That's the first time since 1415 that it's become necessary to write that headline. As of the close of the month, Pope Benedict XVI, aka Joseph Ratzinger, will step down.
Thus continuing this blog's grand tradition of spectacularly wrong predictions.
It's a bizarre turn of events, but considering the state of the church, I'd say a welcome one. I'm not even going to attempt predicting who his replacement will be, as not only am I going to be wrong, but the list of candidates going into a papal conclave is notoriously wide-open. Dozens of names can easily be put forward without anyone really having any idea who the true front-runners are until someone's name gets called.
So on that, let's talk about the other popes who've resigned, because it's been quite a while. There are only three whose resignations are unquestioned. (There's longstanding question as to whether John XVIII resigned in 1009 shortly before his death. His reign is obscure, his possible resignation is obscure, and we're not really able to get into it much beyond this note.)
Gregory XII (Angelo Correr) was the last pope to resign. He did so in order to close out the Western Schism era of the papacy, when power was split between Rome and Avignon, France. From 1378 to 1415, there were two popes at the same time, and European leaders had to pick one or the other to align with. It wasn't anything religious. It was the same kind of political maneuvering that European history is known for. Gregory XI, who died in 1377, followed Urban V, who was from France and died in Avignon. Upon Gregory XI's death in Rome, there needed to be a conclave. Rome was rather keen on the papacy not returning to France. They were so keen on it that a mob busted into the conclave and forced the election of an Italian pope. Okay, fine, angry mob, we'll pick Bartolemeo Prignano, now Urban VI, who wasn't even from the College of Cardinals (and who would prove to be the last pope elected from outside the College).
Urban VI sucked. Probably he got on a massive power trip. It didn't take long for the French contingent to move against him, especially after he said he wouldn't travel to Avignon. The French cardinals met in Avignon and elected another pope, Clement VII (who would later be declared an antipope, meaning he doesn't count), who ruled from Avignon. Cue nearly 40 years of political divisiveness. At one point in 1409, in an attempt to resolve the schism, cardinals deposed both popes in place at the time and started fresh with a new pope in Pisa, Alexander V (now also an antipope). Neither pope stepped down, and Alexander claimed power as well. Wonderful. Now we've got three popes. The schism only ended when Gregory XII agreed to step down if the other two would. The Pisa pope, antipope John XXIII, did so before scampering off because he had scandals of his own to deal with. The Avignon pope, antipope Benedict XIII, didn't. So everyone just excommunicated him instead and called it a day.
There hasn't been a French pope since.
Celestine V (Pietro da Morrone) resigned in 1294, after a papacy of only about five months. He never wanted it in the first place. Celestine's election came about at the end of a two-year interregnum. The conclave couldn't come up with a name, and unable to break a deadlock between their candidates, they eventually set their eyes on Morrone, a hermit. They set their eyes on Morrone because he had sent them a letter telling them that God could not possibly be pleased with how long they were taking and that he was likely to get very angry if they didn't pick up the pace and name a pope. Someone at the conclave decided, oh, why not, let's just pick the hermit. That sounded good to everyone else, and they quickly named Morrone the new pope. None of them had consulted Morrone about this, though, and Morrone was in tears over it. He had an order of his own to handle, was in his 80's besides, and did not need this. In fact, he tried to run away when told of his election, but eventually was convinced to go ahead with it.
Morrone, now Celestine, was in completely over his head and nobody knew it better than him. He leaned heavily on the King of Sicily to help him out, so much so that he ended up being viewed as a pawn of the Sicilian throne. Discontent with him grew as a result, and now seeing everyone else finally come around to his point of view, Celestine took the first opportunity to step down. He didn't get to go back to being a hermit, though; when the next pope in line, Boniface VII, took over, one of the first things he did was have Celestine chucked in prison as a display of power. Celestine died ten months later. Boniface went on to feature in Dante's eighth circle of hell as a soul destined for that circle.
The first pope to unquestionably resign was Benedict IX (Theophylactus III), the only man to have ever served more than one term as pope. In fact, he served three terms. He got in originally in 1032 the way a lot of popes did back then: he was from the right family. Also, he was 20 years old. He was what Time called in 2010 "controversial", which in media-speak is code for 'morally bankrupt rat-bastard'. He had sex with everyone and everything that moved, sold church offices, cursed God and toasted the Devil (this is the pope doing this), and was just generally what St. Peter Damian denounced as a "demon from hell in the disguise of a priest". He is a strong candidate for Worst Pope Ever (though back in 2010 I nominated John XII, who had ruled roughly 80 years earlier). At one point in 1036, the Roman mob stepped up and ran him clear out of town. He came back, but in 1044, he was run out of town again and Sylvester III elected in his place. Benedict managed to return and reclaim the papacy, but his hold on power was now tenuous enough that in 1045, he asked his godfather, John Gratian, whether it was possible to resign. Told that it was, he did so.
By selling the papacy to Gratian.
Gratian was a decent man and he would normally not have done such a thing, but Benedict was so awful a leader that if buying the office got Benedict to leave, it was worth it. He took the name Gregory VI.
Then Benedict changed his mind and wanted it back. And also Sylvester was still running around thinking he was pope.
Eventually, King Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor, called a council to try and sort everything out, held in Sutri, 44 km north of Rome. All three popes wound up deposed, with Sylvester confined to a monastery. Benedict sold the papacy, so he was out, and Gregory was out for buying it. Gregory took it a little hard but ultimately understood and took the resign-so-you-don't-get-fired option (he isn't really counted as a resigned pope, because really, would you count that as leaving of your own accord?) Benedict... not so much. A new pope was elected, Clement II, but he only lasted about ten months before dying in 1047. He agreed to a sale. He never agreed to being deposed. And he still wanted his stuff back. So to hell with an election, he just went and took it. This time it took German troops to drive him out, and he was ultimately excommunicated in 1049. His final years are obscure, but word is he checked into an abbey and spent the remainder of his life as a monk, with the excommunication lifted at some point along the line.
This is the company in which the man formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger now finds himself. He claims it's due to his health. His predecessors, and the controversy surrounding the church today, argue quite differently.