Gregory XII: the last pope to resign

Council-of-Constance gregory XII

Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign at the end of February because of health concerns. The move is exceedingly rare; the last time a pontiff stepped down for any reason was nearly 600 years ago amid one of the most turbulent periods in church history.

The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who abdicated in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism, which at one point saw three men lay claim as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

At the time of Gregory’s election in 1406, the church was in the midst of a split that had rent it since 1378, an outgrowth of the Avignon Papacy. Various men from two rival camps simultaneously claimed to be the true pope during the period.

Also called the Papal Schism, the split was driven by politics rather than any theological disagreement. It would prove a turning point in church history.

Gregory was born Angelo Correr in Venice, the son of a nobleman, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance. He was successively appointed bishop of Castello (1380), Latin patriarch of Constantinople (1390), cardinal-priest of San Marco (1405), and papal secretary.

Gregory was elected in November 1406 in Rome by a conclave consisting of just 15 cardinals, with the express condition that should rival Antipope Benedict XIII, who was based at Avignon, France, renounce all claims to the Papacy, Gregory would do likewise. That would enable a fresh election to take place, bringing the schism to an end.

A meeting was set on neutral turf in northwestern Italy. Not surprisingly given the nature of medieval Christian politics, the two pontiffs were wary to open negotiations. Before long both began to have second thoughts about giving up power, and each feared capture by his rival’s allies.

Gregory’s cardinals were none too pleased with these developments and openly showed their dissatisfaction, even going to far as to give indications that they might abandon him.

In 1408, Gregory tried to strengthen his base of supporters making four of his nephews cardinals. That, despite a promise he had made 18 months earlier that he would create no new cardinals, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

At this point, seven of the cardinals secretly began negotiating with the cardinals of Antipope Benedict regarding the convocation of a general council, the Catholic Encyclopedia added.

The idea was to depose both popes and elect a new pontiff. They then summoned the Council of Pisa and invited both pontiffs, but both Gregory and Benedict apparently saw the handwriting on the wall and declined to attend.

In June 1409, members of the Council of Pisa deposed both Gregory and Benedict, and elected Alexander V. Now, in effect, there were three popes.

It was only through the Council of Constance (1414-1418) that the situation was finally resolved. Gregory appointed Carlo Malatesta and Cardinal Giovanni Dominici of Ragusa as his proxies.

“The cardinal then convoked the council and authorized its succeeding acts, thus preserving the formulas of Papal supremacy,” according to Wikipedia.

On July 4, 1415, Malatesta, acting in the name of the pope, announced Gregory’s resignation, which was accepted by the cardinals. The council also set aside Antipope John XXIII, who had succeeded Alexander V. Benedict, on the other hand, refused to stand down and was declared a schismatic and excommunicated from the church.

“At the end of the schism, they cleared the decks by getting rid of all three popes and having a fresh election of Martin V,” Norman Housley, professor of history at the University of Leicester, told Bloomberg.

Martin would rule until 1431.

The impact of the schism would reverberate for decades to come, but the most long-last effect would be that cthe oncept of the papacy had been irrevocably altered, according to Tolle Lege, described as “the blog of the Dartmouth Apologia.”

“The papacy would continue to exert influence in secular affairs …,” it writes. “Nonetheless, its ability to act with impunity and without question had been eliminated. The questions that soon did arise, of course, would directly lead to the Protestant Reformation.”

(Above: Image of the Council of Constance, where it was agreed Gregory XII would resign as pope of the Roman Catholic Church.)


8 thoughts on “Gregory XII: the last pope to resign

  1. Thanks for the well-researched history, CBC.
    I’m going to try to send you a link to today’s posting on the blog authored by Daniel F. Horan, OFM (Franciscan).
    I have made a comment there that you might find interesting.
    I think that I may need an e-mail address of some sort to do this…

      • A lot of bloggers don’t like to post an e-mail address. I most certainly understand and respect that.

        The blog I’m referring to is: (whimsical title, yes?)
        When you get to it, you will see two postings.
        The second one is the one that I wanted you to see — including my Comment following the article. I’m amazed that they actually printed it.
        You will see the reason why.

        One annoying feature of this blog is that they use white on black. My computer lets me temporarily change that by going to the top right of the screen, click on “page” pull-down menu, click “style,” arrow right, click on “no style.” (I have Win XP SP3 IE8 so your computer may differ.)

        I just wanted you to see the opinion of one
        dedicated middle-of-the-road, a little left leaning at times, Irish Catholic Christian who finally found her voice a few years ago (with the help of the Holy Sprit I must add).

