Pope Benedict XVI will be the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign from the papacy. Given the alternatives, retirement seems an attractive option.

Resignation last occurred in 1415 with Pope Gregory XII.  That was quite a while back—the year Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt; back when Catholic Church still murdered “heretics” like the Czech reformer Jan Hus, who was excommunicated and then burned at the stake (July 6, 1415) in connection with the so-called Western Schism involving three claimants to the papal office, which was resolved in part by Pope Gregory XII’s voluntary departure from the office.

Few others have left on such terms.  Most papal tenures end in death, of course—many by violence or treachery. This began with the very first pope, Apostle Simon Peter aka St. Peter (32-67), who was crucified during the reign of Nero.  Also killed by Roman soldiers was Pope Sixtus II (257-58), who was apprehended in a cemetery while giving service and beheaded under the reign of the notoriously anti-Christian emperor Valerian the Elder. A similar story of beheading is told about Stephen I (254-57) in the medieval text The Golden Legend (“And when they came they found him singing mass, and anon he finished devoutly that which he had begun. And that done, they beheaded him in his seat.”)[1]

Their predecessor Sixtus I (217-22) was killed during an uprising against the Church and, by some accounts, thrown down a well.  Then there was Pope John XII (955-64), who died in the throes of an adulterous sex act (by some reports at the hands of the cuckolded husband).  Just 10 years later Pope Benedict VI (973-74) was imprisoned and murdered at the hands of Cardinal-Deacon Franco Ferucci, who would later become Antipope Boniface VII and who is credited with the murder of a second pope, John XIV (983-84), by starvation.  As recently as 1978, rumors surrounded the death of seemingly health 65 year-old Pope John Paul I just 33 days into his papacy.

However, none can compare to the ghoulish fate of Pope Formosus (891-96). Formosus was embroiled in the deadly religious-state political affairs that characterized the office for so many centuries, having been a candidate for both the papacy and excommunication in the year 872. His excommunication was lifted in 878 on a promise that he would never serve again as a priest, but he nevertheless managed to be elected pope in 891. He died in 896 in the midst of these affairs.  He was succeeded by the 15-day pontificate of Boniface VI, who made way for Pope Stephen VI (896-97 – sometimes called Stephen VII), who had the corpse of Formosus exhumed to stand trial in the so-called Cadaver Synod (synod horrenda).  The corpse was placed on a throne dressed in full pontifical garb.  A young deacon was charged with answering questions on behalf of Formosus’ cadaver.  The synod was “completely dominated by [Pope] Stephen VII, who overawed the assemblage with his frenzied tirades.”[2]

Not surprisingly, Formosus was convicted of the charges against him, whereupon a sentence was handed down that “the three fingers of Formosus’s right hand used to give papal blessings be hacked off, and that the body be stripped of its papal vestments, clad in the cheap garments of a lay person, and buried in a common grave.”[3]

The sentence was carried out only to see Formosus’ corpse exhumed again and thrown into the Tiber River (later to be recovered by a monk).[4] Pope Stephen was deposed shortly after this gruesome affair and was himself thrown in a dungeon where he was strangled.

Catholic Church Canon provides: “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” (Catholic Code of Canon Law, Can. 331, § 2.)  Pope Benedict XVI, whatever may be said now or later concerning his papacy or the reasons for his departure, can hardly be faulted for taking the resignation route in light of some interesting historical precedents.


[1] Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook: The Golden Legend, Vol. IV, publicly available at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume4.asp#Stephen the Pope

[2] Donald E. Wilkes, Jr., “The Cadaver Synod: Strangest Trial in History,” Flagpole Magazine p.8 (Oct. 31, 2001).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

Matt Schultz is a shareholder with the Levin Papantonio Law Firm in Pensacola, Florida.  He is a member of the Florida Bar and a former member of the Florida Bar’s Federal Court Practice Committee. He is a Senior Writer for the national publication The Trial Lawyer Magazine.