Papal resignation is envisaged as a possibility in canon 332 §2 of the Code of Canon Law and canon 44 §2 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. The only conditions for the validity of the resignation are that it be made freely and be manifested properly.[1]

Canon law does not specify any particular individual or body or people to whom the Pope must manifest his resignation, leaving perhaps open the possibility of doing so to the Church or the world in general. But some commentators hold that the college of cardinals or at least its Dean must be informed, since the cardinals must be absolutely certain that the Pope has renounced the dignity before they can validly proceed to elect a successor.[2][3]

The term "abdication" is not used in the official documents of the Church for resignation by a Pope.


In 1045, Pope Benedict IX agreed, for financial advantage, to resign the papacy. Pope Gregory VI, who to rid the Church of the scandalous Benedict IX had persuaded him to resign and became his successor, himself resigned in 1046 because the arrangement he had entered into was considered simoniacal. His successor, Pope Clement II, died in 1047 and Benedict IX became Pope again.

The best known example of the resignation of a Pope is that of Pope Celestine V in 1294. After only five months of pontificate, he issued a solemn decree declaring it permissible for a Pope to resign, and then solemnly resigned. He lived two more years as a hermit and has been canonized. The papal decree that he issued ended any doubt among canonists about the possibility of a valid papal resignation.

The last Pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII (1406-1415), who did so to end the Western Schism, which had reached the point when there were three claimants to the papal throne, Roman Pope Gregory XII, Avignon Pope Benedict XIII, and Antipope John XXIII. Before resigning he formally convened the already existing Council of Constance and authorized it to elect his successor.

Alleged conditional resignations not put into effect

Before setting out for Paris to crown Napoleon in 1804, Pope Pius VII (1800-1823), signed a document of resignation to take effect if he were imprisoned in France.[3]

There has been speculation that, during World War II, Pius XII drew up a document with instructions that, if he was kidnapped by the Nazis, he was to be considered to have resigned his office, and the Cardinals were to elect a successor.


In the years leading up to his death in 2005, some writers suggested that John Paul II ought to resign due to his failing health, but Vatican officials denied that he had any intention to do so.

While a diocesan bishop must if requested offer his resignation from the governance of his diocese on completion of his seventy-fifth year of age,[4] and cardinals are not allowed to join a conclave after reaching eighty, there is no requirement for a Pope to resign on reaching any particular age. Since the enactment of these rules concerning diocesan bishops and cardinals, three Popes, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have reached the age of eighty, but have decided not to resign.

Apart from stating that, if the See of Rome is completely impeded, no innovation is to be made in the governance of the universal Church, and that the special laws enacted for these circumstances are to be observed,[5] canon law makes no provision for the eventuality that a Pope is temporarily or permanently incapacitated for reasons of health, an assassination attempt or captivity, nor does it indicate what individual or body or group has the authority to certify that the Pope is totally impeded from exercising his office.[6]


  1. "Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone" (Code of Canon Law, canon 332 §2, Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 44 §2)
  2. New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Canon Law Society of America, Paulist Press, 2002 ISBN 0809140667, 9780809140664), p. 438
  3. 3.0 3.1 Wikisource-logo.svg "Abdication". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  4. Code of Canon Law, canon 401 §1
  5. Code of Canon Law, canon 335, Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 47)
  6. The Code of Canon Law Annotated (Wilson & Lafleur Limitée, Montréal 1993 ISBN 2-89127-232-3), note on canon 335

See also

External links

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