Skip to main content

A traditional papacy ends with a surprise

By Christopher Bellitto, Special to CNN
February 11, 2013 -- Updated 1912 GMT (0312 HKT)
  • Pope Benedict's resignation leaves the church and the world in unfamiliar, but not entirely uncharted, territory
  • This pope will go down in history as more interested in high-end theology than modern evangelism
  • He was unable to hit the right note when it came to addressing the priest sex abuse scandal
  • It seems likely this careful theologian and prototypical company man will fade quietly from public view

Editor's note: Christopher M. Bellitto is chair and associate professor of history at Kean University in Union, NJ. He is the author of 101 Questions and Answers on Popes and the Papacy.

(CNN) -- Yes, a pope can resign but it hasn't happened for nearly 600 years. The surprising news from Rome Monday leaves the church and the world in unfamiliar, but not entirely uncharted, territory.

The last time a pope resigned was in 1415, when Pope Gregory XII resigned during the worst institutional crisis in the church's history.

Called the Great Western Schism, there were not only three popes but three colleges of cardinals competing for allegiance. Gregory's heroic stepping down helped the church heal at a critical moment.

It is quite likely that Benedict's shocking move will help burnish his reputation in the long run.

Abuse by priests mars pope's legacy
Pope Benedict's German roots
Pope Benedict's legacy and controversies

His papacy has been a bumpy one, marked by poor communication among his Vatican staff, and with the church at large.

Certainly his controversial wording about Islam in his speech at Regensburg in 2006 was an example of a scholar pope unable to reach a mass audience, especially when compared to the media maestro John Paul II.

All sorts of internal curial squabbling marked what was supposed to be a Roman housecleaning by a German administrator who didn't turn out to be up to that task.

Pope Benedict's statement in full

This pope will go down in history in the line of scholar popes more interested in high-end theology than modern evangelism.

But that should not be seen as a criticism even though anyone elected after the superstar John Paul II was destined -- perhaps doomed -- to seem smaller compared to such a giant.

All eras of church histories have seen different popes for different times, so perhaps what the church needed was a quiet pope after a boisterous papacy.

Yet the introverted pope who played Mozart seemed unable to hit the right note when it came to addressing the major issue of the last decade: The priest sex abuse scandal and the related problem of bishops who protected predators. This makes for a decidedly mixed verdict -- at least today.

CNN iReport: What do you think?

The precedents to his surprise move are few.The first pope to resign was Pontian, in 235, when Christianity was still an illegal religion in the Roman Empire. He was deported from Rome to Sardinia to a prison known for its brutality. Since he knew he would die there, he resigned so a successor would be in place.

The pope's German roots

The most famous resignation is Celestine V in 1294. A hermit, totally unsuited to the politics of the medieval papal court, he resigned after less than half a year in office. Dante famously put Celestine at the gates of hell for his "great refusal" or, in Italian, il gran rifiuto.

So why is Pope Benedict resigning?

It seems, like Celestine V and maybe even Paul VI, that Benedict was never quite comfortable as pope.

It could be that this very traditional man is setting a helpful precedent for modern medical times, and making papal resignations easier in the future due to ill health. Benedict may have simply come to the moment where he realized he couldn't do the job any more.

Unlike John Paul II, who decided to stay in the job, Benedict is offering a different model. Pope Benedict will surely retire quietly to a Benedictine monastery to keep writing, the life he imagined for himself before his election.

Abuse mars legacy

The question now is what authority does have an ex-pope have. When he renounces the papal throne, he no longer has papal authority.

Joseph Ratzinger must be very careful not to interfere or to answer the inevitable phone calls when his successor makes a move that appears different from the one he would have made.

To interfere would be out of character, so it seems likely that this careful theologian and prototypical company man will go gently into that good night.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher Bellitto

Part of complete coverage on
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1631 GMT (0031 HKT)
Not a jot of doctrine has changed in the year since Francis became Pope. But there's more than one way to measure his impact. Just ask some of the faithful in the country's most Catholic city.
February 22, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Pope Francis created 19 new cardinals in a ceremony in the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica -- the first such appointments since he was elected pontiff last March.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
"The spring evening in which Pope Francis was elected is an apt symbol of the beginning of his papacy and the years that will follow," writes Fr. Joel Camaya.
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
In a gesture toward the romance of Valentine's Day, Pope Francis gave his advice on how to have a happy marriage before thousands of young engaged couples.
January 16, 2014 -- Updated 1912 GMT (0312 HKT)
A senior Vatican official acknowledged Thursday there is "no excuse" for child sex abuse, as he and others were grilled by a U.N. committee about the Catholic Church's handling of pedophile priests.
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 2010 GMT (0410 HKT)
Take a look at Pope Francis' first year in photos with our gallery.
December 25, 2013 -- Updated 0922 GMT (1722 HKT)
Pope Francis rang in his first Christmas at the Vatican with a Christmas Eve Mass preaching a message of love and forgiveness.
November 7, 2013 -- Updated 2343 GMT (0743 HKT)
It was the embrace that melted hearts worldwide.
July 8, 2013 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
On the first pastoral visit of his papacy, Pope Francis shunned protocol and politics on a visit to the tiny island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily.
April 3, 2013 -- Updated 0959 GMT (1759 HKT)
On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis kisses and hugs disabled boy lifted up in the crowd.
April 11, 2013 -- Updated 1609 GMT (0009 HKT)
With the new pope himself a trained scientist, could the timing could be right for a new era of cooperation between the Vatican and science?
March 16, 2013 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Pope Francis is being painted as a humble and simple man, but his past is tinged with controversy.
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1409 GMT (2209 HKT)
One of the first questions many people ask when they start a new job is: What type of car will I get?
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Call him Pope Francis, the pontiff of firsts.
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina is known as a humble man, a capable administrator and -- as expected of a new pope -- a man of great faith.
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1725 GMT (0125 HKT)
Catholic faithful from Latin America cheered the historic election of the first pope from the region Wednesday.
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
St. Francis of Assisi, after whom Pope Francis has taken his name, captures the spirit of many Catholics.