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The perils of papal resignation notes

The pope says he's written a resignation letter. What could go wrong?

Photo by Nacho Arteaga / Unsplash

Pope Francis on Sunday told a Spanish newspaper that he signed years ago a kind of conditional letter of resignation, on file with the Vatican Secretariat of State’s office, which could be effected if the pope became medically incapable of fulfilling his duties.

While the notion of such a letter is not a novelty - and several popes before Francis have signed similar ones - some lessons from the Francis papacy raise important questions about the prospect, and the risks, of such a letter ever being used.

Talking to Spanish newspaper ABC in an interview published Sunday, the pope explained that he signed a letter in 2013 which would allow for his resignation if severe health problems made the pope permanently unfit for the duties of his office.

The pope said he gave the letter to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was Vatican secretary of state for the first six months of the Francis papacy. It has been presumably passed on to Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Bertone’s successor.

Francis is not the first pope to sign such a letter.

Pope Pius XII signed a letter during World War II which would effect his resignation if he was kidnapped by fascists during the course of the war.

Pope St. Paul VI signed a letter which could trigger his resignation in the event of unspecified health problems, as did Pope St. John Paul II.

None of those letters has been published, including Francis’.

Canon law allows for the pope to resign if the resignation is made freely, and “properly manifested.” A papal resignation does not need to be accepted by anyone in order to take effect — a provision of the law rooted in the fact that the pontiff is subject to no human authority in the exercise of his ecclesiastical office.

Since the College of Cardinals is the body responsible for electing a new Bishop of Rome, it seems reasonable that a resignation letter would be written to that body, as was the 2013 resignation letter of Benedict XVI.  

The language itself would need to be precise. It would need to emphasize that the pope himself freely resigned if some condition was met. It could not be seen to empower a person or a group to actually remove the pope from office — because no one can be empowered to exercise authority over the pope, including the power of removal from office.

But validity of such a letter is not the only issue. The more pressing issue is likely legitimacy – an effort to limit the number of Catholics calling into question the papal resignation.

The easiest way to approach such a letter would be to establish some objective circumstances under which the pope’s resignation would be effected.

It might say, as Pius XII’s apparently did: “If I am arrested, I thereby resign.”

But medical conditions are not assessed as easily as the straightforward question of whether a pope is in steel bracelets courtesy of the Axis powers.

There are verifiable conditions that can be diagnosed by objective means — chemical tests or medical imaging. The pope could make a broad list of objectively verifiable conditions which would trigger his resignation.

That seems an unlikely approach. First, it would be hard to make such a lift exhaustively. Second, some objective conditions can portend a range of prognoses, depending on other health factors, and on the development of medical technology. As treatment options improve quickly, what pope would say “If I am diagnosed with cancer, of any kind, I thereby resign”?

And the problem is that many medical conditions are not really objectively verifiable. Even the notion of “brain death” is debated among Catholic ethicists, and physicians frequently have conflicting opinions about, for example, how long a coma can be expected to perdure.

In a similar way, it is not uncommon for medical professionals and family members to disagree, sometimes stridently, when assessing the impact of the early stages of dementia.

It could become very tricky for the pope to say, for example, “If I am in a persistent coma, I thereby resign” — such a thing could become the subject of considerable disagreement even among people of good will and real expertise.

It would not serve the Church to have widespread disagreement about whether the pope had actually incurred the medical condition by which he effected his resignation.

If he did not simply make a broad list of conditions - objectively verifiable or otherwise - the pope would have to empower some person or group of people to make a decision about whether his medical condition had entirely impeded his ability to do his job.

A resignation letter could stipulate that the pope chooses - freely - to resign if that decision had been made.

But that situation - were it not universally agreed upon and evident - could be disastrous for the Church.

Imagine if a pope wrote that “If the Cardinal Secretary of State judges that my medical condition no longer permits me to fulfill my office, I thereby resign.”

Were it ever to happen, some cadre in the Church would judge it a political act, or not accept it. And depending upon the circumstances, the group could be a sizable number. It could well include cardinals and bishops.

The ensuing crisis could resemble the era of popes and antipopes in the Western Schism.

Consider that there are Catholics - a small number, but some - who do not accept Benedict XVI’s resignation, made in his own hand and announced with his own voice.

Now imagine how many more might not accept Benedict’s resignation if the decision had been announced by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone’s, and not by Benedict personally.

Or imagine how many people would cry foul if Cardinal Pietro Parolin had the authority to judge that Pope Francis was no longer able to do his job. And imagine how that authority would change the power dynamic - a divinely instituted power dynamic, by some measures - between them.

Or imagine if a group of officials was delegated to judge that the pope had a debilitating medical condition, and when they did he objected! Even if the objection came in the throes of grave dementia, it would be a near impossible situation to navigate.

Nevertheless, popes in the modern era - Francis included - seem concerned to provide for the Church’s leadership in the event of their long-term medical incapacity.

But there are alternatives for the Church to “in-case-of-emergency-break-glass” letters.

The first is that a series of popes could aim to normalize the resignation of the Bishop of Rome at a certain age. Popes are concerned not to be caught medically incapacitated in an age when medical technology allows for longer life, and raises the prospect of diminished faculties. They could readily establish the custom of tendering their resignations at some fixed age - 80, or 75 even, emphasizing their solidarity with other diocesan bishops, and calling for the election generally of younger men.

Or if that won’t happen, popes - and the Church - could simply choose to more concretely accept that the reality of human mortality means there are some times when the pope has diminished capacity, and centralized governance has slowed. That acceptance might mean more devolution of powers to diocesan bishops — a matter called for by the Second Vatican Council anyway.

It might also mean accepting a kind of spiritual lesson, namely that God is in control of his Church, and that the author of life guides both the life-breath of St. Peter, and the life of the Church.

But if popes remain keen to provide for the prospect of medical resignation, it likely means addressing head-on, and with transparency, how delicate an issue that is for Church governance, and for the perception of Church’s legitimacy.

That recognition would likely mean a resignation plan in which a broad swath of experts - medical, ethical, and ecclesiastical - must be unanimous in judging that a man is no longer medically capable of leading as the Bishop of Rome.

Such a plan, as a friend pointed out recently, might also add clauses to say directly that the judgment would be valid even if fraud or malice were suspected along the way - “Better a stolen see than a disputed one,” he argued.

It is not clear whether Pope Francis’ letter has worked through the various issues which could make effecting it a crisis for the Church. Nor is it clear, for that matter, whether Pope St. John Paul II or Pope St. Paul’s letters had done so.

But it is clear that if such a letter is ever opened, in the shaky circumstances of a papal health scare, a period of crisis in the life of the Church is almost certain to begin.

When it comes to papal resignations, Church leaders are likely praying that most questions remain merely hypothetical.


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