Dubai: Yes, the pope can resign. And yes, there is precedent.
According to Canon Law — rules that govern how the Roman Catholic Church operates — there is nothing to prevent the pontiff from resigning.
All that he is required to do is make sure that he’s doing so without undue pressure and is making the decision from free will.
“If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone,” according to Canon 332, No. 2.
But the event is rare. When elected in secret by the curia of cardinals gathering in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City in the heart of Rome, it’s expected that the pontiff will carry on in the position until his death.
Most recently when Pope John Paul II suffered from debilitating Parkinson’s Disease and was seen by millions as suffering needlessly in carrying out his duties, he steadfastly refused to resign.
But the sudden and unexpected resignation Monday of Pope Benedict XVI due to health reasons puts the curia in the position of having to convene to elect a new spiritual leaders for the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
Popes have resigned before — though it’s a rare and highly unusual occurrence.
The first pope to resign was Pope St. Pontian. He was elected pontiff for the burgeoning Christian faithful and the direct successor of St. Peter on July 21, 230AD. Christians then faced persecution from the Roman Empire and he was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia — then a Roman province — to labour in salt mines. With few expected to survive enslavement and hard labour, St. Pontian resigned in September 235. His successor, St. Anteros, died a few months later — either from a beating or ill-treatment, the historical is unclear on the matter.
Pope St. Silverius, who ruled the church from June 1, 536, was the first pope forcibly removed from his office. Nine months later, the Byzantine Empress Theodora had Pope St. Silverius imprisoned and removed from the Holy See for refusing to approve her nominations for bishops. He died a year later in exile. Since he was imprisoned, church elected Pope Vigilius — whom Theodora endorsed.
Pope St. Martin I, who was consecrated in July 649, also fell foul of the Byzantine Empire and its efforts to appoint non-sanctioned bishops. St. Martin was exiled and died in the Crimea in 656, the last pope to die a martyr to his Christian beliefs.
St. Celestine V became pope in August, 1294, at the age of 84 when the college of cardinals were unable to elect a successor. He was a monk and resigned within four months to return to his monastery, but was imprisoned by his successor, Pope Boniface VIII, to prevent his restoration.
Pope Gregory XII was pontiff between 1406 and 1415 and reigned at a time where the papacy was split with illegitimate pontiffs in Avignon and Pisa claiming to be the true heir to the Holy See.
He resigned at the Council of Constance in an effort to heal the divisions of the Christian Church. He was succeeded in 1417 by Pope Martin V, who reigned until 1431.