For as long as Pope Francis has occupied the Chair of Peter, Vatican-watchers have asked whether the pontiff will eventually follow his predecessor’s lead, and resign the papacy, as did Benedict XVI.
Francis has always left open the possibility of his resignation, and at times suggested even that it would eventually come. Conventional wisdom has tended to suggest that Francis would not resign while Benedict was alive — that the pontiff would not allow popes emeriti to get stacked up too deeply around the Vatican.
But now that Benedict XVI has died - and with Pope Francis facing some health problems at age 86 - discussion about the prospect of another papal resignation is likely sure to come.
But it is not clear that Francis actually has resignation on his mind. And, in fact, his front row view of Benedict XVI’s retirement period might be enough to convince Pope Francis, and even the pope’s eventual successors, that papal retirement is not everything it’s cracked up to be.
When Benedict announced his resignation in 2013, most observers thought the Milanese Cardinal Angelo Scola would be elected to the papacy.
It’s not clear whether Benedict himself thought Scola would become pope, but there is reason to think the cardinal would have been Benedict’s choice — Scola and Ratzinger shared a set of intellectual and spiritual commitments, including attachment to the Communion and Liberation movement, and had been longtime collaborators.
Scola was the Italian editor of Communio, the journal Ratzinger founded, was a professor of the John Paul II Institute, which Ratzinger championed, and was a consultor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during Ratzinger’s first decade as prefect.
But Scola was not elected in 2013.
Just before the conclave began, Scola was connected in the media to a relatively minor scandal, but one that came at a significant time: media reports noted that a regional Italian politician under investigation for corruption was a longtime friend of Scola’s, and that their connection ran through Communion and Liberation.
The day the conclave began, police conducted dawn raids on hospitals and offices looking into a corruption ring involving Roberto Formigon, Scola’s childhood friend and a CL leader.
While Scola had distanced himself from the ecclesial movement the year before, his name was mentioned in newspapers in connection with the scandal, just before cardinals were sequestered in conclave to elect a new pope.
Scola had been expected to get 50 votes in the first round of voting, but later accounts say he got only 40 — and that the ones he lost might have been caused by the prospect of a scandal that cardinals thought might unfold outside the conclave.
Bergoglio reportedly got the next most votes in that round of voting, overtook Scola in round two, and Cardinal Scola eventually told his supporters to vote for Bergoglio, who was elected Pope Francis on the second day of the conclave.
It was a surprise for the world — and it was probably a very big surprise for Pope emeritus Benedict as well.
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There has been a great deal of media speculation about the relationship between Benedict and Francis, but little can be known in fact. On the surface, the men were effusive in praise for each other — Francis made a point to revere Benedict as a “grandfather,” Benedict made a point to show his obedience to Francis.
But the men come from different schools of thought on theology, liturgy, and governance. They had different sets of friends and advisors, different sets of priorities, different approaches. One prelate, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, was for years officially tasked with serving both of them — but eventually that proved unworkable, and Gänswein was in 2020 suspended from his duties in Francis’s administration.
Even those who revere both Francis and Benedict concede that their differences are clear, and that while they also have things in common, much has changed in the Church over the past decade, and much of it because of a change in administration.
One example is the pope’s revocation of Summorum pontificum, Benedict’s effort to integrate the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite into the ordinary liturgical life of the Church — in part to see it fuel a kind of liturgical reform in the Church. In 2021 Francis undid that effort, and at the same time indicated that he saw very little place for the older form of the liturgy in the Church’s life. Benedict said nothing publicly — though after his death, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a priestly society which offers the older liturgy, said that the former pope had sent them a letter of support.
Of course, not all changes can be attributed to Francis himself. Consider that the pontiff himself has taken pains to emphasize intellectual continuity with Benedict and John Paul II, but that some of the scholars placed in influential intellectual positions in Rome have embraced a theological hermeneutic which suggests that Benedict’s intellectual school, the Communio crowd, had been a kind of interruption in the council’s implementation.
At the same time, ecclesial figures in Germany, among other places, have become outspoken in rejecting, or at least sidestepping, Benedict’s approach to moral theology and Christian anthropology, as they call for a new sexual ethic to govern the Church’s doctrine. Even officials at the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life have suggested the possibility that the Church's doctrine on the immorality of artificial contraception could be changed - something at odds with Benedict's theological viewpoint on the matter.
While Francis himself has spoken against some such calls, Benedict’s track record suggests that his response might have taken a different tone.
However much Benedict was obedient to his successor, it is reasonable to presume that the former pontiff watched the undoing of some of his major accomplishments, and a very different school of theological reflection take preeminence in the major debates about the life, governance, reform, and renewal of the Church — and mostly did his best to sit on the sidelines, as he had pledged to do.
Anyone watching Benedict bite his tongue, as he almost certainly did, would realize the kind of detachment and self-control, and even faith, required of a former pope — and the trial that would entail.
If things had gone differently, and Benedict’s probably-preferred-successor had become pope, and continued a program very much like his own, Benedict’s retirement might have made the prospect look serene.
But as things unfolded, the unpredictability of stepping down was made manifest for all the Church to see. Any pope looking at the shift between Benedict and Francis would likely see the difficulty incumbent in surrendering the mantle of leadership.
At the same time, Benedict has faced during his retirement a fair amount of scrutiny regarding his years in the late 1970s as Archbishop of Munich and Freising. Benedict spent only four years in that pastoral position, but has nevertheless faced the charge that he mishandled allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct.
Of course, a sitting pope can face that scrutiny too, and, indeed, Francis has. But a sitting pope has the luxury of being legally unimpeachable — he is the supreme authority of the Church, and, for civil purposes, the head of a sovereign state. The Petrine Office is judged by no one, and its occupant enjoys the same kind of legal redoubt.
A former pope has no such luxury. He is a global figure, often a controversial one, subject to attention from a worldwide press corps, and faces the prospect of serious and ongoing scrutiny of his actions.
While Benedict XVI in February wrote a lengthy statement accounting for his leadership in Munich, he had only to account for four years of diocesan episcopal ministry. A pope with a much longer tenure of diocesan leadership might well have concern that the scrutiny he’d face would be all the more exhaustive, and that he might not as easily make a defense of himself.
Even a pope with a clear conscience about his leadership at the diocesan level might well look at the scrutiny Benedict faced, and realize that retirement would not be without its own set of trials.
While such a factor might not be the deciding one, it could well be an element of discernment as popes consider whether to take the path of resignation.
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Only a few months ago, Pope Francis dismissed the prospect that he might resign anytime soon, while maintaining that the decision is ultimately the Lord’s. Last month, the pope revealed that he has signed a letter which could trigger a medical resignation, though he did not offer details.
So will Pope Francis resign? Only he knows, and the Lord. But if his neighbor in Vatican City taught him anything in retirement, it is that a papal resignation will not likely mean an easy life of solitude — or much time on a golf course.
As the pope offers a funeral for Benedict this week, he may well be praying about whether it’s better for a pope to die with his papal slippers on, still at the helm of Peter’s barque.
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Editor's note: The Pillar corrected immediately after publication a typographical error, which suggested the Cardinal Scola received only 10 votes in the first round of voting at the 2013 conclave, rather than that he received 40 – 10 fewer than the 50 he was expected to garner.