Resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the Election of a New Pope

The resignation of the pope is now old news; the conclave to select the new pope has begun.  As everyone with a connection to the internet knows by now, it has been 600 years since a former pope has observed the selection of his successor.

Is there legal precedent for how a pope resigns?  There have been resignations before – the last was in 1415, but the later ones were associated with the Great Schism – the period in the 1300’s when competing political factions elected popes who reigned at the same time.  To find a resignation similar to Pope Benedict XVI’s, it’s necessary to go all the way back to 1295 when Pope, later Saint, Celestine V resigned in the hope of returning to his monastic, ascetic life of prayer.  He was able to return to that life, but unfortunately it occurred in prison, as he was held in custody by supporters of his successor pope Boniface VIII, who feared he would be used as a figurehead by Boniface’s opponents.  But that, while interesting, doesn‘t answer the question.  What law undergirds a papal resignation?

Fortunately for us, there are people with a passionate interest in early law of the papacy.  There is a series of posts at the Library of Congress website, authored by Dante Figueroa, Senior Legal Information Analyst at the Law Library of Congress.  The first post describes the canonical rules on the resignation of a pontiff; the second the rules governing the election of a new pontiff.  The third post provides detail on an update to those rules enacted by Pope Benedict XVI, which amends “…a significant number of rules governing the papal electoral process.”  The changes are meant to reinforce the absolute secrecy rule governing the election of the new pope and to strengthen protections against any type of external influence over the cardinal electors.  Still, it seems inevitable that the very existence of the former pope will exert some influence over the election of his successor, perhaps in a natural reluctance to support someone whose views are known to be at variance with his.  Assuming the absolute secrecy rules are scrupulously observed, however, we may never know one way or the other. 

The blogosphere has been intensely interested in the resignation and in the election of the new pope.  The OUP Blog has posted a useful guide titled An Oxford Companion to the 2013 Papal ElectionsNancy Dallavale at the Huffington Post speculates that the resignation may have unintended consequences on the nature of papal authority and the future of the Catholic Church. The Yale Law Library Rare Books Blog reproduces an image from a book in their collection picture Celestine V and his successor Boniface VIII.  There is even a FantasyPope game

Very soon, the conclave will elect a new pope, and the Catholic Church will have a Pope and a Pope Emeritus, for the first time in 600 years. 

About Margaret Schilt

Margaret Schilt, Associate Law Librarian for User Services, has been with the D'Angelo Law Library since 2000.
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