In the history of the papacy, ten men have left the Petrine Office — most recently, of course, Pope Benedict XVI.Unlike Benedict, however, historical documentation regarding some popes who left the papacy for whatever reason is sketchy, either imprecise or partially lacking. Thus, the following overview of the Popes who laid down the Petrine Office — who also include St. Pontian, St. Marcellus, Liberius, John XVIII, Benedict IX, Sylvester III, Gregory VI, St. Celestine V and Gregory XII — keeps in mind these restrictions. St. Pope Pontian (230-235) was the first Pope to abdicate. It was a time when the Church was intermittently harshly persecuted by diverse Roman emperors. It was during Pontian’s pontificate that some of the theological writings of the scholar Origen (184-253) were condemned. At the time, there also lived the brilliant but very rigid and troublesome theologian priest Hipollytus (170-235). A number of Popes had allowed the absolution of grave sins, such as adultery, more than once. Hypollitus insisted that such sins could be forgiven only once. The controversy came to a head under Pontian. Hypollitus established himself as a rival pope and many historians consider him as the first anti-pope. The Church was tolerated under Emperor Severus Alexander (222-235), who ascended the imperial throne at age 14. He was replaced by the ruthless Emperor Maximinus Thrax (235-238), a soldier by profession. The new emperor immediately began to persecute Christians. Pope Pontian and Hippolytus were both arrested and exiled together to labor in the mines of Sardinia. Pontian abdicated as Pope on Sept. 28, 235 to prevent a vacuum in papal ministry. He and Hypollitus became reconciled while slaves and the schism was brought to an end. Both of them died as martyrs in 235.Apocryphal anecdotes surround the pontificate of St. Pope Marcellinus (296-304). Some scholars claim he was deposed while others state that he abdicated in 304, right before he was martyred during the Great Persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian (284-305).Some historians postulate that the first Pope who has been not declared a saint, Pope Liberius (352-366), resigned the papacy in 365; the documents available are very conflicting and polarized. By the time of his pontificate, the Church was already free to practice her faith openly, but she was plagued with Arianism, a heresy that denied the divinity of Christ. Emperor Constantine’s son, Constantius II (sole emperor from 350 to 361), was an avid Arian. He deposed Pope Liberius and sent him into exile in Thrace in 355. The Pope stayed there for two years. Meanwhile, the emperor appointed Felix (355-365) as pope (anti-pope). When Liberius returned to Rome to resume his papal ministry, the local clergy were divided between him and the anti-pope. The confusion continued with the election of his successor, St. Damasus I (366-384). It took 12 years for this Pope to be universally recognized, thus bringing the division to an end.Once, twice, three times a pope?By the middle of the tenth century, Rome was in chaos due to the oppressive and very powerful Crescentii family. Grave tensions and conflicts between the Crescentii and the Holy Roman Emperors ensued for many decades. The Crescentii understood clearly that if they controlled the Pope, they would control Rome. Hence, they installed men of their own choosing. Pope John XVIII (1003-1009) was one such man. The situation was complicated by the fact that during John XVIII's pontificate Rome was wracked with bouts of plague, while Saracens operating freely out of Sardinia ravaged the Tyrrhenian coasts. Pope John proved to be an able administrator but was constantly pestered with the grave upheaval in the papal territories, Italy and the Empire. He ultimately abdicated in June or July 1009, retired to a monastery, and died shortly thereafter.The extremely scandalous Pope Benedict IX is the most colorful of all the popes who resigned, and his papacy is the most confusing in the entire history of the Popes. But, it is a fact that he was a grave disgrace to the papacy, though he never pronounced statements which contradicted Church doctrine and morals.(Which brings up a point we all should remember: Being a Pope does not make one holy and devoid of sin. There were Popes whose private lives left much to be desired. Yet, we should be mindful that it is the Holy Spirit who guides and protects the Church — even in her darkest and most embarrassing hours.) Benedict IX is the only one to have been Pope on more than one occasion (thrice, in fact), the only man who sold the papacy, and certainly one whose resignation from the papacy is well documented. His first term (1032-1044) began while he was in his mid-teens in 1032, when his father, Count Alberic III of Tusculum, arranged his papal election. He was forced out of Rome in 1036, but soon returned with the help of Emperor Conrad II (1027-1039). He was again expelled from Rome in September of 1044 and was replaced by Pope Sylvester III (January-March 1045). It is not certain whether Benedict was deposed or he abdicated; what is certain is that the