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Here we go again. The Pope has used a stick in public, so speculation about his retirement has started up. But it’s quite simple: popes don’t retire

As Pope John Paul said, there’s no place for a Pope emeritus

By on Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Holy Father, it has been reported, walked with a black stick (well, he could hardly have used a white one, that really would have hit the headlines) for about 100 yards to an Alitalia plane from the helicopter which flew him from the Vatican to Leonardo da Vinci airport on his way to Mexico. But he coped with the steps of the aircraft unaided and then flew across the Atlantic on a 13 hour and 30 minutes flight. This isn’t the first unavoidable sign that he seems to be getting older (he is 85, after all); a few months ago, he started using a wheeled platform rather than walk down the vast length of St Peter’s Basilica to the altar.

So of course, we now have the beginnings of the chatter, usual at about this stage in a modern pontificate (in Italy at least), of the possibility of his retirement. It will all, of course, come to nothing. Popes don’t retire. But why not? It’s worthwhile to ask why the notion of Benedict XVI’s retirement is just as unthinkable as that of John Paul II was, even though the more infirm the late pope became, and the more obvious it was that he just wasn’t going to retire, the more the question was canvassed. In one way he gave the answer himself: for, the more he suffered, the clearer it became that his very suffering was a powerful offering to God and his Church. I hope I will be forgiven if I quote from something I wrote myself at the time (for memories are short) as we all approached the 25th anniversary of his enthronement:

He is in constant pain; his hands shake with Parkinson’s disease; and still he does not spare himself. The older and more frail he becomes, the more his courage shines out, and the nearer his papal service comes to being a kind of living martyrdom. The word “indomitable” springs to mind; and for an Englishman of my generation that will tend to be followed by the word “Churchillian”: for surely in the spiritual warfare of our age this is one of the great heroes of the faith, not merely a great warrior himself, but an inspirer in others of the great knightly virtues of honour and courage and constancy and persistence to the end. In due course, it will be for the Church to declare if this has been the life of one of her saints: but certainly, by any human measure, his qualities have amounted to greatness of the highest order: it is surely very hard to believe that that will not be the verdict of history, too.

If he had been an Archbishop of Canterbury (if you can get your head around that particular impossibility), he would, of course, have retired 20 years before, in time for a final career, maybe as an academic, perhaps back at the Jagiellonian University — just as Rowan Williams is to end up at Cambridge. It does, in a way, explain why no Anglican archbishop can ever have the kind of spiritual authority for Anglicans that a Pope has for Catholics: the fact is that in accepting the crown of thorns that is papal office, the successor of Peter gives himself absolutely and irreversibly: there is no escape, no possibility of a peaceful retirement; it is — or would be without the strength that only God can give — a truly fearsome prospect.

You simply can’t have retired popes around. For how, during the lifetime of an ex-pope, would his successor ever gain the kind of authority a pope needs to have? Look at the way dear old George Carey (of whom, I have to admit, I have become rather fond in his retirement) sounds off whenever he thinks that his successor isn’t coming up to scratch. But such a model is unthinkable in the Catholic Church. As Pope John Paul II once put it, “in the Church there is no place for a pope emeritus”. In a very interesting piece on his indispensable website, the Vaticanologist Sandro Magister quotes Cardinal Franz Koenig saying in 1996 that “The pope knows, and he has said, that the election of a new pope while the old one is still alive would represent a problem. One pope in retirement, another in the Vatican: the people would wonder which one counts.”

There is, of course, provision for a papal retirement in canon law. And it has happened: The best known example is the resignation of Pope Celestine V in 1294. After only five months of his pontificate, he issued a solemn decree declaring it permissible for a Pope to resign, and then did so himself. He lived two more years as a hermit and was later canonised. The papal decree that he issued ended any doubt among canonists about the possibility of a valid papal resignation. And his was not the only retirement. There was the remarkable resignation of Pope Gregory XII (1406–1415), who stood down in order to end the situation in which there were no fewer than three claimants to the papal throne — the real one, Gregory XII himself, the Avignon Antipope Benedict XIII, and the Pisan Antipope John XXIII, who convened the Council of Constance to sort the matter out, a Council which to his chagrin then demanded his resignation and that of all the other popes, real or pretended.

But all that’s a long time ago. It now seems inconceivable that a pope should just retire. All the same, there has been at least one pope in modern times who wanted to do it: apparently Pope Paul seriously considered it (and who can blame him, poor man). According to Cardinal Paolo Dezza, his confessor, “He would have resigned, but he told me, ‘It would be a trauma for the Church,’ so he didn’t have the courage to do it”.

