Thursday, February 14, 2013

Papal Resignations! III

As I have written in other postings, I am reluctant to call the bishops of Rome “popes” until the beginning of the fifth century, not because I don’t think they exercised a leadership role that extended beyond the Church of which they were bishops, but for several reasons, not least of which is that the title “pope” was not used in its modern sense of the Universal Pastor of the Church at least until the time of Leo I.  The Roman Church—and its bishop—certainly had an influence that extended throughout the Christian communities of the vast Roman Empire from at least the end of the first century, but the word “pope” gets very much overloaded with significance and authority, and power that becomes part of that office only later is too often projected back upon the Roman bishops of the first centuries making them retroactively something that does not fit the historical facts.   This is a problem with those who do “Church history” which is a branch of apologetics rather than “history of the Church” which is held accountable to the same standards of factual accuracy as the history of any secular institution.  Nevertheless, if one is looking at the subject of papal resignations, we can certainly begin by looking at the resignation of Pontian who was the Roman bishop from 230 until 235. 
Pontian was Bishop of Rome during a time of relative peace for the Church during the reign of Alexander Severus.   He held a synod that condemned Origen though I am not sure on precisely which counts as much of Origen’s work survives in orthodoxy while some of his ideas are clearly heretical.  More to our point, at the death of Alexander Severus the new Emperor, Maximinus the Thracian, initiated a persecution of the Church and Pontian was deported to the mines of Sardinia. Rather than leave the Roman Church without a shepherd, Pontian resigned the See.  Anterus, a Greek freedman, was elected to replace him in Rome. Pontian was to die after only a month or so in the mines.  His remains were brought back to Rome by Fabian, his successor but one, two years after his death.    
A less noble figure to resign the papal See was Benedict IX.  He was young—barely 20 and maybe not even that, but he came from the family of the Counts of Tusculum—a noble family that dominated the papacy in much of the ninth and tenth centuries and put the porno into what is called the papal pornocracy. (See entries for Jan 15 and June 6 2011.)  Benedict’s father was Alberic III, Count of Tusculum and the great-grandson and great-great-grandson respectively of Marozia and Theodora, who were in their day each mistresses of various popes. Two uncles, brothers of his father, had been Popes Benedict VIII and John XIX.  Benedict VII and John XI were also apes in this family tree. Benedict was cut of a somewhat different bolt of cloth than his ancestors—not that he was virtuous but more that this preference in lovers ran to men rather than to the ladies and he delighted in having orgies in the Apostolic Palace.  He was forced from Rome in 1044 and Sylvester III was elected in his place.  There is no record of Benedict’s resignation at this point, yet Sylvester is recognized as Pope and not called an anti-pope by historians.  I am not sure why.  The following year, however, Benedict’s godfather, a pious man and a cardinal, John Gratian, persuaded Benedict to resign.  He gave Benedict a handsome endowment on which to live.  Gratian was then elected as Gregory VI. 
Gregory VI was soon to resign himself.  Benedict rethought his resignation and tried to reclaim the papal throne.  So now you have three men claiming to pope—Sylvester III, Benedict IX, and Gregory VI.  The Emperor, Henry III, convoked a council at Sutri which deposed Sylvester and Benedict.  Gregory was acknowledged as true pope but asked to resign because in providing the endowment for Benedict to live on in retirement, it appeared that he, Gregory, had “bought” the papacy—paid Benedict for it.  Gregory resigned the papacy and was taken to Germany by the Emperor to remove him from Rome and interfering with his successor, Clement II.

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