World Views
2:55 pm
Thu March 28, 2013

Pope Emeritus Benedict's Lessons From 700 Years Ago

Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI pray together in Castel Gandolfo - March 23, 2013
Credit vatican / YouTube
Suzette Grillot's interview with Jason Houston via Skype from Arezzo, Italy.

The world’s 1.2 billion Catholics are celebrating Holy Week, and Pope Francis is preparing for his first Good Friday and Easter Mass as pontiff. It’s been exactly a month since Pope Benedict XVI stepped down from the office of the papacy, which has given observers time to reflect on the historic transfer of power.

“This will stand out as a moment that Church historians will talk about for the next 600 years,” said University of Oklahoma Italian language and literature professor Jason Houston. He says if Benedict set a precedent for resignation that future pontiffs would follow, “he has changed the papacy in a way that no one has since probably the 11th Century. [But] I don't think that's going to happen.”

Houston’s research focuses on Italian Medieval and Renaissance literature, with an emphasis on the poet Dante Aligheri. When Dante wrote The Inferno between 1305 and 1310, one of the figures he put into the antechamber of Hell was the last pontiff to voluntarily resign – Pope Celestine V.

“Because of the fact that Pope Boniface VIII was able to take over afterwards and lead the Church down this path of ruin, in [Dante’s] mind,” Houston says. “So that response has carried a lot of weight across the generations.”

Houston speculates that Benedict may have been thinking about resignation as early as 2009, when he visited the Basilica of Collemaggio, which contains the remains of the relics of Celestine V.

“He, at that time, took off the pallium, which is the wool cord that's invested on the pope the day he got invested in 2005, and laid it on Celestine V's tomb,” Houston said. “What was that act? It's an interesting moment, but he had to know what Dante's judgment was of that act, and the danger that it posed for the Church at that time.”

On Saturday, Pope Francis visited Benedict at the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo. Houston says he was struck when he watched the official video montage of the meeting.

“What do you do when you meet the pope? You kiss his ring,” Houston said. “Benedict does not kiss Francis's ring. At least it's not in the video montage that we see. They meet as equals, and if anything, Benedict is in charge. The optics, as we might say, of that meeting don't work well to show that the new pope is in charge.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On how Pope Celestine V’s resignation was interpreted by Italian literature

Dante Alighieri, the very famous Italian poet who wrote The Divine Comedy, put Celestine V in hell for giving up the papacy. Specifically for that fact. Even though Celestine V, in 1313, was made a saint by the Church, Dante, when he wrote The Inferno in about 1305-1310, chose to put Celestine V in hell for that exact reason. Not so much over the fact that he resigned, but because of what came after. Because of the fact that Boniface was able to take over afterwards and lead the Church down this path of ruin, in his mind. So that response has carried a lot of weight across the generations.

On Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 tribute to Celestine V

He visited the church where Celestine V was buried. He, at that time, took off the pallium, which is the wool cord that's invested on the pope the day he got invested in 2005, and laid it on Celestine V's tomb. Did he know already in 2009 that he was going to resign? What was that act? It's an interesting moment, but he had to know what Dante's judgment was of that act, and the danger that it posed for the Church at that time.

On whether or not Benedict XVI’s resignation has set a precedent

If he's done that, he has changed the papacy in a way that no one has since probably the 11th Century. That would be an incredible change to the institution of the papacy, if there's precedence for resignation. I don't think that's going to happen. I think Francis will serve out his time until his death, and I think that will continue to be the way the papacy changes hands. And this will stand out as a moment that Church historians will talk about for the next 600 years.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Jason Houston, welcome to World Views.

JASON HOUSTON: Thank you, Suzette. I'm glad to be here.

GRILLOT: Thank you for joining us all the way from Italy. Some exciting times going on over there. We have recently witnessed the resignation and retirement of Pope Benedict. This was obviously very significant, given its historical, well, this hasn't happened in a long time. 600 years ago, we had a pope resign - Celestine V. But it hasn't happened since then. Can you tell us what's going on here with Pope Benedict's resignation, and why is this so historically significant? Why does this not normally happen?

