Before embarking on this discussion, I want to make it clear that I have no opinion on whether or not a pope should resign. This is a matter for the Roman Catholic Church to decide, and they have decided that papal resignation is permissible and honorable.
In the course of history, several popes have resigned. However, to all who love Dante’s Divine Comedy, Pope Celestine V and papal resignation are synonymous.
Before entering the infernal regions, Dante saw a crowd lingering just outside the abode of the damned. Thia crowd consisted of cowardly angels who did not take sides when Satan rebelled against God. They sat on the sidelines, waiting to see who would win. Heaven cast them out, and hell refused to receive them.
Many human souls shared in the fate of these angels. They had not led infamous lives, but they had done nothing praiseworthy. So neither heaven nor hell wanted them.
One of these homeless spirits was the man who had made the great refusal. Many people believe that Dante was referring to Pope Celestine V, who resigned the papal office in 1294.
It might be objected that Dante does not mention Pope Celestine by name. Moreover, there were other popes who resigned before the time that Dante wrote the Divine Comedy. Why would Dante single out Celestine V and take no notice of the others?
Nevertheless, I agree with those who claim that Dante was referring to Pope Celestine V for the following reason. The resignation of Celestine V made it possible for Boniface VIII to become pope. Since Dante disliked the policies of Boniface VIII, he undoubtedly wished that Celestine V had not resigned. In view of this, he would be inclined to make negative comments concerning Celestine’s abdication in the Divine Comedy.
Not everyone agreed with Dante. Petrarch believed that Celestine’s resignation was an honorable act. Moreover, eight years before the death of Dante, Pope Clement V canonized Celestine V. The canonization took place in 1313, only seventeen years after Celestine’s death..
The speedy canonization was probably due to the influence that Philip IV, king of France. Philip hated Boniface even more than Dante did, and he seemed to think that he could discredit Boniface if he honored Celestine. Since Clement V usually bowed to the wishes of Philip IV, it is possible that hatred of Boniface VIII was the motive for both the unkind words of Dante and Celestine’s swift canonization.
This so-called coward or saint was actually a simple hermit. His only desire was to live in seclusion. His original name was Pietro, and he became known as Pietro da Morrone because of his residence on a mountain of that name in the Apennines in Abruzzo. He was not without courage. He organized a group of hermits into a body of monks and provided it with a rule of his own. It eventually became known as the Celestines.
Pietro became superior-general of the order, but he preferred a simple life. He entrusted the order to a monk named Robert and returned to the hermit’s life that he loved so well.
On August 29, 1294, he became pope against his will. He resigned the same year on December 13. Perhaps his chief reason was his consciousness that he was not doing a very good job as pope.
To prevent a possible schism in the church, Boniface VIII confined him in the castle of Fumone near Anagni. However, the brave old man did not quietly submit to captivity. Before his permanent confinement, he escaped his captors and eluded them for some time. He tried to cross the Adriatic to Dalmatia, but a storm drove him back to Italy, where he was recognized and turned over to Boniface.
NNDB: Pope Celestine V
New Advent: Pope St. Celestine V
Papal Library: Celestine V
Wikipedia: Pope Celestine V