The fact is that it is really only conceivable in the case of a total physical or mental collapse, a serious stroke perhaps, which could leave a pope speechless and paralysed. As the then Cardinal Ratzinger put it, “If the pope saw that he absolutely couldn’t do it anymore, then of course he would resign.” And in the book-interview Light of the World (2010) he said it again: “If a pope clearly realises that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of carrying out the duties of his office, then he has the right, and in some circumstances the obligation, to resign.”

But who is to say whether or not he is indeed “no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of carrying out the duties of his office”? He himself? You would have thought so, but maybe not: according to canon 332 paragraph 2: “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.” But what happens if nobody actually wants to accept it? Would he really just walk away? If he still can walk away, I doubt it somehow.

There is one last possibility: what happens if a pope is so stricken that he can’t resign? Maybe he’s in a permanent coma. What happens then? “There are,” according to Sandro Magister, “no public norms (but there could be confidential protocols) that would regulate this case and therefore establish, among other things, what authority would have the faculty of declaring the pope to be under impediment.” So the answer is, that we just don’t know.

The fact is that the very notion of a pope becoming unwilling to continue or incapable of continuing in office is so aberrant, in Pope Paul’s word so traumatic, that we just don’t want to think about it. So let us all pray fervently, as we always do publicly at Mass, for the Holy Father, that he will have the continuing strength and courage to continue to inspire and nurture us, as he so wonderfully has thus far. This has been already a momentous pontificate: long may it continue. And please; no more journalistic babble about retirement.

  • nytor

    I use a stick in public. Do you think my boss would let me retire?

    (NB: I’m 34)

  • daclamat

    That’s the problem!  The older you get the more infallible you become. Ask my kids.  Look at the picture.  Is anyone   of the flunkies going to têll him he’s past it. Luckily the gates  of hell wan’t prevsil, but they’re hsving s good innings

  • daclamat

    Sorry about an old man’s fingers!

  • Parasum

    “The fact is that the very notion of a pope becoming unwilling to continue or incapable of continuing in office is so aberrant, in Pope Paul’s word so traumatic, that we just don’t want to think about it.”## Your own examples show the contrary. They show that Popes have resigned – in some cases, to end traumata. Since other bishops resign, maybe the Popes should obey the rules they make for others, & show their good faith by doing likewise. A term of ten or 15 years might be a good thing in itself, and allow younger (but ageing) men the opportunity to be Pope, so that the Church won’t forever be condemned to having men well over 70 elected. How can it be good for the Church to have not only old cardinals, but also old Popes ? A 65-year old would be young enough to be Pope for 10 or 15 years, then he could resign & serve the Church in some other way. It might be useful to have a pool of ex-Popes.   If Cardinal O’Brien (say) is ever elected Pope, he will for practical purposes have resigned his current see, even though he ends up in another. Popes are just bishops – if highly-placed ones. So what is the difference between Cardinal O’Brien being elected Pope or having to resign at 75 (or so), and the Pope’s doing so ?  Popes are just men like others – we all fall off the perch eventually, whether Pope or peasant: why is it more traumatic for a bishop in Italy to stop functioning, than for anyone else to do so ? Respect for the Papacy is one thing, but to find it “traumatic” when one goes and it’s time for another to be elected is surely a bit excessive. “But such a model is unthinkable in the Catholic Church. As Pope
    John Paul II once put it, “in the Church there is no place for a pope
    emeritus”. In a very interesting piece
    on his indispensable website, the Vaticanologist Sandro Magister quotes
    Cardinal Franz Koenig saying in 1996 that “The pope knows, and he has
    said, that the election of a new pope while the old one is still alive
    would represent a problem. One pope in retirement, another in the
    Vatican: the people would wonder which one counts.””## Everything is “unthinkable” until it happens – like ecumenism, or electing a non-Italian after 455 years of Italians, or losing the Papal States, or offering Mass in the vernacular, or praying with Protestants, or… The Church is not bound by the opinions of Popes. That X is a problem may well be true – it’s no reason never to do X, still less to ignore X entirely. Folk in the USA, to their credit, do not fold their hands and sit in a heap just because they identify X as a problem – instead, they treat X as a challenge, and do something about it. That’s why the USA is a superpower, & why Italy is not. Koenig’s reasoning is daft – a Pope who resigns is no longer Pope; his successor would be, and only he.

  • Honeybadger

    Journalists must have no important issues to comment about than to read into something that isn’t there, eh, William?

    Isn’t this just another example of the media bullying people who are less able to walk?

    My grandma (the Lord have mercy on her) used a walking stick for the last 40 years of her life but, like The Holy Father, her mind remained as sharp as a tack!

    So flaming what if Pope Benedict XVI uses a walking stick?

    It would be even better if he had a rolled-up tea towel in his hand, like Agnes Brown – to thwack errant clergy for not toeing the Magisterium line!

