The last Pope to step down from office was Gregory XII back in 1415.
He resigned to end what was called the ‘Great Western Schism,’ when Christendom was divided by rival Popes.
“This was a way of restoring unity to a divided church,” says James Bretzke.
Father Bretzke is a professor of moral theology at Boston College.
“He was considered to be a noble person in stepping down,” Bretzke adds. “The Pope that had stepped down much earlier was cast by Dante into Inferno for stepping down. But Pope Gregory they considered that to be a noble move.”
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Marco Werman: As Megan mentioned, this is the first time a pope resigns in almost 600 years. We asked James Bretzke to help us to put today’s news in a history context. Father Bretzke is a professor of moral theology at Boston College. He says he wasn’t shocked by Pope Benedict’s announcement.
James Bretzke: It struck me as surprising, but not shocking; and surprising because Pope Benedict is very careful. I think this is his last act to make a change which he believes should happen for the church, which is to keep a vibrant pope in office. So the fact that he could do this, his predecessor never would have done it, I think it his last official important contribution.
Werman: Did the unprecedented nature of a pope stepping down before death automatically lead you to some sort of speculation?
Bretzke: Well, it leads me to this personally to speculate which we will see, I think he must be very seriously ill and this will be borne out shortly if he is in fact, terminally ill.
Werman: Why does a pope typically serve until their death?
Bretzke: Because he’s considered to be the leader of the whole church and he should not be susceptible to external forces. And he has to live with his mistakes. He has to live with his successes, but he also has to live with his mistakes. Our superior general in the Jesuits is also elected for life and he also can resign.
Werman: So tell us about the last pope to quit, that would be Gregory XII. He stepped down in 1415.
Bretzke: Right, at that time there was what they called the Great Schism, the Great Western Schism. There were rival popes. The papacy had gone back and forth between Avignon in Southern France and Rome, and they had rival camps and there was a lot of political infighting going on. And basically to make a very long story much shorter, he resigned to kind of clear the playing field to end these rival claimants and to let a pope be elected who could unify the church.
Werman: So were there critics of Pope Gregory XII stepping down or was it seen as okay, here is an instance of where a pope leaving their mandate before the end is okay.
Bretzke: Well, I wasn’t around then so I’m not sure, but I presume that there were some critics, but I think basically this was a way of restoring and unity and unifying the church, and I think it was a good move. He was considered to be a noble person in stepping down. The pope that had stepped down much earlier was cast by Dante into an inferno for stepping down, but Pope Gregory I think they considered that to be a noble move.
Werman: Given Pope Benedict’s term, is there a clear sense of direction from the Vatican right now, especially in the face of multiple scandals that the church has faced.
Bretzke: Well, I think the clear sense of direction is that it needs a clearer sense of direction. The infrastructure management has not been a strong suit of this papacy, somewhat to the surprise since Pope Benedict himself had been in the Curia since 1981, but he clearly has not been, he will not go down in history as being the most effective top level manager.
Werman: Father Bretzke, just one more question on the announcement itself, the pope wrote it in Latin. Is that still a qualification to become pope that you have to speak Latin fluently?
Bretzke: No, no, and I don’t think the next pope likely will be a fluent Latin speaker. I also don’t think the pope wrote this thing in Latin. There’s a Latinist in Rome, a person who is very qualified in that. And it does show that the fact that it came in Latin showed that he had been thinking about it and it was prepared. The fact that it was kept secret is more surprising than anything else.
Werman: Why do you find that surprising?
Bretzke: Because in Rome there’s an expression [speaking Italian], which means “under the seal of secrecy” which usually is translated as don’t give it away, sell it. There are very few secrets in Rome. This was one of them.
Werman: Father James Bretzke, professor of moral theology at Boston College, tahnks for coming in.
Bretzke: My pleasure.
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