Rorate Caeli

The Great Resignations — Guest Article by Christian Browne

At the close of the thirteenth century, the papacy was at the height of its religious prestige and political power. Over the course of the preceding centuries, the popes led the moral regeneration of the Church and secured its independence from, and even dominance over, the secular arm of the German emperors—called (at various times) the Holy Roman Emperors. 


But the success of the papacy was never a fixed or permanent feature. Gregory VII’s humiliation of Henry IV at Canossa is a famous moment in history, but it did not end the conflict between the Church and the State. On the contrary, for two hundred years after Canossa, the popes were engaged in war and political strife with the German rulers who believed that they could not truly reign as a new Caesar without control of Italy.


After centuries of warfare, at the death Frederick II—the Italian-born scion of the imperial Hohenstaufen family whose mother was Queen of Sicily—Pope Urban IV saw an opportunity to rid the peninsula of the Germans’ power forever. Urban invited Charles of Anjou, brother of the King of France, to assume the crown of Sicily. Thus, the Angevins came to Italy and, like the German Kings before them, these supposed vassals of the Holy See would seek to become its master.


The death of Nicholas II in 1292 offered an opportunity for Charles II, the second ruler of the House of Anjou, to reign over Naples and Southern Italy and to make the new pope his client. The Cardinals were divided between warring factions, one resistant to Charles’s pretensions and the other compliant. The conclave met sporadically. During a meeting at Perugia in the winter of 1293, the Cardinals admitted Charles and his son into the conclave and seated them amongst the College, as if electors. The fierce and independent Cardinal Benedict Gaetani is said to have rebuked the King for his unlawful interference.


Finally, more than two years after Nicholas’ death, the Cardinals, in their guilt over the failure to choose a pope, were seized by a fit of pious exuberance. They conceived that they should carry off a hermit monk with a reputation for great holiness, Peter of Mt. Morrone, and place him upon the papal throne. The plan was agreeable to Charles II, who realized that he could easily control this otherworldly old man. So it was that Peter of Mt. Morrone became Pope Celestine V in August 1294.


The government of the Church was immediately reduced to chaos. Charles II exercised great influence over Celestine, whom he was able to manipulate through his agents at the papal court. At the Embertide of September, Celestine, without consulting the Sacred College, created new Cardinals, the preponderance of whom were French (allies of Charles). He then set about to revise the rules for the next conclave, essentially in order to ensure that the Cardinals would be confined to a place under Charles’s control such that the King could manage the election from without. 


Celestine’s misrule was already too much for the independent Cardinals, especially Cardinal Gaetani. An ardent defender of the liberties of the Church and the hard-won prerogatives of the papacy, Gaetani appears to have led the effort to convince Celestine to abdicate. Gaetani, a learned canonist, held that a pope could properly resign his office—although there was no precedent for such an act—as long as it was done for legitimate reasons. Celestine seems to have been eager to find a way to return to his mountain hermitage, realizing that his reign was a detriment to both the Church and to his own salvation.


On St. Lucy’s Day 1294, five months after he was proclaimed pope, he announced his resignation in consistory. Ten days later, the cardinals convened in conclave and, on Christmas Eve 1294, elected Gaetani to fill the vacancy created by resignation. He took the name Boniface VIII.




The resignation that opened the way for the accession of Boniface VIII was an unprecedented event in the life of the Church. It had enormous consequences. Boniface’s reign set off a long-running series of disasters that brough ruin upon the papacy and the Church in general. In the tradition of his predecessors, Boniface sought to maintain a vigorous, independent papacy that was a political and religious force over the princes of Europe. But his commitment to the papacy as an authority separate from, and superior to, the power of the secular princes collided against the growing power of the European states.


The wars between England and France produced a great need for revenue on the part of both nations, and a controversy arose surrounding the contributions of the clergy, who maintained immunity from compulsory taxation. In 1296, Boniface issued the constitution Clericis Laicos by which, in firm language, he repeated the traditional prohibition against taxation of the clergy and the goods of the Church without papal permission. The edict, although effectively withdrawn the next year, touched off a poisonous feud with the French King, Philip IV (“the Fair”) that would result in Boniface’s downfall—and the decline of the papacy itself.


Boniface spent the remainder of his reign in conflict with Philip. The enmity of the French culminated in September 1303 with the “Outrage at Anagni.” In this seminal event, so little known today, agents of the French crown, assisted by Boniface’s Italian political enemies, invaded the pope’s hometown of Anagni where Boniface was in residence. The French took hold of Boniface, assaulted him, and placed him under arrest. Within days, the townspeople rose up against the invaders and drove them off, but Boniface was crushed physically and spiritually. He died at Rome a month later.


He was succeeded by the short-lived Benedict XI, who released Philip from excommunication and attempted reconciliation with the French, though he firmly condemned the events at Anagni. When he died less than a year after his election, the pro-French Cardinals conspired with Philip to ensure the election of a friendly successor, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, Bretrand de Got. Philip is said to have extracted numerous promises from the archbishop in exchange for the King’s support in the conclave, including a promise that, as pope, he would sentence Boniface to damnatio memorae.


Elected as Clement V, the new pope never set foot in Rome, inaugurating the papacy’s sojourn in France. When, after seventy years, the exile in Avignon ended, the Great Schism of the West began, ushering in another forty years of degradation and chaos.


Such was the path opened by the resignation of Celestine V.




On the morning of February 11, 2013, my wife informed me in our kitchen that Benedict XVI had resigned. I told her she was mistaken; she must have misheard the news. When I learned she was not in error, I felt my heart sink.


On the afternoon of March 13, 2013, I was in a government office when the clerk behind the counter told me that there was white smoke over the Vatican. The new pope was a South American Jesuit. My heart dropped again, as I forced a smile.


At Benedict’s accession, and during his reign, I had felt a sense of triumph. At last, it seemed, there was a consensus, a recognition that the time had come to correct the errors of the postconciliar period. There was a flowering of young priests in cassocks and birettas. The Latin Mass was spreading. Sanctuaries were restored to their original glory and new, strong bishops filled important diocese. We were making the Church great again.


In my naivete, I did not perceive the forces that were working night and day to destroy the Benedictine renewal. They waited, they worked, they plotted, and, in what has become a familiar narrative, they seized back power with a vengeance, fiercely committed to ensuring that it would not slip from their grasp so easily again. What Benedict did would be undone; what they would do could never be reversed.  


We do not know the mind of God, but the evidence suggests that Providence does not favor papal abdication. Celestine’s resignation cracked the foundation of Christendom—the polity based upon the principle that even a king must answer to God, whose voice speaks through the Church. The resignation of Joseph Ratzinger was the greatest defeat for the cause of culture in fifty years. 


I once heard it said that Ratzinger was the most learned man in the world. He was the realization of the great Catholic man of my youthful imagination—an intellectual, classicist, lover of literature, music, history, and art; immersed in tradition, sure and certain and unflappable in his faith. The fact that he knew, that he understood—he was not just “one of us,” he was our model—made it all the more difficult to understand his resignation.


I believe he made an error, a tragic misjudgment. And now, whilst we see through the glass darkly, he sees face-to-face. This great man, beloved, a sinner thrown upon the mercy of God, Benedict XVI, PP, requiescat in pace.