Papal Resignations and
the Beginnings of the Moravian Church

Pope Benedict XVI has resigned!  News pundits the world over have been scrambling to answer the question of how long it has been since a Pope resigned – and the answer is just under 600 years, and the last Papal resignation was closely related to the start of the Unitas Fratrum, the Moravian Church.

At the end of the 14th century, the Roman Catholic world was divided:  there were two opposing Pontiffs claiming to each be the one true heir of Saint Peter:  Pope Benedict XIII (the Avignon Pope) and Pope Boniface XII (the Roman Pope).  This “Western Schism” between Rome and Avignon, driven by power and politics rather than any theological issues, had been going on for over twenty years.  When Boniface died in 1404, there was a period of mass confusion that might be called “shuffling the Popes.”  Innocent VII was elected, only to die two years later – no one knows whether of natural causes or not.  He was succeeded by Gregory XII.  Gregory and Benedict initially agreed to meet in Savona, Italy to try and resolve the dispute – but both backed out at the last minute. In a soap opera worse than General Hospital in its weirdest years, the cardinals called a meeting in Pisa where they elected yet another Pope, Alexander V.

So, the year 1410 dawned with not one, not two, but three Popes.  Perhaps Alexander would have been better to stay out of it all, for he only lived a few months as Pope – he died “suddenly” on May 3.  Rumors that he had been poisoned by his successor, John XXIII, are just rumors without proof; but gosh, during this titanic struggle for power over all of Europe, lots of folks died unexpectedly shortly after being elected!  So the election of John XIII settled nothing – there were still three Popes actively claiming to be the one true head of the Church of Rome.

This sordid mess, bubbling and burping and destabilizing European nations, was the culmination of several centuries of power struggles, politics, war, and corruption in the papacy.  Into this world came an idealistic young Czech priest, Jan Huss (often called John Hus in English-speaking areas).  An academic star at the University of Prague, Jan had become interested in the writings of John Wycliffe in England, who had argued that the Scriptures should be available in the common language, not just in Latin.  He began preaching in Czech at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, attracting worshippers for miles around – worshippers who had never before heard the Gospel in a language they could understand.  Hus opposed the sale of indulgences, a neat papal gimmick that helped finance the Crusades.  Purchasers of indulgences were able to get time knocked off of purgatory for themselves or for a loved one – for a price, of course.   Hus also taught that all believers should be able to receive holy communion in both kinds; during the Middle Ages the Church had begun to withhold the wine from commoners, only allowing ordained clergy to receive the wine and the bread.  And Hus stepped on some pretty powerful toes by preaching that the clergy should adhere to a moral code – in other words, practice what they preached to others.  These controversial stands (so similar to those of Martin Luther a hundred years later) attracted many and generated even more controversy.

The last thing Pope John XXIII needed was more controversy.  He declared Hus a heretic and anyone who protected Hus would be excommunicated.  He called a Church Council in Constance, Switzerland, which began in 1414, the primary business being to deal with the Schism – but also to deal with the upstart Jan Hus.  Hus was invited to the Council to defend his views, and was given safe passage by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund.  However, when he arrived at Constance, he was arrested and imprisoned.

Hus was tried in classic medieval fashion – he was told he was a heretic and had to recant.  When he challenged his accusers to show where in the Scriptures anything he had said was wrong, he was just told again that he had to confess and recant.  When he complained that he had never said some of the things he was accused of, he was told again that he had to confess and recant.

At the last trial, on 8 June 1415, thirty-nine sentences were read to him, twenty-six of which had been excerpted from his book on the Church, seven from his treatise against Páleč, and six from that against Stanislav ze Znojma. Hus declared himself willing to submit to the Council if he could be convinced of any errors. This declaration was considered an unconditional surrender, and he was asked to confess:

  1. that he had erred in the theses which he had hitherto maintained;
  2. that he renounced them for the future;
  3. that he recanted them; and
  4. that he declared the opposite of these sentences.

He asked to be exempted from recanting doctrines which he had never taught; he again challenged the Council to show him his error from the Scriptures.  He stood firm before the Council and refused to recant, knowing that it would cost him his life.  He was thrown back into the dungeon to await execution.

The titanic struggle between popes continued aboveground while Hus was left to rot in the dungeon.  The Council decided that all three popes should resign and that a new pope would be appointed.  Gregory agreed – and so did John at first.  Benedict hemmed and hawed from Avignon.  Finally, on July 4, 1415, Gregory resigned as he had agreed, but John fled the council, refusing to resign, apparently hoping that without him it would lose its authority. Instead, the council deposed him and declared him an “antipope.”

They turned their attention back to the unfortunate Hus, and two days later sentenced him to death by burning.  He had a “devil’s miter” placed on his head, was declared an unredeemed heretic, and was tied to a stake.  Given one last chance to recant and save his life, Hus said: “God is my witness that the things charged against me I never preached. In the same truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am ready to die today.” He was then burned at the stake, and his ashes ground to fine powder and thrown into the Rhine River so that no followers would be able to retrieve a relic of any kind.  He died singing a hymn, “Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Finished with the upstart heretic, the Council then turned its attention back to John XXIII, and tried him for “heresy, simony, schism and immorality,” finding him guilty on all counts. Edward Gibbon wrote, “The more scandalous charges were suppressed; the vicar of Christ was accused only of piracy, rape, sodomy, murder and incest.” The last remaining claimant in Avignon, Benedict XIII, refused to resign and was excommunicated and also declared an “antipope.”  Martin V was elected as new pope in 1417.

So, the last Pope to resign voluntarily from office happened just two days before Jan Hus was burned at the stake.  His followers would fight back, and the bloody Hussite Wars resulted in the formation of the Unitas Fratrum, the Unity of Brethren, on March 1, 1457.  This was before Martin Luther had even been born, making this movement the first true Reformation.

Some claim that Benedict VIII did not really resign voluntarily (since he was required to by the Council), that the last Pope to truly step down voluntarily was Celestine V in 1294.  This may be splitting hairs.

An interesting note is that Antipope John XXIII was later regarded as being so evil that the name “John” was not used again by any pope for several hundred years.  Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli decided to redeem the name and also bridge the divide with Protestants by selecting the name John XXIII when he was elected in 1958.  On his choice of names, he said:

I choose John … a name sweet to us because it is the name of our father, dear to me because it is the name of the humble parish church where I was baptized, the solemn name of numberless cathedrals scattered throughout the world, including our own basilica [St. John Lateran]. Twenty-two Johns of indisputable legitimacy have [been Pope], and almost all had a brief pontificate. We have preferred to hide the smallness of our name behind this magnificent succession of Roman Popes.

He went on to call the Second Vatican Council and undertake very significant reforms in the Roman Catholic Church.  It’s worthy of note that if the first John XXIII had possessed the large sense of humor that his 20th century version had, things might have been very different.  But none of the Popes involved, or the cardinals at the Council, apparently possessed any sense of humor at all.

Once, when visiting the Holy Spirit Hospital in Rome, the mother superior welcomed him with the words, “Most Holy Father, I am the superior of the Holy Spirit.”

“Well, I must say you’re lucky,” responded the huge Pope.  “I’m only the Vicar of Jesus Christ!”

When asked by a newcomer to the Holy See how many people worked in the Vatican, the pontiff mischievously replied, “Oh no more than half of them.”