In the early 15th century, the so-called Western Schism had left the Catholic Church with not one but two popes, one in Rome and one in the French city of Avignon. In order to end the rift, Pope Gregory XII resigned so that a special council in Constance (now a German city) could excommunicate the pope in Avignon and start fresh with a new, single church leader. Quite the intrigue there, eh?
That was in 1415, and it was the last time a pope resigned – until this week, when Pope Benedict XVI announced he would step down. The story this time is much simpler. The pope said he was too old and sick to carry out his duties.
About the only intrigue was how to handle the ex-pope, since there is no precedent to go by. “Many fear Benedict will become an implicit rival to the new pope, despite his apparent desire to keep a low profile,” reported the Newser website. On the other hand, a “senior papal adviser” told The Wall Street Journal, it might be “better to have him here than somewhere else, where he could become another center of power.”
For his part, the pope says he will lead a quiet life of contemplation and prayer, and there’s no reason to doubt him. He was respected as a scholar and writer before assuming the papacy.
The billion-plus members of the Catholic Church will be going through something new, too, watching the selection process for a new leader not as a cathartic way to end the mourning for the old pope but as the “peaceful transition of power” praised in presidential politics.