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Will the Pope Resign? It Wouldn't Be Easy, and May Not Be Possible

5 years ago
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Continuing revelations about cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy are raising more questions about what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, did -- or did not do -- about them, both as Archbishop of Munich (1977-1982) and for nearly 24 years as the Vatican's chief guardian of doctrine.

That has left many wondering if this is the Catholic Church's version of Watergate -- and if it could end the same way. (Richard Nixon, raised a Quaker, once mused that he'd have made a good pope, and as things worked out for him, you could understand that wish.) As things stand now, and under almost any imaginable scenario, Benedict is not about to resign. Some say he can't.

Here are some of the most common questions -- and answers -- about this controversial issue:

Have popes resigned before?

Yes, but not for a long time, and it was never pretty.

"The last time papal depositions and resignations occurred was during the Great Western Schism of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries when three papal lines competed," Kean University church historian Christopher Bellitto writes in his book, "101 Questions and Answers on Popes and the Papacy." Pope Gregory XII of the Roman line issued his resignation at the Council of Constance through his delegates there, Bellitto says, and then the council deposed the two other rival popes, allowing for the election of a single, legitimate pope.

Before that, the most famous papal resignation came in 1294, when an elderly Italian hermit had been elected Pope Celestine V, against his will. Celestine issued two major decrees, one providing for the abdication of a pope, and five months after his election he did just that. But subsequent popes should take note: Celestine's successor, Pope Boniface VIII, imprisoned the poor old man, and he died 10 months later. A few years after that, Dante wrote the "Divine Comedy" and put Celestine in the Inferno, just inside the gate of hell for what was called his "great refusal" to take on the burden of the papal office.

Can a pope resign today?

Sort of. While a president can resign for all sorts of reasons, from ill health to scandal, popes do not. Some say they cannot. The relevant clause in the most recent (1983) version of the church's Code of Canon Law (332:2) states:
"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."
Huh? Bellitto explains: "At first glance, this last part might seem odd, but we can fairly ask: who would receive a papal resignation? As with the issue of papal incapacitation, one imagines that the camerlengo, the college of cardinals or its dean, or perhaps the pope's vicar for the diocese of Rome would play a role in the case of a papal resignation, but nothing is set in policy on this question."

And that means nothing is certain. Pius XII, the pope during World War II, reportedly left a document stating that if he were taken prisoner by Hitler he should no longer be considered the Roman pontiff.

What if a pope becomes incapacitated physically or mentally?

In more recent times, popes worry less about becoming POWs than they do about becoming incapacitated by disease or senility. As Canon 187 states, a cleric resigning from an office must be of sound mind.

So, some popes have considered leaving a letter, much like a papal power of attorney note. But no one is sure if it would be valid or recognized. John Paul II thought about leaving a letter but decided against it. No one knows whether Benedict has left such a letter, or who would be responsible for executing its provisions, or whether they would be considered legitimate.

"Prior to the 19th century, this was less of a problem because [the] role of the papacy was more limited and because doctors were more likely to kill a person with their care than keep him alive," says Father Thomas Reese, an expert on Vatican politics and history at Georgetown's Woodstock Center. "The ability of modern medicine to keep the body alive while the mind is deteriorating will eventually present the church with a constitutional crisis. Although the church has traditionally taught that extraordinary means need not be used to keep alive a dying patient, John Paul II taught that a person in persistent vegetative state must be kept alive with fluids and nutrition. This could lead to an incapacitated pope in place for many years."

In earlier centuries, in fact, medieval canonists argued that if the pope became mentally disabled, "he could no longer function as a human being and should be treated as if he were dead," Father James Provost, an expert in canon law, once wrote. "More recent scholars have argued that the Holy Spirit would never let such a situation happen, although that seems a weak argument in light of the precedent of Urban VI (pope from 1378 to 1389), whose serious emotional or mental disturbances led the cardinals to exercise the option of electing another pope."

Above all, popes are very wary about doing anything that would seem to turn the papacy into just another ecclesiastical office.

As Pope Paul VI said, paternity cannot be resigned -- referring to his role as the Holy Father. (On the other hand, it was Paul VI who in 1966 set the mandatory retirement age for bishops at 75, and he later ruled that cardinals would lose their right to vote in a conclave when they turned 80.) So popes go on and on. Many see this as a crisis waiting to happen, given that at some point a pope -- Benedict turns 83 on April 16 -- will suffer a debilitating stroke or succumb to Alzheimer's disease or something similar, and by then it will be too late to consult them on what to do.

How would the cardinals elect another pope?

There is no vice-pope or automatic succession -- no 25th Amendment as there is in the U.S. Constitution -- so if and when a pope's resignation were confirmed the process would presumably follow much the same method that is now used to elect a successor after a pope dies.

All of the world's cardinal-electors -- that is, cardinals under the age of 80, who number about 109 right now -- would gather in Rome for meetings and consultations and would then cast ballots in the Sistine Chapel until one of their number receives a two-thirds plus one supermajority. When he signals his acceptance of the election, that cardinal would then be the new pope.

What would happen to the former pope?

That is a crucial problem. "There cannot be an 'emeritus pope'," John Paul II once said. With a living pope in retirement, some cardinal-electors may not feel as free to vote as they would if the previous pope were dead. The existence of a "retired" pope would also open the sacred process to suspicions of that ex-pontiff trying in some way to influence the election of his successor. That is far-fetched, but you only have to look at the wild success of Dan Brown's novels to see how easily such conspiracy theories can take hold of the popular imagination.

The other problem is that many Catholics might well consider the "former" pope the real pope, especially if he were an enormously popular figure, as John Paul II was. That could lead to a crisis of legitimacy, and a schism, which is the church's nightmare scenario.
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