Is Francis resigning? Why the rumors churn

A Pillar explainer

The Catholic press and social media have gone into PapalRumorModeOverdrive™ in recent days, touting gossip that the pope could be planning to join Benedict XVI in retirement at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican Gardens, perhaps as soon as December. 

The speculation is linked to rumors that Francis is planning to legislate soon on the canonical status of retired popes, supposedly paving the way for his own decision to step down.

But is there any truth to these rumors? What kind of legal reforms could Francis make? And would they make any difference?

The Pillar explains.

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Is there any truth to the rumor?

Reports about rumors are, almost by design, unfalsifiable. No one can really say who started them, or who is passing them around. 

But once enough articles say people are talking about something, they become self-fulfilling: people start talking about it. 

In the case of the 84-year old pope — one who has recently undergone major surgery to boot —  persistent speculation about his health and potential longevity come with the job, and most Vatican watchers usually keep an eye on the politics of a future conclave — even if they are too polite to talk about it aloud.

In the current rumors, Francis is alleged to be mulling near-term resignation, an act effectively unheard of until Benedict became the first pope in centuries to exercise the option. 

To be fair, Francis has suggested in years past that he is open to the idea of resignation, and has said he doesn’t see himself as a long-term fixture in the chair of St. Peter. On the second anniversary of his election, he told journalists that “I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief - four or five years, even two or three.”

“In general, I think what Benedict so courageously did was to open the door to the popes emeritus. Benedict should not be considered an exception, but an institution,” Francis said back in 2015. 

But in the six years since that quote, the pope hasn’t said much else to suggest he’s considering the Ratizginer retirement package. 

Still, the voices touting the rumors claim there are signs that Francis is beginning to act like he’s in a hurry, pointing to the recent motu proprio changing the availability of the old rite of the Roman liturgy, the idea that he’s now considering formalizing the role of pope emeritus, and the appointment this week of a long-serving papal aide as a diocesan bishop. 

On the other hand, Francis has shown few signs of dialing back his public schedule or of shifting entirely to a short-term agenda. 

One of the key projects of his pontificate has been the reform of the Roman curia, with the promulgation of a new governing constitution for the Vatican a key ambition.

That document, titled Praeducate evangelium, has been in the works for years and is now on its third draft. Predictions of its imminent delivery have become an annual staple of the Vatican media bubble, with June and October the perennial windows given for its release. It may be that this is the year it finally lands. 

But even if it does, Francis would likely want to oversee its implementation, with the possibility of curial departments being reordered and even consolidated. The pope might also want to oversee the long-anticipated cabinet reshuffle it would trigger, with many important curial department heads already past the age of retirement, including Cardinal Luis Ladaria at the CDF and Cardinal Marc Ouellet at the Congregation for Bishops.

Firmer on the pope’s schedule, this October will see the kick-off of the pope’s synod on synodality, a two-year program of consultations at every level of the Church, culminating in a meeting in Rome set for 2023. It is an ambitious project which could have far-reaching implications for how the Church speaks about and governs itself in the future. 

It seems reasonable to ask if Francis really intends to watch that global synodal process — which has been manifestly important to him — unfold from the sidelines.

So, what about this document on the role of pope emeritus?

When Benedict retired in 2013, there was no formal provision for the idea of a retired pope. Benedict was largely able to create the role for himself, choosing to continue wearing white, and even creating the title of “pope emeritus.”

In the aftermath of his resignation, canonists debated vigorously whether a retired pope should revert to being treated like a cardinal, a bishop emeritus, or something else entirely.  The position of “pope emeritus” is a novel one, and the feeling of some canonists and theologians is that ecclesiastical law should settle the questions which surround it.

While many around Pope Francis have criticized Benedict for his occasional public writings since retirement, Francis himself has made it clear he welcomes the input of his predecessor, and has declined to set new laws or policies which would adjust the role Benedict has carved out for himself in the last eight years. 

So would Francis really want to issue a document now?

