Resignation is possible under Canon Law
Pope Benedict XVI. is only the second pope, who is retiring in about two millennia of Church history. Coelestin V. had previously resigned in 1294, after only a few months in office voluntarily. He died in captivity in 1296 .
A pope is elected for life, but according to canon law, a resignation is also possible . The head of the church does not even require to give reasons. Also, no one needs to accept the resignation specifically. It is crucial, however, that the decision to withdraw is entirely voluntary. The in 1983 by John Paul II reformed Canon Law (Can. 332nd Clause 2) states: “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.”
However, before Pope Benedict XVI there is known only one voluntary resignation. Pope Coelestin V. left office Voluntarily on December 13 1294 after only five months. He was overwhelmed. Church historians speak of an unprepared and uneducated hermit who could barely speak Latin. The Cardinals had just elected him pope, because in nearly two years of struggle they could not agree on another competent candidate. Coelestin retired to a monastery after resigning.
He excused himself with health issues, ignorance (no experience in the management of the Curia) and the desire to get back to live as a hermit. Coelestin had previously adopted a constitution on the abdication of a pope. He was forced to do so by the resistance of the people who wanted to prevent the Pope’s resignation. It was delayed only by seven days.
Other historians claim that his successor, Boniface VIII. had forced Coelestin to abdicate. Coelestin should be remanded in custody, to prevent schism (schism), but he fled. However a ship wreckage led to his arrest. In 1296 he died a natural death, his remains lie in the Italian city L’Aquila that was rocked by a massive earthquake in 2009.
Resignation letter of popes in the 20th Century
Allegedly Pope Pius XII. (1939-1958) who had been criticized for his silence on the Holocaust, had prepared a letter of resignation with immediate effect in the event that he should be kidnapped during the occupation of Rome by German troops (1943 to 1944). The statement should be published as soon as the Pope would be arrested and taken out of Rome.
Paul VI. (1963 to 1978) and John Paul II (1978 to 2005) had also prepared a written resignation. They wanted to prevent the church from remaining leaderless in the event of a long illness. John Paul II. however had even once said, he could not picture to himself an “emeritus pope”. None of the secret resignation letter was ever used.