As an atheist and being raised in the former German Democratic Republic, where the leaders followed Marx’ opinion “Religion is the opium of the people”, my relation to the Holy Father is non-existant. But as a mediaevalist it is an entirely different matter. I am fascinated by this institution, still alive after over 2.000 years, still powerful and still growing.
When these days the 266th pope will be elected, the world will be witness of an ancient ritual. Not much has changed during these two millenia. The same services will be ministered, the same vestments will be worn and the same election process will be run.
First attempts to standardise the election of popes were made in 1059 by Nicolaus II, concrete regulations followed in 1130: the sacred college of cardinals alone was now responsible for the election, as it is still today. The necessity of the two thirds majority in conclave, still required today, was defined in 1179 by Pope Alexander III within the decretal Licet de vitanda (for explanation: The name of a decretal refers to the first three words of the text, the so called Initium). Sometimes the formation of a majority took a long time, so that in 1241 the roman Senator Matteo Rosso Orsini imprisoned the cardinals violently, to force them to reach a conclusion. Soon after that, in 1274 the conclave became imperative due to the decretal Ubi periculum maius, enacted on the 2nd Council of Lyon. Today, the Sistine Chapel is the place of choice for this event. The election by voice or ballot papers, the first time documented in 1198, was constituted in 1621.
The modern electoral law is set down in the Apostolical Constitution Universi dominici gregis, released February, 22nd 1996 by Pope John Paul II. Again, the exclusive right of election by the college of cardinals is ascertained, but only those cardinals are allowed who have not fullfilled their 80th year of life. During the vacancy (Vacante Sede Apostolica) this college also takes over the leadership of the church. And the rules of election were changed slightly: If 33 ballots ended without a result, the college can lower the majority vote system from the two thirds to an absolute majority to speed up the process. An election by acclamation, like suggested in the movie “Angels and Demons”, is not allowed since 1975. If the elected pope is not a bishop, he first of all must be consecrated as one, because only then he has the full papal power. This shows how close the connection between the Papacy and the mitre is.
The question of the name a new pope chooses was at first not important. Only those who had a burdened name because it was pagan (Mercurius = John II), political burdened (Octavianus = John XII) or vulgar (Os porci = Sergius IV) chose a new, whereas Petrus as a name was frowned upon. But since the 11th century it was common to change the name, to show that a “new man” was positioned on the Holy See. A relation to the change of names like it is common in monasterial way is unlikely. The chosen name was more likely an assignment to an administration of a former pope, a personal connection or the worship of a specific saint. After 1046 only three popes did not choose a new name: Julius II (1503-13), Adrian VI (1522-23) and Marcellus II (1555).
So, in the end, the ritual to elect a pope is in its principal element over 800 years old – watching it is like time travelling, living history displayed in front of our waking eyes!
The history of the papacy is a very long one. Though being now the head of the Catholic Church, the office of the pope did not exist from the very beginning. His rise was the development over several centuries. After Constantine I had moved to the East, the political influence of the roman bishop started to increase and the demand of the primat within the church reached a first peak under Leo I (440-461). But still the ecumenical council was the highest power in western church during the first millenium, which was also able to judge the pope.
The development of an hierarchic structure within the church was prepared during the 10th century because of the Cluniac Reforms, which focused on restoring the traditional monastic life after the dark ages of the late Early Middle Ages and connected the monasteries directly to the Pope as a power of protection. Leo IX (1049-1054) was the first pope with an increasing importance outside of Rome and during the High Middle Ages the pope demanded the supremacy of the clerical power over the secular, which led to big conflicts between Emperors and popes.
The most important development after loosing the fight against the Emperor took place during the renaissance. The papacy tried to reach a new importance as a leading cultural power. But with the reformation the universal importance of the catholic church ended. In the course of the counter-reformation a new centralism was generated and the pope took over the leadership of the mission in the new world with help from the main religious orders like Franciscan Order, Dominican Order, Capuchin and the Society of Jesus.
In the 18th and 19th century the political powerlessness became more than obvious and reached its peak in the destruction of the church state by Napoleon. Although the state was restored, its political importance had vanished into nothingness. The church reached afterwards a new state of closeness. In 1870 the First Vatican Council took place, where important questions were solved. It declared the papal infallibility, because the Pope is now per definition the representative of God on earth. Since the Bishopric of Rome is the equivalent of the papacy, the bishop of Rome is, also as an dogmatic fact, the Successor of Petri, who was appointed by Jesus. This is verified in the bible (Matthew 16, 16ff., and 28, 20; Luke 22, 31f. and John 21, 15ff.). This dogma was written down afterwards in the so called Codex Iuris Canonici, the law book of the Catholic Church, first time published in 1917.