      • Alice,

        You raise some good points in your posts on the Dating God blog (and, yes, that is an interesting name). First, I believe Benedit was elected with the idea that he would be a placeholder pope, along the lines of John XXIII. And, like John XXIII, he ended up being a good deal more. He was 78 when he was elected and was, I believe, in the process of retiring from the post he held within the Church. I don’t think that Benedict has proceeded down a course that anyone who understood his background wouldn’t have expected.

        Second, I think it’s important to realize that given the religious make-up of the secular media who write about Benedict and the Roman Catholic Church, you’re most often going to get a less than positive view. Having worked in the media, I know that many journalists are areligious or even antagonistic towards religion. Catholicism is particularly poorly regarded. When you have a group of individuals who, say, believe women should be ordained as priests, conservatives such as Benedict will always be seen as the problem, not the solution

        That’s not to say I agree with everything about the Church or everything this pope or previous popes have done. However, I tend to look at it like this: In my 48 years, I have acquired limited knowledge of theological matters. It may be more than many people today, but it would foolish of me to think that I know more than the Church, which draws upon 2,000 years of learning, and the wisdom of thinkers such as Paul of Tarsus, Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of SIena. So I tend to defer to the Church on matters of faith. Not blindly, but I accept that the Church has likely given far more thought about these things than I could ever hope to have the time or ability to do. I believe Benedict was chosen for a reason. We may not understand that reason fully, but I do believe in the idea that Holy Spirit guides those responsible for electing a leader for the Church.

        Finally, my faith in the Church does not mean that I don’t think the Church dropped the ball in a major manner when it came to identifying and rooting out sexual predators within its own ranks, an issue which will haunt it for decades to come. And, yes, the sin of vanity is apparent in how some church officials live their lives. And there are other problems, as well. But the Church is run by men and as you and I know, man is fallible. If we’re waiting for the Church to achieve perfection, it’s not going to happen – at least not here on Earth.

  2. CBC, I will reply to your very thoughtful comments later. Have a lot going on right now to do them justice.
    In the meantime, wanted to refer you to two excellent postings that I just received this a.m.:

    1. – Pope cites Dorothy Day…

    2. – Lenten grace…

    • I have been thinking and praying about what to say in reply to your reply of Feb. 12. I agree with most of what you say. And I applaud you for the thoughtful, kind, faith-filled points that you have made. I love the RC church. And because I love her I occasionally need to express my opinion to her earthly leadership when it appears that they have strayed far from the mandate (mission) that Jesus set forth to his disciples, as recorded in the Word as given to us in the New Testament (Christian Scriptures). I believe that my Baptism into the Body of Christ gives me that privilege and responsibility. Each of us — the entire Body — needs to be held accountable.

      My comments to you, and to Fr. Horan, were not intended to be a disrespectful harangue about MY church. They were, and are, intended to be exactly as I have explained above.

      The Lord has helped me to frame my reply to you through today’s posting by Fr. Richard Rohr. He says essentially what I would say if I had his knowledge and his grace-filled writing skills.

      May you have a holy, productive Lent, CBC, and may you feel the presence of Jesus every day.

      • I have tried unsuccessfully to forward you Fr. Rohr’s posting. I cannot find an address to fwd. it to and there is no “attach” options on your site. The posting I refer to is by Fr. Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation.

  3. Alice, don’t ever worry about being “disrespectful,” at least with me, when discussing matters of faith. Institutions can only grow and thrive when there is thoughtful, open debate. You and I or you and someone else may disagree about certain aspects of how things are being done, were done or will be done, but I think it’s safe to say that we all want the Church to be healthy and vibrant. Obviously, there have been periods in the past when that didn’t happen, when the powers that be were content with the way that things were, and we ended up with schisms, breakaway movements, or wholesale defections.

    I agree that our Baptism into the Church does give us the privilege and responsibility, even the obligation, to voice our views when we believe something is amiss. You and I likely do disagree on various points here and there; in fact, it’s unlikely that anyone anywhere will agree with me on every single point of Church doctrine. But that doesn’t mean we should overlook the fact that there is so much more that we do agree on.

    If John Paul II can state that “there are many paths to God,” when speaking on the issue of different faiths, I think that we within the same Church can certainly overlook minor matters of doctrinal difference. Church doctrine was formulated in a single day, and I’d like to believe that I’m still open to learning and, when necessary, adapting my views. John Paul also once said, “The worst prison would be a closed heart.”

    I would like to read Fr. Rohr’s posting. You can send it to me at

    As always, Alice, I’ve enjoyed our conversation and look forward to more in the future. Take care.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s