Last night the UCSB History Associates hosted a panel of professors at the University Club in downtown Santa Barbara to discuss the future implications of the recent resignation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as well as the history behind this monumental occurrence.

UCSB professors of history and Catholicism at the event gave historical context to Pope Benedict’s decision to leave the holy throne and shed light on the potential consequences of this considerably controversial incident. As the first Pope to leave office alive in 600 years, Benedict XVI’s resignation called forth a plethora of age-old questions regarding the legitimacy and power of the Roman Catholic Church’s most divine office.

The controversy over Pope Benedict’s resignation stems from several different areas, and many individuals in the Church have expressed uncertainty with the reasoning behind this rare and unexpected decision.

Professor Edward D. English said the former Pope’s ailing health condition as well as the rising need for reform within the church are the primary factors that prompted Benedict XVI to surrender the Seat of Saint Peter.

“He probably sees a lot of problems coming for the new Pope and he doesn’t really think he’s up to handling it,” English said. “There’s going to have to be a lot of internal reform, especially in the Vatican bureaucracy.”

Since the resignation of Pope Gregory XII in 1415, Benedict XVI is the first pope to leave office without a funeral. Having such an unexpected and historically rare event occur within the Church’s hierarchy has left the international Catholic community with an air of uncertainty and doubt, according to professor Stefania Tutino, who said many Catholics are now left with a multitude of unanswered questions.

“Where does the Pope come from? Europe? The rest of the world? What happens in the mean time?” Tutino said. “This is a very delicate moment in the Catholic Church, and because the Church is so big, it’s a delicate moment for everybody.”

Professor Elizabeth DePalma Digeser said the process used to elect a new Pope will be the same one that has been used for centuries: Cardinals from around the world will meet in Vatican City and hold a conclave to decide who will succeed Pope Benedict XVI.

However, the upcoming selection process will be complicated by the fact that Benedict will still be alive and living in a convent in Vatican City. The existence of both Benedict and another newly chosen pope in Vatican City poses a number of practical and political problems for the Church to deal with.

“There have never been, to my knowledge, two Popes in Vatican City,” Digeser said. “When there are two people, there is always the potential for disagreement.”

The history of the papacy is clouded in scandal, violence, greed and lust, according to multiple speakers at the panel­, who also said these attributes are not necessarily always seen in the papacy since such characteristics are oftentimes noteworthy exceptions. English said the resignation is, as a result, bringing old questions of legitimacy back into the daily discourse of the Church.

Despite the controversy, the Pope has the legitimate authority to resign from office as a result of Pope Celestine V’s canons for resignation, and he is therefore justified in leaving the Seat of Saint Peter.


A version of this article appeared on page 1 of March 6th, 2013’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.

Photo courtesy of Franco Origlia.