No one knows for sure what the pope’ private thinking is, but even people reporting the idea concede there is not actually any sign that a document is in the works, at any of the normal Vatican departments that might be involved. 

It’s always possible that Francis is drafting a document himself, and will tip his hand to the curia only when he’s ready. But even if that is the case, introducing new law to formalize what is essentially a new position in the Church would likely need a lot of consultation; since that hasn’t started it seems unlikely the pope would be planning to make such a big move in the next few months.

If the pope does produce a new document on a pope emeritus, who is it for, exactly?

Benedict is now well into his 90s and hasn’t written publicly for quite a while. 

Francis may have wanted to wait until Benedict made his own decision to step back from public engagement before issuing a document on his status, so that it wouldn’t be read as a real or implied effort to restrain his predecessor. But it seems unlikely that Francis would intend a major shift to the situation of Benedict XVI — which seems to be agreeable to both men.

Of course, Francis might have ideas for himself: A title of some kind after a theoretical retirement, where he’d want to live, how he’d want to dress, and the freedom to speak and write he’d like to have. 

But even if he did act now, it doesn’t immediately follow that he would be setting the table for his own retirement. 

As his own motu proprio Traditionis custodes has recently demonstrated, what one pope can allow, another can rescind. Any law Francis might pass to define his own post-papacy role would be basically subject to the immediate pleasure of his successor. 

If Francis wanted to define the role of pope emeritus for the future, he might be better off applying the legal maxim nemo iudex in causa sua — “no one should judge his own cause”  — and legislate for a future, hypothetical, papal retiree, rather than for himself.

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Is this all about the next conclave?

Maybe, but probably not. 

Some have suggested that if Pope Francis actually intends to resign, he might be keen to allow himself the option of forsaking the trappings of “pope emeritus” in order to revert back to life as Cardinal Bergolio. 

That would, the theory goes, allow the former pope to participate in pre-conclave meetings held by the full College of Cardinals, ahead of the formal lock-in of the cardinal electors for a vote on the next pope. 

There’s nothing wrong with the legal theory, but it would be a brazenly political move by Francis — a recently resigned pope turning up to address the college, ahead of their selection of his successor, would be an extraordinary intervention in the process.

More to the point, it would also be a considerable political gamble. Shorne of the authority of office, a reverted Cardinal Bergolio might be afforded a respectful hearing, but would enjoy no guarantees that he’d be listened to. There’s even the possibility such a play could backfire, with cardinals resenting any hint that a former pope was trying to steer the election or anoint a chosen successor. 

More to the point, if the pope were really concerned about shaping the conclave that will elect his own successor, the more obvious option would be to continue in office and continue appointing more of the cardinals who will do the voting.

Expect more of this

Of course, despite the arguments against it, Francis could be nursing secret plans for a surprise retirement — after all, no one saw Benedict’s resignation coming. 

But far more likely, chatter about the pope’s future now has a life and mind of its own. The pope is 84 and just had major surgery; a certain amount of conclave fever is inevitable, even if it is distasteful, and even if it proves to be premature.

It is also fair to say that, while no one is more invested in his agenda and legacy than Francis himself, the pope isn’t the only one with a stake. 

Some of the staunchest self-styled supporters of the pope have often been caught flat-footed —  predicting Francis to go further with ecclesiastical reforms than he eventually did. A few predicted the pope would make major changes on the issue of a women’s diaconate, for example, and expressed frustration when he didn’t.

On the other side of the coin, some of the staunchest critics of the pope are keen to suggest that the changes introduced by July’s Traditionis custodes, for example, will not be long-lasting.

Rumors about the pope are really rumors about the Church, and they reflect the hopes and anxieties of those who are repeating them. Purveyors of the Francis-resignation-watch have countless reasons, some of them as base as driving website traffic, others political or theological. But whatever the reason for their spread, Francis has proven one thing about his papacy: Until the pope of surprises announces a decision, nearly anything can happen, and those trying to call his shots are usually wrong.