Catholic Church recognizes Sylvester III as a valid Pope. Benedict IX returned to Rome in March 1045 and expelled Sylvester III, who returned to his diocese of Sabina. Within the year, Benedict IX showed interest in marrying; his godfather, John Gratian, persuaded him to resign the papacy, offering him a huge sum of money. Benedict canonically resigned the papacy and John Gratian became Pope Gregory VI (1045-1046). But when Benedict's intended spouse refused to marry this immoral person, Benedict wanted to reassume the papacy! The situation was very complicated: Gregory VI was Pope, Sylvester III was still claiming to be Pope, and Benedict IX wanted to resume as Pope. Thus, Gregory VI, in order to restore peace to the Church, appealed to Emperor Henry III (1039-1056) to come to his aid. Meeting the imperial request, Gregory VI summoned the Council of Sutri in December 1046.It was a very interesting Council, to say the least. Both Sylvester III and Benedict IX were rejected as popes, and Gregory VI was accused of buying the papacy. In the end, Gregory VI resigned the papacy on Dec. 20, 1046. He was succeeded by Pope Clement II (1046-1047) who died within ten months of his papacy. Then Benedict IX moved into the papal residence in November and re-established himself as Pope for the third time. He lasted until he was driven out by German imperial troops in July 1049. He eventually gave up his claims to the papal throne and died a pious death in the Abbey of Grottaferrata around 1056. He had been succeeded in his third term as Pope by Pope Damasus II (July-August 1048). Be careful what you wish for…Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292) died on April 4, 1292 and for the next two years the cardinals, meeting in Perugia, could not agree on who should be the next Pope. It was the last non-conclave papal election. The monk-hermit Pietro da Morrone sent the cardinals a sizzling letter and warned them that divine vengeance would fall upon them if they did not elect a Pope quickly. The cardinals' reaction was to elect the hermit as the new Pope! At first, Pietro refused to accept his papal election and tried to flee. He was eventually persuaded to accept the Papal Throne by a deputation of cardinals, who were accompanied by the Kings of Naples and Hungary. He took the name of Pope Celestine V. His five-month papacy proved to be a first class disaster in administration and in meeting the political demands of the time. In fact, he was under the control of Charles II of Naples and Sicily (1285-1309). Realizing that he was personally inept to be Pope, and having sought counsel regarding a papal abdication, he issued a papal decree which declared a Roman Pontiff's right to resign, and then promptly exercised this right after just five months and eight days as Pope. In fact, this resignation paved the way for Church law to provide that a pope may freely resign his office of Roman Pontiff. In his very brief pontificate, Celestine V (who died May 19, 1296) also reinstituted the conclave system that was established by Pope Gregory X (1271-1276) in 1274, one which has been respected ever since.The Western Schism in the Catholic Church began in 1378 and ended in 1417. During this tragic period, there were two Popes, one living in Rome and the other living in Avignon, who claimed to be the true Pope. At the end of the schism, there were three claiming to be the true successor to St. Peter. However, the true Pope was the one who resided in Rome. That was Pope Gregory XII (1406-1415), who resigned the papacy for the greater good of the Church, which needed to be healed of the scandalous open wound. Since only a true Pope can convene a valid General Council, Gregory agreed to abide by the decision of the Council if he were to officially convene it. His summons of the Council (of Constance) established the validity to his claim to the papacy. As he had promised, he resigned the papacy on July 4, 1415 so that a new Pope would be elected, one whose papal authority would be recognized by the Universal Catholic Church. His resignation of the papacy practically brought the end to the Western Schism. The abdicated Pope retired to Ancona, where he died in 1417. The Cardinals had waited until Pope Gregory XII died before they convened in a conclave to elect his successor. The last Pope to resign as to date is Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013). He is leaving the papacy for the good of the Church. As of 8 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI became His Holiness Benedict XVI, Pontiff emeritus. May God bless and protect him! Msgr. Laurence Spiteri, a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is presently in charge of the legal office of the Vatican Apostolic Library and a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Roman See. He has authored “The Ten Commandments: A Positive Approach Toward Catholic Morality, Lifestyle and Attitude” (St Pauls/Alba House, 2007) and “The Code in the Hands of the Laity: Canon Law for Everyone” (St Pauls/Alba House, 1997).{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0308/abdicate/{/gallery}