Code of Canon Law

In a word, yes. The news that Pope Benedict XVI is stepping down at the end of February has taken many people by surprise, but the Code of Canon Law (the Catholic Church’s collection of rules and procedures) does allow for papal resignation:

“If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” (From Book II, Part II, Section I, Cann. 330 – 367)

Pope John Paul II explicitly referenced this right in 1996, when he set out his new rules for papal election:

3. I further establish that the College of Cardinals may make no dispositions whatsoever concerning the rights of the Apostolic See and of the Roman Church… even though it be to resolve disputes or to prosecute actions perpetrated against these same rights after the death or valid resignation of the Pope.

Precedents: We asked Professor David d’Avray, an expert on religious history at University College London, to tell us about precedents for papal resignation. He picked out two particularly interesting examples: Celestine V in 1294 and Gregory XII in 1415 (who we think was the last pope to resign until today’s announcement). Read more