HOUSTON: Well, it's a difficult story to tell, because the circumstances around the resignation of the previous pope, as you mentioned, in 1294. He resigned, and died 1296, were also very murky. So too is the case now, although Benedict XVI, who retired or resigned now, about a month ago, explained it was because of his health. No one in Italy quite believes that's the full answer, and that there are other forces at play behind that. I don't know, obviously, why he resigned. But the fact that he did resign is revolutionary. There's a reason that it's been 600 years since a pope has resigned, because it really does affect the position of the office of the papacy. Popes don't resign, and when they do, it doesn't end well. In fact, the pope who resigned in 1294, Celestine V, was imprisoned by the pope who took over after him. And that pope, Boniface VIII, led to the downfall of the papacy, and moved it to France, to Avignon, for 100 years, which is the so-called Babylonian Captivity. So the last time the papacy was resigned, it ended up in a disaster for the institution of the papacy.

GRILLOT: Yeah, because there was a lot of conflict at the time within the Church. Does it really sound like it's all that different from what we see today? People are very critical of the Catholic Church, and in particular the Vatican, so are we likely to see something similar to that? Or is this really just an issue of Pope Benedict was ill? I mean, he looks very frail. There are all of these reports about scandal and whatnot, but like you said, there's been little to prove that anything is amiss, so can we really compare the two situations?

HOUSTON: Well, that's one thing I think I get from living in Italy, and living in Europe in general. The fact that history is continually repeating itself, and events that happened 600 years ago, which seems so far away, particularly in Italy, don't seem that far away. People around here know that, and they know the circumstances. They know the fact that politics, papal and secular in Italy, are always intermixed. It isn't by chance that the pope chose to resign a week before the Italian national elections. No one here thought that was by chance. Equally, back in 1294 when Celestine V resigned, everyone understood it wasn't because he wanted to go back and be a hermit. They pulled him out of a cave to make him pope. He didn't want to be pope. They literally drug him out of a cave in Umbria and forced him onto the papal throne. But they were done with him, and someone pushed him out. I'm not suggesting that Benedict XVI was pushed out. I don't know, and no one knows, other than Benedict and maybe a few around him. But what I am fairly certain of is that Italians believe that there's more to it than what we know.

GRILLOT: So there's something else going on behind the scenes here. You mentioned the politics in Italy, and the Church in Italy kind of go hand-in-hand. There's this connection, so the fact that there was some timing going on would lead everyone to be suspicious, or is it just that Italians are suspicious?

HOUSTON: Both. It's hard to answer, but here they really think that they're onto something. Especially the Italians who are more left/center-left, who always see the Church as mingling unwelcome-ly in the affairs of state. And I think that they feel, the Movimento Cinque Stelle, which is the "third party" let's say, in Italian politics that have 30 percent of the vote this time - an incredible turnout. They feel really vindicated by the fact that even though, as they see it, Benedict played this ultimate card to try to get the citizens to vote center-right, (Italian Prime Minister Mario) Monti's party, and they didn't. And that the Italian citizens continued to move away from that kind of politics towards the new politics of the Five Star Movement, and Beppe Grillo. So there's no separation of church and state here, institutionally or intellectually. It's just assumed that these things go hand-in-hand. And very few people know, I think, outside of Italy, that Italian taxpayers pay for the maintenance of all the Cardinals in Rome. They pay the Vatican to be there, and they're very upset about that, especially in this time of economic crisis. So yes, they suspect too much, I believe, but they're sure something's going on. And that's just the way Italians are.

GRILLOT: So speaking of the response, then, the reaction of the public 600 years ago compared to the reaction of the public today, what has been the general response there in Italy?

