(Robert Mickens, La Croix – February 8, 2019) It is now six years since Benedict XVI announced he was resigning from the papacy. He quietly declared his intention in Latin on Feb. 11, 2013 before a small gathering of cardinals in Rome. But it quickly sent shockwaves through the worldwide Church.
Benedict, who had been elected in 2005, later explained that he would officially step down on the following March 28 due to old age and the inability to meet the physical demands of his global office.
He was 85 years old at the time, the fourth-oldest pope in history. He was also the first Bishop of Rome in six centuries not to die in office and the first since 1294 to resign freely without being forced by external pressure.
The anniversary of Benedict’s resignation announcement, and speculation over whether Pope Francis intends to be the second consecutive Roman Pontiff to retire, came to mind this past week when the current pope held a press conference on his flight home from a visit to the United Arab Emirates.
While responding to one reporter’s question, Francis said he had received invitations to visit other Arab countries. “But there’s no time this year,” he said. “Let’s see if next year I or another Peter [i.e., pope] will go!” he said.
Not if, but when
The comment was not meant to be a cryptic message. In fact, Francis — like his predecessors — often has been cautious not to make definitive promises he’ll attend events that are months or years away, conscious of his own mortality and the unpredictability of the future.
Nevertheless, there have been signs since the very beginning of his pontificate that the question is not if Francis will resign, but more likely when he will actually do so.
And the reason is simple. He is anxious that Benedict’s resignation does not go down in history as just another out-of-the-ordinary, once-in-every-several-hundred-years event. Instead, he wants it to become a precedent and something normal.
“I keep coming back to this idea which may not please some theologians (and I am no theologian)… I think that a pope-emeritus should not be an exception,” he said in August 2014 while speaking to journalists on a return flight from South Korea.
Retirement becomes institutional, not exceptional
“My thinking is that 70 years ago bishops-emeritus were an exception; they didn’t exist. Today bishops emeritus are an institution. I think that a ‘pope emeritus’ has already become an institution,” he continued.
“I believe that Pope Benedict XVI took this step which de facto instituted popes-emeriti,” Francis said. “He opened a door which is institutional, not exceptional.”
And he went even further: “You can ask me: ‘What if one day you don’t feel prepared to go on?’ I would do the same, I would do the same! I will pray hard over it, but I would do the same thing.”
Francis raised the issue of “stepping down” again on May 15, 2018 during a weekday morning Mass in the chapel of his Santa Marta Residence.
He reflected on a passage in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Paul, “compelled by the Holy Spirit,” ends his service to the community in Ephesus and heads to Jerusalem. The pope said this “shows us the pathway for every bishop when it’s time to take his leave and step down.” “When I read this,” Francis said, “I also think about myself, because I am a bishop and I (too) must take my leave and step down.”
Obviously, that can happen through a resignation or death. But one thing is absolutely certain, the Jesuit pope will not step down because of pressure from adversaries like Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò or Cardinals Raymond Burke, Walter Brandmüller and the ghosts of the other two “doubting cardinals.”
Two retired popes at one time?
However, people closest to Francis have said privately that they are convinced he will step down when he believes the time is right time; that is, after he’s discerned that he’s done all he has been called to do and has implemented solid reforms that will be hard for a successor to undo. That would be a way to ensure that Benedict’s resignation does not remain a singular, one-off occurrence and truly does become institutional and not exceptional.
In the past, it was thought that it would not be wise to resign before Benedict’s death, reasoning that it could be disruptive to simultaneously have two living, former popes with a third one actively leading the Church. But there is a growing consensus that Francis will make his choice, freely and calmly, whether or not his predecessor is still alive.
Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandes, an Argentine theologian who has helped draft many of the pope’s major speeches and documents, says it will be clear when Francis’ pontificate is in its last stages.
“If one day he should intuit that he’s running out of time and he doesn’t have enough time to do what the Spirit is asking him, you can be sure he will speed up,” the archbishop predictednearly four years ago. And that could also mean speeding up a resignation. Because, as some have whispered quietly, Francis would prefer to retire rather than die in office.
Much important work still to be done
Francis is a Roman outsider. He is the first pope since St. Pius X, a Northern Italian who reigned from 1903-1914, to never have studied or worked in the Eternal City.
But he’s also the first-ever Jesuit to be elected Bishop of Rome. And some commentators have confidently predicted that he is likely to follow the rule for all superiors of the Society of Jesus, save the Father General, and step down after six years in office. That would mean his resignation would come next March.
However, he still has to bring to conclusion a slate of unfinished business, which makes a resignation in just over a month’s time seem highly unlikely.
Number one on the “to complete” list is the long and ongoing reform of the Roman Curia. That should culminate at some point in the next few months when Francis publishes a new apostolic constitution that will codify a full-scale reorganization and re-purposing of the Roman Church’s central structures.