    Didn’t Pope Leo XIII use a walking cane?

  • Honeybadger

    He he! Love it, nytor!

    Healthy people use sticks walking The Camino or climbing Croagh Patrick etc.

    I doubt if the Vatican will be on the phone to Stannah stairlifts any time now!

  • Honeybadger

    Oh, wind your neck in!

  • daclamat

    The search is on for the papal walking stick.  Minimum specifications: main body work in precious weoo, for shafting recalcitrant bishops, theologians and sundry dissidents; gold tip; ivory handle.

  • daclamat

    A prize for anyone who comes up with a suitable  name for a papal walking aid. Any advance on Ratzimmer?
    Any rational human being would have retired ten years ago. Aren’t bishops supposed to hand in their resignation at seventy five? One would think that a primus inter-pares would set an example.  The problem is that we risk being landed with another JP II, but the Holy Spirit ought to be able to handle that.
    Since my 70th birthday the law in my country obliges me to pass a fitness to drive test every 2 years. Nuff said.

  • daclamat

    Cardinal O’Brien as Pope? That’s all we need! The people of God are intuitive, like Jesus. They’re turning their backs on a sclerotic institution in its death throes which would lay upon their shoulders burdens they do not bear themselves. Every time this old man struts his stuff, wearing silly hats, inspecting guards of honour, embracing dictators, holding liturgical jamborees with the people kept a safe distance away, those who accept Jesus’s message shrug sadly and wander off

  • adrian_smith

    Sometimes one has to be humble enough to sit down. Humility
    wasn’t John Paul II’s (the man of destiny) strongest point. So when he’s fit, it’s
    about his energy, when he’s ill it’s about his suffering. It’s all about him
    isn’t it, the whole Church centres around the person of the pope. At the end
    William says that we “just don’t want to think about it”. Indeed, there are
    lots of things William Oddie doesn’t want to think about concerning his fantasy
    Church while the rest of us see the real Church slip into chaos. A good percentage
    of the Church think it’s time for Pope Benedict to sit down, and not just for
    health reason. What the corrupt Vatican selection process has in store for us
    next doesn’t bear thinking about.

  • ilovemybobby

    Pope BenedictXVI not to retire, I wish he would.

    Has all of the scandal of the Catholic church fell on deaf ears, all the hidden sex abuse, obviously you are unable to see it and the sooner this Pope resigns the better, open your eyes will you, the trouble is starring you right in the face, this man is not a Pope he is a mess and you say long may he reign… thanks.

  • ilovemybobby

    Maybe he wouldn’t but then, you have not been covering up a load of child sex abuse so, you’re okay, this fella is bad news for the Catholic church.

  • ilovemybobby

    While he is moving up the rocks in the Stannahlift I would love to unplug it and leave him there all night (He,he).

    But I would ask myself….where would you plug it in in the first place… disappointing not o see that happen, never mind leave him at the bottom, it will be good enough!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • ilovemybobby

    I didn’t know there was an age for a Pope to resign/retire, I just thought that, if it was that they can no longer continue (which this Pope can’t) they resign/retire? maybe I’m wrong! 

  • ilovemybobby

    Well said Adrrian, well said, this Pope should just go, the Catholic church is in a right old mess and I have read about people feeling sorry for the (poor old Pope) poor old my foot, I think it is well over due for him to go.

  • Alban

    How about a pontificane?

  • tonescotland

    Whoops,there goes that story!

  • Emma Kane

    Got that wrong then.

  • gladtobegrey

    Ooops …

  • Daveofthenewcity

    Will you be quoting yourself again soon?  I expect a piece explaining how the pope will now have no more spiritual authority for Catholics than the Archbishop of Canterbury has for Anglicans.

  • Benedict XVI

    Yes we do.

  • Don Camillo

    Ah, well, William. Wrong again. That’s life- what a difference a year makes.

  • Jon Brownridge

    You were saying…?

  • P Foot47

    An apology due to your readers?  No more ‘journalistic babble’?

  • Scots Jim

    Ha, got that one wrong. You spanner.

  • Poppy1

    Wow… how Christian are these comments? Not very.

  • Waiterrant

    You screwed the ecclesasstical pooch.

  • Ringstone
  • John Simpson

    It’s quite simple: popes don’t retire until they do.

  • John_Seven


  • My big mouth


  • Runcible68

    LOL. You’ve lost all street cred as a Vatican watcher – which has always been a strangely creepy subset of ecclesiastical geekdom.

  • Cs242

    Ha Ha ha. Nice to see Mr. Oddie get it WRONG! Pure and simply wrong! So much for a credible atholic analyst. Puff!

  • Aidanob

    William, I wouldn’t apply for the top job you don’t seem to be infallible.