Conclave that elected
Martin V 1417 at the
Council of Constance
The last pope to resign office was Gregory XII in 1415 but that resignation was under a very different set of circumstances than Pope Benedict’s announcement yesterday. Pope Gregory had promised the Cardinals of the 1406 conclave that elected him that he would resign, although once in power, he reconsidered and had to be somewhat forced to follow through. You see, it was at the time of the great schism when you had a man in Avignon claiming to be the Pope and a man at Rome claiming to be the Pope. Christendom was divided in allegiance. Gregory was elected to fill the vacancy left by the death of Innocent VII, the Roman claimant. The Cardinals who elected him—only fifteen in the conclave—made him promise that should the Avignon claimant, Benedict XIII, be persuaded to resign, Gregory too would resign. Then a single candidate could be elected to replace the two of them, healing the schism. It was a safe bet for Gregory that Benedict would have no intention of resigning and Gregory seems, despite the promise, to have had no intention either.
Gregory and Benedict got into this sort of pas de deux of each trying to out maneuver each other into resigning and leaving the field to the survivor. Each claimant had his own set of cardinals whom he had named, but a majority of the cardinals belonging to each were disgusted at both popes by their lack of resolve to end the crisis and began to negotiate with one another behind the popes’ backs as to how to resolve the issue and bring the Church back to unity. The Cardinals called a Council for Pisa at which they intended to depose both popes and elect a new one. And in 1409 the Council of Pisa in fact declared both pope’s deposed and elected Alexander V. The only problem was that neither Gregory nor Benedict accepted the Council’s verdict and so now you had three popes!!!
Sigismund, the King of Hungry and of Germany and soon to be Holy Roman Emperor pressed for another Council to resolve this dilemma. Alexander V meanwhile had died and his successor, John XXIII—at Sigismund’s instance—called a Council for Constance in Switzerland. It met in November 1414. 29 Cardinals, 183 bishops and archbishops, 134 abbots, and 100 theologians met. And yes, the theologians were not simply advisors but full participants in the Council. Sigismund himself presided over the Council.
At this point, Gregory’s conscience took over and he agreed to a plan to preserve the Church. He appointed two legates to represent him at the Council, Carlo Malatesta—a powerful layman and military leader—and Giovanni Dominici, the Dominican Cardinal-Archbishop of Ragusa. The legates, acting in the name of Pope Gregory, officially recognized the Council and then offered Gregory’s resignation. The Council in turn recognized Gregory as the legitimate claimant to the papacy, accepted his resignation, deposed the other two claimants (including John XXIII who had convoked the Council) and elected Odonne Colonna (remembered Odie O. Cologne from King Leonardo and His Short Subjects? No, probably not. I know that I had though he was part of Rocky and Bullwinkle until I looked it up on that Sedes Sapientiae, Wikipedia. But I digress) Colonna took the regnal name Martin V. However—and very curiously—the Council did not elect Martin until after the death of the Gregory, two years after his resignation. This means that there were not two popes, or a pope and a retired pope, at the same time, but rather the Apostolic See was left vacant for those two years with the sitting Council running the Church. This too is important to note as today Councils are suspended during a papal interregnum with the claim that a Council gets its authority from the Pope and when there is no pope, a Council lacks authority. That was not the case with Constance. Constance broke popes (Gregory, Benedict, and John XXIII) and Constance made popes—Martin V. It was the height of Conciliar power. Moreover, just to demonstrate the power of the Council, the conclave that elected Martin consisted not only of Cardinals but of delegates from the Council. On this precedent, centuries later when Pope John XXIII died between the first and second sessions of the Second Vatican Council, it was suggested that the Council Fathers, or a delegation of them, might participate in the papal election but that was not done. In fact, Paul VI—after his election—had to re-convoke the Council as its authority was deemed to have lapsed with the death of John XXIII. Papal power had vastly expanded in the centuries between Constance and Vatican II.