Originally published 03/01/2013
Daniel Bornstein is Professor of History and Religious Studies and the Stella Koetter Darrow Professor of Catholic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the vice-president of the American Catholic Historical Association, and will assume the presidency in 2014. He is the author of The Bianchi of 1399: Popular Devotion in Late Medieval Italy and the editor of Medieval Christianity, volume 4 of A People’s History of Christianity.The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, announced for February 28, is an action virtually without precedent. No pope has resigned in modern times. No pope has ever resigned for reasons of failing health. And hardly any pope—only one, really—has ever resigned the papacy voluntarily. Early examples are shrouded in obscurity, but were all obviously constrained in one way or another. Pontian (230-235) is said to have resigned after being exiled: he evidently recognized that he could not function as bishop of Rome while performing slave labor in the mines of Sardinia. Marcellinus (296-304) had the misfortune to be bishop of Rome during the great persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian. He reportedly bent to imperial pressure and offered sacrifice to the pagan gods; and as a consequence, he was either deposed or forced to abdicate.