The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death and Salvation
By Jon M. Sweeney
Published by Image Books, 2012

Reviewed by Michael Walsh

 During the late Pope John Paul II’s long, drawn-out illness, one of the FAQs was, inevitably, can a pope resign? The answer, of course, was yes. A pope has done so, and therefore one might do so again.

Practically every commentator at the time seemed to be aware that Celestine V (1294) had given up the papal office. As the distinguished historian Maurice Powicke long ago remarked, it is a well-known story. Author Jon Sweeney takes issue with the Powicke view, but the story is known to anyone who has ever opened a history of the papacy. It is, nonetheless, a story worth retelling.

In the long sede vacante following the death of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92), Charles II of Sicily was desperate for a pope, any pope, who would ratify his secret treaty of La Junquera. A monk, Peter Morrone, was conveniently at hand. The king did not write Morrone’s letter to the cardinals in their prolonged conclave, but he may well have inspired it. The letter precipitated Morrone’s election as Celestine V. The big question of Celestine’s pontificate is, did Peter Morrone -- as he once was and after his pontificate returned to being -- jump from the throne, or was he pushed?

Sweeney spends a good many of his 250 pages describing the spiritual milieu in which Celestine was formed. He emphasizes Morrone’s holiness and love of solitude. Sweeney’s conclusion necessarily follows: Celestine left the papal office because he judged he could not fulfill it. The only proper thing for a holy man to do, therefore, was to resign (not a scruple that seems to have worried too many Roman pontiffs).

Click here to read this review from the National Catholic Reporter


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