Young & Curious

Mary Wieser

Q: Can you stop being a pope without dying?   — Tyler Kulhanek, St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School in Davenport
A: Can the pope retire? I have not heard this kind of question since Pope John Paul II (who died in 2005). Good for you, Tyler, for asking the question. This question has probably been on many people’s minds. Yes, the Holy Father may retire if he chooses. The Code of Canon Law states, “If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone” (Canon 332, No. 2). Most often when a pope is elected as the Successor of St. Peter, the Church expects that he will remain in office until his death.
However, there is much history between the Church beginnings and now. Know that a few popes have resigned for various reasons, and a few have been deposed for various reasons. The first pope to resign was Pope St. Pontian, who was elected as Successor of St. Peter on July 21, 230. During the persecution of Christians under Emperor Maximinus Thrax, St. Pontian was exiled to Sardinia and condemned to work in the salt mines, which no one was meant to survive. He resigned as pope on Sept. 28, 235, to enable the election of a new pope, St. Anteros, who could govern the Church. Pope St. Pontian was martyred in 236 (237), either from ill treatment in general or from a mortal beating.
On the other hand, Pope St. Silverius, consecrated pope on June 1, 536, was the first to be forcibly deposed. In March 537, the wicked Byzantine Empress Theodora had Pope St. Silverius captured and removed from Rome for not approving her nominations of heretics for bishops. He was exiled to the island of Palmaria where he remained a prisoner until his death on Nov. 11, 537. Since Pope St. Silverius had been declared “deposed,” the clergy and people of Rome elected Pope Vigilius, who was consecrated March 29, 537, (and was favored by the Empress).
A similar situation befell Pope St. Martin I, who was consecrated pope in July 649. Pope St. Martin opposed the Byzantine emperor’s attempt to promote the monothelite heresy and to appoint heretical bishops. The emperor had Pope St. Martin kidnapped, taken to Constantinople, deposed, condemned and exiled. He died in the Crimea on Sept. 16, 656, of ill-treatment and neglect. Pope St. Martin I is the last pope to die a martyr.
We could have gone on with much more history, but you might be getting bored. For all of us it must be noted that we can find some colorful history of the papacy, concerning resignations and depositions. However, there is much to learn from these stories: First, if a pope resigns from office, there will always be the temptation to challenge the authority of the new pope, pitting him against the old. Secondly, in modern times, the Church has been blessed with truly holy popes who have been strong leaders. Third, the Church has definitely made itself more independent, free of political plotting from secular leaders.
What about Pope John Paul II? As Our Holy Father, he consistently said that he would serve as long as the Lord desired. On the other hand this is what Pope Benedict XVI says, “When a pope arrives at a clear awareness that he no longer has the physical, mental, or psychological capacity to carry out the task that has been entrusted to him, then he has the right, and in some cases, even the duty to resign.”
Some of this information was taken from Saunders, Rev. William. “Can the Pope Retire?” Arlington Catholic Herald, 2005.
— Mary Wieser, director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Davenport
(Students in grades kindergarten through 12 are invited to submit questions about the Catholic Church  for The Catholic Messenger’s Young & Curious feature. Send them to or The Catholic Messenger, 780 W. Central Park Ave., Davenport, Iowa, 52804.)

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on