HOUSTON: The reaction 600 years ago of the everyday person in Italy is of course much harder to know, because of sources. We just don't know what people were saying. But one important reaction, and one that carries a lot of weight not only in Italy but around the world, is the fact that Dante Alighieri, the very famous Italian poet who wrote The Divine Comedy, put Celestine V in hell for giving up the papacy. Specifically for that fact. Even though Celestine V, in 1313, was made a saint by the Church, Dante, when he wrote The Inferno in about 1305-1310, chose to put Celestine V in hell for that exact reason. Not so much over the fact that he resigned, but because of what came after. Because of the fact that Boniface was able to take over afterwards and lead the Church down this path of ruin, in his mind. So that response has carried a lot of weight across the generations. And I can't believe that Benedict didn't know that when he resigned. It was interesting, in 2009 Benedict went to the grave of Celestine V. He visited the church where Celestine V was buried. He, at that time, took off the pallium, which is the wool cord that's invested on the pope the day he got invested in 2005, and laid it on Celestine V's tomb. Did he know already in 2009 that he was going to resign? What was that act? It's an interesting moment, but he had to know what Dante's judgment was of that act, and the danger that it posed for the Church at that time.

GRILLOT: Wow, an interesting historical connection there. What can you tell us about Pope Francis, and related to what you can tell us about him, when we're already seeing images of Pope Francis meeting with Pope Emeritus Benedict. What an unusual sight to see, right? These two popes together. It's unheard of. What are the implications of this, and is Pope Emeritus Benedict going to be involved at all Pope Francis's tenure?

HOUSTON: Yeah, actually that scene in the video that was provided, obviously by the Vatican, so there's a little video montage of the interaction between Francis and Benedict in Castel Gandolfo, which happened this last Saturday, is striking. I would have to say even a little disconcerting, because as you look at the video, when Benedict approaches the pope, Francis, what do you do when you meet the pope? You kiss his ring. Benedict does not kiss Francis's ring. At least it's not in the video montage that we see. They meet as equals, and if anything, Benedict is in charge of the meeting. You see later that they're sitting there reading. Francis is in the visitor's chair, Benedict is in the chair of the desk. The optics, as we might say, of that meeting don't work well to show that the new pope is in charge. You spoke also about Francis's Italian heritage. That has made him a favorite in Italy. They don't see him as an Argentinian. They see him as an Italian who moved to Argentina, if you understand the difference there. They very much identify him as Italian. More European even, in their perspective, than Ratzinger, or Benedict XVI, in the sense that he's one of theirs. He's not an Italian pope, but he's as close as you can get to an Italian pope. I think that makes a lot of Italians happy. Because this immigrant experience of Italians is part of their history, and they identify with it.

GRILLOT: So does this bode well then for Pope Francis, in terms of his reign? The significant issues he's facing, there are so many things he's faced with today. The challenges that the Church is dealing with...he's been well-received. Does this mean that there's a lot of hope for what he will do for the Church?

HOUSTON: I think there's hope, but the hope that I sense is not institutional hope. What I mean by that is people aren't talking about how he's going to fix the problems of the Curia, the administration of the Church in Rome. And that was Benedict's problem. He doesn't seem like a strong character in that sense. He's charismatic. I think he's going to fix, or Italians that I've spoken to believe he's going to fix the image of the Church. Or even more specifically, the image of the papacy. He's 76, he has one lung. I don't think people imagine him having a long papacy, but...

GRILLOT: Yeah, that was the question. I mean, he also is advanced in age, and not necessarily 100 percent healthy. He has one lung. So the question is do you think Pope Benedict has set a precedent here? That perhaps we'll see future popes resign due to their health or other issues?

HOUSTON: I wonder if Benedict meant that. If he's done that, he has changed the papacy in a way that no one has since probably the 11th Century. That would be an incredible change to the institution of the papacy, if there's precedence for resignation. I don't think that's going to happen. I think Francis will serve out his time until his death, and I think that will continue to be the way the papacy changes hands. And this will stand out as a moment that Church historians will talk about for the next 600 years. But if it does change the way the papacy is elected, or the office is held, that will be a radical change that will completely change the office, in my estimation. That's to be seen.

GRILLOT: Okay, well thank you so much Jason Houston, for joining us on World Views, and bringing this perspective from Italy, and adding an historical flair. Thank you so much.

HOUSTON: Thanks Suzette for having me. It's been a pleasure.

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