After a Year as Pope, Retirement Could Be Benedict’s Toughest Decision

c. 2006 Religion News Service (UNDATED) It is a week of obvious milestones for Pope Benedict XVI: his first Easter as the Roman Catholic pontiff, and the first anniversary _ on Wednesday (April 19) _ of his election as pope following the death of John Paul II. But a more personal marker, also on Easter, […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) It is a week of obvious milestones for Pope Benedict XVI: his first Easter as the Roman Catholic pontiff, and the first anniversary _ on Wednesday (April 19) _ of his election as pope following the death of John Paul II. But a more personal marker, also on Easter, may wind up looming larger than many of the issues that have defined his freshman year: Benedict’s 79th birthday.

While the pope seems to be in relatively good health, his advanced age raises delicate questions that the Vatican has long deflected.

Rome would like to leave the matter up to the Holy Spirit, but the question of papal resignation is forcing itself on the church. Advances in medical treatment and the emergence of the pontiff as both a global statesman and Catholicism’s chief evangelist now mean that popes will be able to live into advanced stages of physical disability or senility even as demands on them increase.

If Benedict were ever to resign _ or be removed _ he would be the first pope to leave office alive in more than seven centuries, setting a precedent that could affect the future course of the papacy.

The late John Paul was in large part responsible for a new awareness of this dilemma. His heroic exploits in helping to bring down Soviet communism and his globe-trotting journeys increased what the Jesuit historian John W. O’Malley has called the “papalization” of Catholicism, which is to say that the pontiff has become a defining element of what it means to be Catholic. Yet John Paul’s waning years, and especially the last agonizing months and weeks of his life, foreshadowed a crisis that will eventually overtake the church if there is no advance planning.

Despite his progressive deterioration, John Paul did nothing to address the issue. After his death it was revealed that he did not leave a living will, which his predecessor Paul VI is believed to have done, and his final testament showed that he ruled out the idea of stepping aside. Or, as he once said in a friendly warning to doctors about to operate on him, “There cannot be an emeritus pope.”

The church should be looking for a better solution through a careful process marked by open discussion.

Canon law, which otherwise seems to have a rule on everything, offers little guidance. It’s unusually vague on the matter of how, or even whether, a pope can resign. (Canon 332 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.”) Priests, bishops and cardinals all retire. Only the pope serves for life.

Historians believe that perhaps a half-dozen popes ever resigned. That doesn’t include the various papal coups and assassinations and depositions of the rough-and-tumble first millennium. The last voluntary retirement was in 1294, when Celestine V resigned after just three months as pope. (In the 15th century the Council of Constance compelled Gregory XII, one of three claimants to the Holy See, to resign in order to end the Western Schism.)

A simple hermit before his election, Celestine was 85 and overwhelmed by the office. His resignation brought little relief. The action threw the church into turmoil and Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII (who engineered the resignation), worried that Celestine would be a rallying point for a schism. So he confined him to a drafty castle tower where he died little more than a year later.

If those scenes are unlikely to be repeated, the tumultuous history of papal resignations does shed light on the risks of doing nothing. If there is no clear and accepted practice, then there is the danger of a papal resignation leading to a schism if part of the church views one man as divinely consecrated and the other a pretender.

Moreover, who would determine when a pope is non compos mentis? Who would pull the plug on a clinically dead pope? What is to be done with the “former” pope? The term doesn’t even exist in church tradition. What would it even be called? A retirement? A resignation? Or an abdication?

There are endless permutations, but they all add up to an inevitable reality _ namely, that after centuries of avoiding the issue, the Catholic Church will soon have to figure out how to fill a major gap in the papal transition process.

What might Benedict do?

When elected last year, Joseph Ratzinger was the oldest man to attain the papacy since 1730, when another 78-year-old, Clement XII, was chosen. Clement lasted a decade, but he was blind, often bedridden with gout, and senile for much of his papacy, which witnessed a notable decline in papal fortunes.

Whether Benedict, now that he is pope, would consider resignation is not clear. In 2000, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told an Italian newspaper that John Paul would never resign. “I exclude it in the most absolute way. I really do not believe in such an eventuality.” Two years later, however, Ratzinger told a German periodical that if John Paul saw absolutely that he couldn’t continue, “then he would certainly step down; as long as it only means suffering, he will hold out.” And in 2004 he told an Italian religious affairs magazine that with modern medicine prolonging lives, he couldn’t rule out that term limits for popes would be necessary in the future.

In fact, the issue is not so much one of Benedict’s age or health _ he suffered two small strokes more than a decade ago, and seems to have recovered _ but of finding a credible mechanism for resignation. Any pope, be he 58 (as John Paul was at his election) or 78, can be struck down by an unexpected illness.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit who is a leading political scientist of the church, has suggested a three-tiered procedure involving the College of Cardinals, the synod of bishops and then the assent of at least two-thirds of the world’s hierarchy to declare the Holy See vacant. The procedure should be cumbersome enough, he suggested, so that it would not be too readily used.

Others have advocated a fixed retirement age or term limits, like the 10-year term served by the archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Anglican Communion. At the very least a new pope should make public a living will with clear directions on what he would like done in whatever eventuality may befall him, and with a clear mandate as to who is to execute the will. Anything less invites “a canonical nightmare,” as Reese has said.

There may be no perfect solution. But ignoring the challenge is not an option, and would likely hurt the papacy in the long run by sowing doubts about a sick pope’s status or a new pope’s authority.


John Paul became almost larger than life as he diminished in vigor, largely because of who he was and because of the galvanizing legacy that defined the early years of his pontificate. While Pope Benedict XVI is popular enough _ as popes always are _ he enjoys no comparable reservoir of greatness, and the prospect of an infirm Benedict, or any future pontiff, would likely make the church seem rudderless and vulnerable rather than heroic.

One of the most apt characterizations of Benedict XVI is that he is not so much conservative as he is “old-fashioned.” But Benedict cannot avoid the realities of modernity, nor would outlining a papal transition process necessarily signal a concession to secular expediency. Indeed, a graceful departure by Benedict when, and if, the time comes, on terms that would preserve the sanctity of the office, the person of the pope and the authority of the incoming pontiff, could come to be seen as a lesson every bit as valuable as John Paul’s own farewell.


(David Gibson wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)

Editors: To obtain file photos of Pope Benedict XVI, go to the RNS Web site at On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject (Benedict).

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