chapter), but never a willful resignation.

After all of the problems that had been encountered over the weeks Peter had spent as holy father, Charles II began to shelter the pope less and less. The king was just as baffled as were others about what to do. How can we get this pope to become more engaged in the affairs of the Holy See, to direct the clergy of Rome, to motivate the missions abroad, to inspire the world with the charisma and spiritual leadership that his reputation had promised? Why doesn’t he seem to care much about his duties? The hermit pope had retreated fully into his shell. He was living a self-imposed exile within the king’s estate. By December 1, 1294, the papal curia and conferences were humming along without much expectation that they would see their holy leader. From the beginning it had been obvious that Celestine was unprepared for his office, but now he seemed unwilling to even try.

In his cell the pope was contemplating abdication. First he weighed the spiritual justifications. He remembered the teachings of Peter Damian that he’d carried with him since his teenage years in Faifula: personal sanctity is the only sure path to genuine reform.

Celestine knew the ways to holiness better than he understood the ways of the papacy. As he considered the unthinkable—leaving his office behind—he prepared for what he believed to be the mature step of a Christian mystic: to follow Jesus into great suffering. The most famous Christian of that century had identified with Jesus so completely as to be gifted with the world’s first known stigmata, and now a pope would identify with Jesus to the point of entering into a deep understanding of his passion. To abdicate would be equivalent to admitting weakness and failure—at least to those in the “world,” but not to Peter Morrone. He knew the greater good of suffering. For him, walking away meant becoming a witness to sanctity. Stepping down from the Holy See was, in his mind, similar to Christ’s willingly accepting his heavenly Father’s will. The hermit pope felt ready for what might come next.

Again the example of Peter Damian took on great significance for Celestine, because Damian had once abdicated episcopal responsibility. Made the cardinal-bishop of Ostia by Leo IX, Damian served for a time with his usual aggressiveness. But after a short while, he pleaded with the pope to relieve him of the responsibilities of his see, so that the good and earnest monk could return to his primarily contemplative life, and Leo’s successor finally allowed Damian to resign.

Damian always seemed to feel pessimistic when he was engaged in church business, and this feeling carried over to his experience as a cardinal. He never felt that he could make changes or bring about any reform when he was clothed in the finer garments of ecclesiastical leadership. Celestine imbibed these teachings deeply.

The world appeared to Damian to be on the threshold of its final end, according to him in this letter written at the end of his life, soon after he had returned from a churchwide synod:

The world … is daily deteriorating into such a worthless condition, that not only has each rank of secular and ecclesiastical society collapsed and fallen from its [former] state, but even monastic life, if I may put it so, has declined and lies prostrate, deprived of strength to climb to its accustomed goals of perfection. Decency has gone, honesty disappeared, religious devotion has fallen on bad times.1

Damian goes on to exhort his readers to practice a true spiritual life, which is possible only apart from the world. He makes it clear that he himself has given up on other courses of action. “Now, in the contract we made with our God, it was we undoubtedly who said that in following Christ we promised to renounce the world and everything for which it stands.” If we don’t, he says, quoting the words of Jesus from chapter nine of Luke, “if we look back, we shall promptly hear the terrible pronouncement of a threatening God: ‘No one who sets his hand to the plow, and then keeps looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’ ”2

Celestine knew that as pope his personal limitations were hurting, rather than helping, the God that he adored. His love for the Church persisted in the fire of his devotion and piety, making it more poignantly clear that he was unable to do his work. One historian of that age, Ptolemy of Lucca, a Dominican who had been a friend and spiritual counselor to Thomas Aquinas, even says that there were cardinals in the Sacred College who told Celestine to fear for his soul, so confusing and dangerous was his papacy for people everywhere. Ptolemy said that Celestine was so disengaged in his final days at Castle Nuovo that he was signing blank bulls put in front of him—which the unscrupulous would later fill in to suit their purposes. Perhaps Celestine began to fear for his salvation if he were to remain in his lofty position. And he knew that the poor were blessed and the rich have difficulty entering heaven.

When Celestine let it be known that he was thinking of abdicating, Charles II immediately voiced his opposition. We can imagine that the king set to work behind the scenes as well, asking every cardinal under his sway what could be done to keep his pope in place. Charles had a lot to lose, much more, in fact, than Celestine. He had accomplished what no sovereign before him had. He had kept the Christ of this earth in his own rooms, closely guarded his comings and goings, monitored who might be permitted to visit and counsel with him, and put in positions of power many from his own relations and personal interests. He couldn’t allow all these accomplishments to amount to nothing.

In those first days of December, word began to spread that the pope was considering stepping down. Celestine clearly no longer desired the position and was making those feelings known to anyone who was paying attention.

On December 6, the Feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra, outside of the papal residence Franciscan Spirituals and Celestine monks began to gather, having heard the rumors through leaks in the papal entourage and among the cardinals. They surrounded the castle and carried on demonstratively in intercessory prayer for both the pope and the future of Mother Church. Charles II was there. Some say that he organized the rally. Ptolemy of Lucca was also among the crowd that day, just as he had been a witness to Celestine’s election in Perugia.