Santa Marta and the end of centralized, monarchical Church authority
The Argentine pope made the first — and what is the most significant — reform of his pontificate in the very first days following his election. It was his decision to shun the secluded papal apartments deep inside the Apostolic Palace and make his permanent home at the Casa Santa Marta, a residence for priest-employees of the Vatican and the place where the cardinals lodge during a conclave.
The choice of address was the beginning of Francis’ slow, painstaking efforts to re-dimensionalize the scope and activities of the Roman Curia and decentralize its power. It was also part of his plan to demythologize the institution of the papacy and eliminate the lingering vestiges of the old papal court.
The pope has curtailed much of the Curia’s longstanding and disproportionate influence over local Churches and all of global Catholicism. He’s done this principally by laying the foundation (not without difficulty and opposition) for structures of synodality, first of all by strengthening and reforming the Synod of Bishops.
He has also promulgated legislation that gives (or is aimed to give) national episcopal conferences greater decision-making and doctrinal authority that has been almost exclusively reserved to the pope and his aides in the Vatican up to now.
But this long-term project, which is only meant to unleash a process that will need years to mature, is not even fully launched yet. Pope Francis still needs to further reform a number of institution and offices in the Vatican that pertain to the all-but-dead monarchical papacy.
Most of them, like the Prefecture of the Papal Household and the Apostolic Camera, were modernized by Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). But they require further pruning if not a definitive consignment to history.
Facing the sex abuse crisis
Even if he completes his reform of the Roman Curia, Pope Francis cannot step down until he deals more decisively and unambiguously with the plague of clergy sex abuse and its institutional mishandling.
It is something he was careful to delegate to others in the first four or so years of his pontificate. But his initial disastrous handling of abuse allegations in Chile, and then his apparent conversion over the past several months, seem to have been the catalyst for focusing his attention on the issue of abuse.
The summit this month with presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences cannot be the end of Francis’ action in leading the Church on the path to dealing effectively with the abuse crisis. That’s because it is a crisis yet to explode (though it surely will) in many countries where it has not been an issue up to now.
So, the pope has much to do in dealing with abuse in the Church. And he cannot resign until he sets down some significant markers in this area. Indeed, it is only the beginning. The pope will have to do more.
New legislation for the election — and resignation — of the Roman Pontiff
Most of the popes of the last hundred years, at least those who have lived more than 33 days, have updated the rules and procedures to be followed in the period from the death of the Bishop of Rome until the election of his successor. They have usually done so well into their respective pontificates.
Benedict XVI issued two letters “motu proprio,” one in 2007 and another just before resigning in 2013. Those texts updated John Paul II’s 1996 apostolic constitution on the vacancy of the Apostolic See and the election of the Roman Pontiff; which updated Paul VI’s 1975 legislation; which updated John XXIII’s 1962 “motu proprio;” which updated…
You get the point.
So far, Pope Francis has not issued such a document. And, yet, an updated version is more urgent now than ever before because of what he calls the “institutional door” that Benedict XVI has opened — the “no longer exceptional” possibility of a papal resignation.
Francis and those to whom he would entrust the preparation of such a document face a delicate task. As long as the first pope to resign in 600 years is still alive, any legislation they produce pertaining to a papal resignation risks being read as judgment against him.
Without consultation with the College of Cardinals, the Synod of Bishops or any other body representative of the universal Church, Benedict made a number of decisions regarding such things as his place of retirement, his new title and his attire.
Almost all canon lawyers have argued that a retired pope should not be called Pope Emeritus, as Benedict decided, but Bishop-emeritus of Rome.
There is a debate over the advantages and disadvantages of having a former pope living so close to his newly-elected successor, as Benedict decided. And there is a similar discussion surrounding the question of whether a former pope should still be wearing the papal cassock — again, as Benedict, and he alone, decided.
When Pope Francis finally issues an apostolic constitution to update the legislation on the vacancy of the Apostolic See (including by papal resignation) and the election of the Roman Pontiff, it may be a sign that he’s beginning to clear his desk.
He will most likely be in the final stages of preparing — as he called it — to take his “leave and step down.”
No longer an exception
When Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Bishop of Rome in 1978 he became the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years. Many Catholic insiders believed the election of John Paul II would remain an exception to the previous long-standing tradition and the Italians would recapture the papacy at the end of his more the 26-year-long pontificate.
But it did not work out that way. When German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen in the Conclave of 2005 and took the name Benedict XVI, the reality of having a non-Italian pope was no longer an exception or a rare phenomenon. It had become institutional.
Pope Francis has applauded Benedict for also making the reality of a papal resignation institutional. But, in the end, he knows quite well — it will actually remain a rare exception until another pope resigns.