It made a dramatic headline. “Pope Leo Now in a State of Coma” preceded an article that appeared in The New York Times on July 30, 1903. Just a few days later, Pope Leo XIII died. Today, by contrast, with advanced medical procedures that can prolong life, the possibility of a pope lingering in a coma or some other unconscious state has increased. And the last days of Pope Pius XII and of Pope John Paul II raise yet another possibility: that of a living pope, fully conscious but too ill to lead the church for extended periods.
The pope is not only the vicar of Christ but also the chief executive officer of the largest institution in the world, the leader of over one billion persons, one-sixth of the world’s population.
Pope Benedict XVI, now 82, is in relatively good health. A fall in mid-July that resulted in a fracture of his right wrist did not cause serious injury. But if he were ever to sustain brain damage, fall into a comatose state, suffer from advanced Alzheimer’s or otherwise become enfeebled or impeded (sede apostolica impedita is the technical term), what would happen?
It is possible to be comatose for years. If that were to happen to the pope, no new dioceses could be created (or old ones suppressed), no bishops appointed, no saints canonized or major documents written or approved. If a pope were enfeebled for several years, his voice would be silenced.
A Serious Legal Vacuum
What provisions are currently in place to replace a pope if he could no longer function in that role? Who evaluates the pope’s health and declares whether he is capable of continuing as bishop of Rome? If the pope lapses into a coma, then who would run the church? The shocking fact is that currently there are no provisions in canon law to cover such exigencies, no way to replace the pope if he is impeded while living. Several canon lawyers told me that, as far as they know, this is a serious lacuna in the law.
Canon law shows an awareness of the problem: “When the Roman See is vacant or entirely impeded nothing is to be innovated in the governance of the universal church; however, special laws enacted for these circumstances are to be observed” (Can. 335). Until now, however, these special laws have neither been enacted nor promulgated. Since canon law does have a procedure to replace bishops, surely a procedure for replacing the bishop of Rome also should be put into place.
The only way a pope can be removed is by death or resignation. Our concern here is not the resignation of a pope. Provision is made in Canon 332.2 for that possibility.In order to resign, the pope must be of sound mind and resign freely.
But if, as we are emphasizing, the pope were to become comatose or senile, he could not resign, and the problem of how to replace him would arise. Who decides whether to discontinue a pope’s life support systems or to use extraordinary means to prolong his life? Who would dare pull the plug on a pope?
Many hope that Pope Benedict has prepared written instructions on what to do were he ever to become incompetent (instructions that also include advance medical directives). But it is not known for certain that he has done so. No regulation requires that a pope leave such instructions. Even if Pope Benedict has left instructions, those might not settle canonical questions that could arise about their implementation.
This is not the first time America has explored the question of a comatose pope. The magazine raised the issue as recently as 2005; it published several articles in 2000 recommending that actions be taken. Especially comprehensive was an essay by the late Rev. James Provost titled “What If the Pope Became Disabled?” (7/30/00). Father Provost, a canon lawyer, answered that there is no clear solution to this dilemma. This “serious vacuum in the church’s constitutional law,” as he described it, remains to this day.
What might be done? One other Catholic leader holds office for life, the General Superior of the Society of Jesus. He too can freely resign, as Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., did in 2008. But a procedure was established in 1995 to replace any incapacitated superior general. In a general congregation, four general assistants are elected; they gather every third month to examine whether “the superior general ought for a grave reason to resign his office.” If he cannot faithfully fulfill his office because of health and there is no hope of improvement, it is their duty to ask him to resign. If he is unwilling or cannot resign, then the vicar previously named by the superior general is installed as temporary vicar general. If no one was named, such a vicar is elected. He in turn convokes a general congregation to replace the general who is declared incapable of governing. Could not a similar procedure be put in place for the bishop of Rome? (Of course, only the pope himself can make or approve such provisions in canon law for the bishop of Rome.)
Bishops, priests and all the faithful should know what would happen if their spiritual leader were to become incapacitated. This is only fair, right and just. While trusting in the guidance of the Spirit, the faithful should be at peace, assured that canonical procedures (the “special laws” called for in canon law) are in place to ensure continuity if a pope were to become incapacitated. It is the responsibility of church leaders working with canon lawyers to formulate the procedures that cover such a difficult and undesirable situation.