These were the very last days before the onset of winter, when cold rain falls in Naples. The people were dispirited, full of dread, some even terrified. What would happen if a pope left his holy office? Some, believing that God might become furious, were on their knees with their rosaries. Others said that such an act could bring on that long-awaited dread, the advent of the true antichrist. Texts from the book of Daniel were read out:

Daniel said, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea.… The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand upon two feet like a man; and the mind of a man was given to it. And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side; it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh!’ ” (Dn. 7:1–5)

Penitents emerged, battering themselves in the hopes that whatever punishment they dealt to their own bodies God would not desire to bestow on them. A quitting pope could become a humiliation for the Church. Or, worse, some believed that it was like spitting in the face of God.

How could a pope relinquish something so precious and divinely appointed as the very “keys of heaven”? The eighth-century pope Adrian I had stated the importance of the papal office as follows: “The Lord set him who bears the keys of the kingdom of heaven as chief over all and by him is he honored with this privilege, by which the keys of the kingdom of heaven are entrusted to him. He, therefore, that was preferred with so exalted an honor was thought worthy to confess that faith on which the Church of Christ is founded.… And that power of authority, which he received from the Lord God our Savior, he too bestowed and delivered by divine command to the pontiffs, his successors.”3 Would Celestine throw this away, like casting scraps to the dogs?

Nothing had yet happened, but the authorities began to devise a plan for the pope to step down. Uncertainty reigned in Naples and rippled throughout Christendom for eight full days.

The Lawyers Go to Work

Celestine wanted to go, but he needed the assistance of experts in order to make his case.

Every ruler is surrounded by lawyers, and popes are no exception. The origins of canon law come from the “canons” established by the original apostles at the Council of Jerusalem circa 50 C.E. Going even further back, canon law can be traced to the tradition of expertise in Jewish law in the days of Jesus’ youth, and the Pharisees and other legal experts with whom Jesus often conversed, as is recorded in the Gospels. Some famous canon lawyers in recent history have been Pope Benedict XV (1914–22), who trained as a civil lawyer before he was ever ordained to the priesthood; and Pope Pius XII (1939–58), the holy father who reigned during the Holocaust. Just as legal experts advise presidents and prime ministers on how to interpret laws and treaties, church lawyers provide similar services for rulers who are bound by ecclesiastical laws and precedent.

Canon lawyers have been behind-the-scenes actors in many of the most crucial episodes in religious history. For instance, when King Henry VIII was attempting to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry his second wife (and third, and fourth, etc.), he consulted with canon lawyers. They worked during the night for weeks in order to find precedent and justification for what Henry desired to do. Similarly, in December 1294 Cardinal Gaetani rapidly began to investigate how it might be possible to justify the abdication of a pope.

Faced with many opportunities, canonists had for centuries considered the possibility of removing a pope for reasons of gross heresy. Each time such a maneuver was considered, the lawyers concluded that even if a man seemed unworthy of the office, the office (the papacy) was higher than any man. In the end, it was decided that no man could properly judge that a pope should be removed from the office. But never before had canon lawyers considered a willing, self-enacted, removal.

What Celestine and Gaetani were considering is not that far removed from the events of our own time. Many may remember that John Paul II was rumored to be considering resignation for years as his Parkinson’s symptoms grew worse before our eyes. The Italian press periodically reported that his health was hanging by a thread, or that he was enduring near suffocation, or that he couldn’t breathe fully on his own, or that he was suffering from some other problem connected with his chronic malady. On one occasion the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was asked whether or not John Paul II would ever consider resigning. The cardinal’s answer made headlines around the world:

If there is a man who loves the Church more than anybody else, who is guided by the Holy Spirit, if there’s a man who has marvelous wisdom, that’s him. We must have faith in the Pope. He knows what to do.4

A pope simply does not resign, many said. Who, after all, is “above” a pope who can accept such a resignation?5 And the same media who quoted Cardinal Sodano in February 2005 also pointed out that there was a notorious case of a previous pope who’d resigned in the late thirteenth century. There was one precedent.

But in 1294 there was no such precedent. A case had to be prepared. We no longer possess whatever briefs Gaetani prepared for the holy father, but the cause for abdication was clear. Gaetani wrote for the pope a decree stating that a papal resignation was both possible and acceptable under certain circumstances. First, it was acceptable on the very grounds that made it most shocking: if it was clearly the voluntary act of a man in charge of all of his faculties. Second, it would have to be enacted in a proper and orderly fashion. And third, it could be done if it was absolutely necessary. On this last point there was no question remaining. There was no other course to take. Eight years later, the French philosopher John of Paris would summarize these conditions this way:

If, after his election to the papacy a pope should find himself or should be discovered to be totally inept or useless or if an impediment should arise, such as insanity or anything similar, he should request to be relieved by the people or by the cardinalswho in such a case represent the whole clergy and people, and he should, permission received or not, cede his high place.6

So Celestine not only had a plan of what to do but had laid the groundwork to do it. He would move forward, trusting Gaetani’s advice.

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