Modern times started with difficulties for the church. After the foundation of the new sovereign Vatican state in 1929, the church was confronted with new problems. Questions were raised towards the church, about the antichristian totalitarian systems like communism and fascism, questions that needed answers. John XXIII (1958-1963) and Paul VI (1963-1978) worked towards an united christianity and stepped, again, into the light of world’s attention. Other topics new popes preached for were peace, social justice and christian responsibility for the world, which were defined in the 2nd Vatican Council. Until today these are the goals of the modern catholic church.
But this very day, the Christianity is in a nearly unique situation. There are only three other popes beside Celestine V and now Benedict XVI who outlived their office. However, Gregory XII, Benedict XIII and John XXIII, the last two antipopes, were all removed from the office during the Council of Konstanz (1414-1418), and therefore cannot be named in the same way as Celestine V and Benedict XVI. Those two retired, the other three had no choice.
Celestine V, who was until this year the only other pope to retire, was born in 1209/10 as Pietro del Morrone, a son of peasants. He was a benedictinian monk and lived as hermit since 1231. Never educated at school, he was nonetheless a good leader of the by himself founded hermit union. Soon he was considered as a saint and elected July, 5th 1294 as pope per inspirationem, without even being asked. He was a product of the growing and powerful mendicant orders, wishing for a truly religious pope, the Papa angelicus, who should renew the church und lead it into the Age of the Holy Spirit like Joachim of Fiore, a mystic and theologian of the twelfth century, had hoped. But Celestine was out of his depths. He was already 84 at the point of election, an exceptional high age for the Middle Ages and running such a big organisation was too much, he could not cope with the power and the demands set upon him. The curia fell into chaos and corruption. Realising that his reign did great harm to the church he resigned after only five months. Resignation was possible according to canon law, but still it was quiete controversial and therefore the former pope Pietro-Celestine was arrested. Sources provide us with the information that his decision to retire was reached under a severe crisis of conscience. At May, 15th 1313 he was canonised.
One can assume it was not an easy decision for pope Benedict XVI to resign, especially after his predecessor pope John Paul II had rejected resignation in 1994 with the words “There is no such thing as a pope on retirement” after a stay in a hospital and after consulting cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – who is now pope Benedict XVI.
This quote sums up the biggest problem. According to Matthias Klipsch, catholic theologian, John Paul II was right. “To be pope is a calling, not a profession. Whenever the college of cardinals elects a pope during conclave it is not only an election in a judicial way. It is also and foremost the inspiration of God and his son, which speaks throught the Holy Spirit to the cardinals, and names the new pope!” In a straight logical way after the “retirement” and the new election there will be two popes. “This leads to severe questions. What if the old pope changes his mind and wants to come back? What if he chooses to set up a new Holy See in Munich? A schism would arise. There are no regulations for such a situation like a retirement, that is why no one except Celestin has ever dared to do it. Too many insecurities. But these are questions the church has now to solve. Because of the modern medical science the life expectancy rises, but also maladies related to this high age occure much often. That is something the church has to deal with.”
Both popes retired out of the realisation that they can no longer successfully lead the church. But while the first was not able to fulfill his duty from the beginning the other retires out of age and failing strength. At least this is the official in the canonical law required explanation. Rumours are it were the internal quarrels in the Vatican state that drove him away. “Scandals like corruption, VatiLeaks and abuse as well as the missing communication between the curia and the pope are also possible reasons,” Klipsch suspects. “How can he lead 1.2 billion believers when he is not able to ensure peace and quiet within his own house?” Nonetheless as an active catholic Klipsch says he feels a deep respect for the decision of the pope to resign.
Now, in the 21st century the papacy with its centuries old tradition and heavy burden of history has to deal with a world which changes faster than ever. Benedict XVI acknowledged this, being the first pope to use twitter to reach his congregants. But on the other side he confesses, that such a demanding time asks for a pope with full strength of the body as well as his mind. Maybe it is a hint or actually an advise towards the cardinals who have to choose his successor. “Choose a younger one than me.” Because only a few days after his election, Benedict said once, he felt his acclamation was like a guillotine, at the age of 78 he was far too old already.