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In 1294, Pope Celestine V promulgated a canon law explicitly establishing the right to resign the office of Pope, and did so himself after being in office only about five months. Before his election, he had lived as a hermit, and afterwards considered himself unworthy to fulfill the duties of the papacy. He lived some two years after his abdication.
Before Pope Celestine V, there were a few cases of abdication, although the details remain somewhat cloudy for the first two. Some scholars have suggested that Pope Marcellinus abdicated in 308 and Pope Liberius in 366; however, the details are uncertain. There are, however, several confirmed instances of papal abdication. Pope Benedict IX, who was accused of causing scandal by his disorderly life, abdicated in 1044 to join a monastery. Pope Gregory VI abdicated in 1046 in answer to (probably unfounded) charges of simony.
The last pope to abdicate was Pope Gregory XII in 1409; he did so to end the Western Schism. At the time, there were three claimants to the papal throne, Roman Pope Gregory XII, Avignon Popes Benedict XIII, and Antipope John XXIII, successor of the election at the Council of Pisa. A council had convened at Constance to end the schism. Pope Gregory XII, the legitimate pope, sent legates to the council to (1) formally convoke the council, so that it would be a valid Ecumenical council, and (2) present his resignation of the office to allow the free election of a successor.
Pope John Paul II threatened to resign during a period of martial law in his native Poland in order to lead the political opposition against the Communists' suppression of religious and other rights. In the years leading up to his death in 2005, many suggested that John Paul II ought to have abdicated due to his failing health. Vatican officials repeatedly quashed rumors of that possibility.
Abdication is considered dangerous by some Catholic thinkers, as it leaves open the possibility that those who dislike the new Pope will claim that there was a conspiracy to oust the old one and that the new Pope might therefore be an antipope. Also, as the Pope is believed to be the hand of God on Earth, resignation due to ill health would appear to be an affront to God, who has chosen not to take the person from the Earth as yet.
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