Today, Pope Benedict XVI announced he would be the first pope to step down in 600 years. Even before that, the head of the Catholic Church giving up his office voluntarily was a very rare occurrence. While there are theories two or three of the earliest popes may have resigned as well, these are the only four we know about for sure.
1. Pope Benedict IX
The papacy was different in the Middle Ages. Many popes were corrupt, but few approached the levels of debauchery of the first Benedict to step down. He got the job in 1032 when he was only 18 because his family was powerful and had already produced two popes. Once he was running the church, Benedict didn’t bother with any of that Christianity stuff, preferring instead to have gay orgies in the Vatican. Contemporaries called him “immoral,” “a demon from hell,” and a “disgrace." One bishop even accused him of rape and murder. Since he was such an embarrassment, the cardinals eventually paid him to leave office. Benedict accepted in 1045.
2. Pope Gregory VI
Right after Benedict resigned Gregory became pope, which surprised no one since he was the guy who paid Benedict to leave. The church hierarchy frowned on the paying-for-the-papacy scheme and found him guilty of simony (buying holy offices). Gregory resigned just 18 months after he took over.
3. Pope Celestine V
Celestine was so pious he had to stop pope-ing because of it. Born to a poor family, he worked his way up in the religious ranks despite his love of living as a hermit in caves for years at a time. He was still living there in 1292 when he heard the pope had died. He sent the College of Cardinals a letter saying they had to elect a new pope as soon as possible or God would be angry. Showing an utter lack of creativity, the College elected the letter writer. There was only one problem—Celestine didn’t want the job. He tried to flee the country before finally being convinced to give it a try. But being pope didn’t agree with him, and he only made three decrees during his five months in office. The last decree made it okay for popes to abdicate—which he then immediately did. While Celestine wanted to spend the rest of his life in a cave, the next pope had him arrested, and he died in jail.
4. Pope Gregory XII
Gregory became pope during the most confusing time in Catholic Church history. You see, he wasn’t the only pope. He was the guy the cardinals in Rome liked the best, but there was also a French pope. Called the Western Schism, this confusion went on for almost 40 years. In 1409, a church council decided the best thing to do was depose both Gregory and the other pope, Benedict XIII, and elect a brand new one, Alexander V. Since all of the popes refused to step down and all had powerful protectors, the church now had three people in charge. Finally, in 1415, Gregory agreed to resign and spent the rest of his life in obscurity.
Note: Pope Gregory VI was added after this story was first published.