Pope Benedict and the Middle Ages

On the morning of February 12 2013, I woke to the news that Pope Benedict XVI had retired. There hadn’t been a papal retirement in a few centuries, so reporters were rushing to wikipedia and the like and drawing analogies to Pope Gregory XII, the last to retire. But medievalists in my social media networks, especially the great George Ferzoco, kept pointing out that Benedict had never said anything about Gregory, but had twice visited the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V, the previous retiree (in 1295). As my kids ate breakfast, I posted a grumpy rant about bad history on Facebook, was urged to submit an op-ed, and scoffed that no one wanted to hear a historian complain that the 13th-century precedent was better than the 15-century precedent.

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Still, it was newsy and I had written my first ever piece for CNN (on language and Down syndrome) the previous fall, only the third op-ed of my life, so I had a contact at CNN. I wrote a cautious email to the editor. Three minutes later, I had sold the piece, which you can read here. Here’s a bit of that history:

Celestine himself had quite the surprise in July of 1294, when a group of religious and lay Catholics ascended to his mountain retreat and informed him that the Sacred College of Cardinals had just unanimously elected him as the new pope. Celestine, born Pietro del Murrone, was a Benedictine ascetic who spent most of his religious life seeking isolation as a hermit in Abruzzo, but he emerged as a consensus candidate when the cardinals could not agree on any of the usual suspects.

The choice was a disaster. King Charles of Anjou (and Naples), a powerful ruler of the era, tried to use him as a pawn to gain legitimacy over Sicily. Celestine created new cardinals without due process, gave the same title to multiple people and in general seemed to have trouble saying no. Elected in July at 79 and crowned in August, he resigned the papacy in December.

Ten days later, his chief lawyer and likely author of the new papal bull permitting resignation, Benedetto Gaitani, became Pope Boniface VIII. Boniface eventually imprisoned the now ex-Pope Celestine and kept him under close watch until he died two years later.

Celestine’s legacy, in some ways, became even more interesting than his life.

Boniface spent his early career undoing all of Celestine’s acts and trying to restore the papacy to political prominence. But within a few years of Boniface’s death in 1303, Pope Clement V, his successor, moved the papacy to Avignon, France, repudiated Boniface and quickly began canonization proceedings for the soon-to-be St. Celestine.

The point is that figures like Celestine, and Benedict, live on in debate, in memory, in nostalgia, in condemnation (Dante cursed Celestine and put him in Hell, writing, “che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto / Who made through cowardice the great refusal.” (Dante, Inferno, Canto IIi 60). Benedict will too, as he is rightly (in my view) held up as both symbolic and directly responsible for so many of the failures of the 20th-century church, though that’s not a view shared by all. The other point is that it was clear to medievalists that Pope Benedict had been thinking about the 13th century, about the canon law legalizing papal retirements, and that the history was important to process the modern moment. Modern medieval, if you will.

pope celestine v
Pope Celestine V, part of triptych, Naples (Wikimedia Commons)

After writing for CNN, an editor from The Atlantic emailing me to ask some questions about the history of the papacy, which I answered, but then pitched a piece on papal elections to make one of my favorite arguments: medieval people loved democracy. Far from being a time solely of might-makes-right rule, medieval people loved forming associations, writing bylaws, and voting for stuff. The College of Cardinals is one of the most prominent forms of medieval democracy still with us today, along with faculty senates, fraternal clubs, guild elections, etc. Later, when Pope Francis chose the name Francis, I wrote for them again. Over the next year, Francis practiced a kind of charismatic humility very foreign to modern celebrity culture, but quite familiar to students of medieval Christianity. So I kept writing, built a portfolio of material, and to a large part credit that moment with motivating me to write and connecting me with editor.

I’ve told this story dozens of times in the years since as I’ve traveled the country teaching academics how to write op-eds, and more importantly, how to pitch them. There are lots of different ways into the public sphere, but the easiest one is when your sub-field enters a news cycle unexpectedly. Then, no matter how small the point is that you want to make, you have an opportunity to catch an editor’s attention. But you have to move fast.

At the time I was working at a liberal Catholic institution at the time, founded by vowed sisters (not nuns, but you can think of them as nuns) who were not overly fond of Benedict (who was investigating American nuns). It was radically socially progressive, using its faith as a rock on which to embrace the world rather than as walls to keep the world out. It was a funny place to be a secular Jewish professor teaching medieval Christianity, but I always felt like I fit. It was also an institution where its Catholic leadership was not afraid to talk about the scandals of childhood sexual abuse, the money scandals, the collaboration with fascists. But when Benedict retired, I remember speaking to one of the sisters who had been critical of him to me just days before, admitting she was deeply impressed with his decision to step aside. The Church, she said, needed to get past this idea of lifetime appointment, and instead have its leaders learn to step aside.

Why did Benedict or Celestine step aside? It’s likely more than just being old and tired. I wrote for CNN:

Here is what Celestine wrote: “We, Celestine, Pope V, moved by legitimate reasons, that is to say for the sake of humility, of a better life and an unspotted conscience, of weakness of body and of want of knowledge, the malignity of the people, and personal infirmity, to recover the tranquility and consolation of our former life, do freely and voluntarily resign the pontificate.”

Compare that to Benedict’s statement: “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter”…

Historians regard Celestine’s claim of “personal infirmity” with considerable skepticism, focusing instead on “the malignity of the people” and pressure from his eventual successor as the real reason for his unprecedented resignation.

For Benedict XVI, the line, “shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith” stands out to me. What are these questions of deep relevance? Benedict was speaking of a shaken world (the Latin version makes this clear), but is he perhaps shaken too by his time on the throne of St. Peter?…Is he concerned about the ongoing, devastating revelations about pedophilia in the Catholic Church and related coverups? The “Vatileaks” scandal and the corruption it alleges? Does he just believe that the Catholic Church will need new leadership to face the challenges ahead? Or are his concerns more personal? Like Celestine, is he seeking “tranquility” and a quiet path to his final days?

I do think that Benedict’s retirement is worth pulling out as a thread to examine and think about in the long light of history. Lifetime appointments for rich people in the age of modern medicine are a recipe for gerontocracy. In the US, of course, we have SCOTUS and Federal Judges who can serve for life, a weird legacy of a previous age that has badly distorted our nation, allowing for Christian theocratic minority rule. What was striking about Benedict’s retirement is that it enabled a significant power and cultural shift in the church, along with the backlash to that shift. It’s a lesson that, I fear, rather than encourage the aging and powerful to step aside, will lead them to cling to their positions with increasing fervor.

Pope Benedict XVI died last night. His history, though, is just getting started.

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