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

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.


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