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Abdication, ecclesiastically considered, is the resignation of a benefice or clerical dignity. Every such honour or emolument, from the papal throne to the humblest chantry, may be resigned by the incumbent. The general ecclesiastical law concerning such abdications (exclusive of a papal resignation) is that the benefice must be resigned into the hands of the proper ecclesiastical superior. Moreover, the resignation must be prompted by a just cause, be voluntary and free from contracts involving simony. Resignations, however, may be made with accompanying stipulations, such as that the resigned benefice be bestowed upon a designated person, or that the abdicating cleric be provided with another office. It is also required that the one who resigns his benefice, if in sacred orders, should have other certain means of support commensurate with his dignity. Resignations may be not only express but also tacit. The latter is presumed to have taken place when a cleric accepts an office or commits an act incompatible with the holding of an ecclesiastical dignity, such as solemn profession in a religious order, enrolment in the army, contracting marriage, and the like. No resignation takes effect until it is accepted by the proper authority. Hence, those who hold office from a bishop must resign into his hands and obtain his acquiescence. Bishops, in like manner, must resign into the hands of the Pope. Vicars-general cannot accept resignations unless they receive powers ad hoc from the bishop. When a bishop abdicates his see, he may renounce both the episcopal benefice and dignity or only the benefice. If he resigns both he cannot in future perform any episcopal functions, even with the consent of the ordinary of the diocese where he resides. If he resign, however, only the benefice, and not the dignity, he still remains capable of performing such episcopal functions as other bishops may request him to exercise. Of course, in the former case, if an abdicated bishop should nevertheless ordain candidates, such action would be valid, as his episcopal character is indelible, but it would be entirely illicit and entail grave consequences both for ordainer and ordained. A bishop's Abdication of his see goes into effect as soon as the Pope has accepted it in a papal consistory. The bishopric then becomes vacant, but the actions of the prelate retain their validity until he receives official notice of the acceptance of his resignation.
Like every other ecclesiastical dignity, the papal throne may also be resigned. The reasons which make it lawful for a bishop to abdicate his see, such as the necessity or utility of his particular church, or the salvation of his own soul, apply in a stronger manner to the one who governs the universal church. It is true that the Roman Pontiff has no superior on earth into whose hands he can resign his dignity, yet he himself by the papal power can dissolve the spiritual marriage between himself and the Roman Church. A papal Abdication made without cause may be illicit, but it is unquestionably valid, since there is no one who can prohibit it ecclesiastically and it contravenes no divine law. The papacy does not, like the episcopacy, imprint an indelible character on the soul, and hence by his voluntary Abdication the Pope is entirely stripped of all jurisdiction, just as by his voluntary acceptance of the election to the primacy he acquired it. All doubt as to the legitimacy of papal abdications and all disputes among canonists were put an end to by the decree of Pope Boniface VIII which was received into the Corpus Juris Canonici (Cap. Quoniam I, de renun., in 6). The Pontiff says:Our predecessor, Pope Celestine V , whilst he governed the Church, constituted and decreed that the Roman Pontiff can freely resign. Therefore lest it happen that this statute should in the course of time fall into oblivion, or that doubt upon the subject should lead to further disputes, We have determined with the counsel of our brethren that it be placed among other constitutions for a perpetual memory of the same.
Ferraris declares that the Pope should make his abdication into the hands of the College of Cardinals, as to that body alone pertains the election of his successor. For whilst it is true that the Cardinals did not bestow the papal jurisdiction upon him, yet they designated him as the successor of Peter, and they must be absolutely certain that he has renounced the dignity before they can validly proceed to the election of another pontiff. Church history furnishes a number of examples of papal abdications. Leaving aside the obscure case of Pope Marcellinus (296-308) adduced by Pezzani, and the still more doubtful resignation of Pope Liberius (352-366) which some historians have postulated in order to solve the perplexing position of Pope Felix II, we may proceed to unquestioned abdications. Pope Benedict IX (1033-44), who had long caused scandal to the Church by his disorderly life, freely renounced the pontificate and took the habit of a monk. He repented of his abdication and seized the papal throne again for a short time after the death of Pope Clement II, but he finally died in a private station. His immediate successor, Pope Gregory VI (1044-46) furnishes another example of papal Abdication. It was Gregory who had persuaded Benedict IX to resign the Chair of Peter, and to do so he had bestowed valuable possessions upon him. After Gregory had himself become Pope, this transaction was looked on by many as simoniacal ; and although Gregory's intentions seem to have been of the best, yet it was deemed better that he too should abdicate the papal dignity, and he did so voluntarily.
The classic example of the resignation of a Pope is that of St. Celestine V (1294). Before his election to the pontificate, he had been a simple hermit, and his sudden elevation found him unprepared and unfit for his exalted position. After five months of pontificate, he issued a solemn decree in which he declared that it was permissible for the Pope to abdicate, and then made an equally solemn renunciation of the papacy into the hands of the cardinals. He lived two years after his abdication in the practice of virtues which afterwards procured his canonization. Owing to the troubles which evil minded persons caused his successor, Boniface VIII, by their theories about the impossibility of a valid Abdication of the papal throne, Boniface issued the above-cited decree to put the matter at rest for all time. The latest instance of a papal resignation is that of Pope Gregory XII (1406-15). It was at the time of the Great Schism of the West , when two pretenders to the Chair of Peter disputed Gregory's right, and rent the faithful into three so-called "obediences". To put an end to the strife, the legitimate Pope Gregory renounced the pontificate at the General Council of Constance in 1415. It is well known that Pope Pius VII (1800-23), before setting out for Paris to crown Napoleon in 1804, had signed an abdication of the papal throne to take effect in case he were imprisoned in France (De Montor). Finally, a valid Abdication of the Pope must be a free act, hence a forced resignation of the papacy would be null and void, as more than one ecclesiastical decree has declared.
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