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Bill McCormick, S.J.April 12, 2023
Pope Francis waves from a car as he leaves Rome's Gemelli hospital April 1, 2023. The 86-year-old pope, who had been hospitalized since March 29 for treatment of bronchitis. (OSV NEWS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

Pope Francis provoked wide reactions in February when he told a group of Jesuits working in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, “I believe that the pope’s ministry is ad vitam[for life],” adding with reference to the superior general of the Society of Jesus that “it has to be for life.”

Francis, who recently celebrated 10 years as pope, succeeded the late Pope Benedict XVI, who made history by abdicating in 2013 after a little under eight years on the chair of Peter, becoming the first pope to step down voluntarily from office since Pope Celestine V did so in 1294.

A Turnabout?

Experts disagreed about how surprising the pope’s comments were. Austen Ivereigh, a noted biographer of Pope Francis, told America, “It was the first time he had stressed the ad vitam nature of the papal office in such a decisive way.”

Thomas Rausch, S.J., professor emeritus of theology at Loyola Marymount University, was also surprised by what the comments seemed to imply about the pope’s decision-making: “It did not sound like Francis, who, Jesuit that he is, puts so much emphasis on discernment. But I understood him better when I read his statement.”

For others, Pope Francis was stating the obvious. “Eleven years ago, a pope saying that the papacy was for life would not have attracted attention at all,” argued Michael Attridge, a professor of theology at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. “It was considered normal until Benedict surprised the world the following year with his resignation.”

Austen Ivereigh, a noted biographer of Pope Francis, told America, “It was the first time he had stressed the ad vitamnature of the papal office in such a decisive way.”

The Cambridge University historian Eamon Duffy, agreed, telling America that “Francis has more than once alluded to the possibility of resigning, and what he might do if that came to pass.”

He said that Pope Benedict set the context for Pope Francis’ comments, through both his recent death and his historic abdication in 2013. “In resigning, Benedict sliced through the centuries of mystification of his office and established that the papacy is a job as well as a vocation,” Professor Duffy said.

Susan Wood, a professor of theology at Regis College in Toronto, agreed: “The papacy is a pastoral office and ministry in the church, not simply the status of the person who holds it. It is also the personal pastoral office of the pope, not one that is or should be exercised by surrogate if the pope becomes incapacitated. If for reasons of health a pope cannot carry out that pastoral office, we have the precedent of the possibility of papal resignation.”

As a few scholars noted, the salience of papal abdication has created a unique situation for Pope Francis.

For the Boston College theologian Richard Gaillardetz, the pope is “walking a tightrope.… There’s been a popular theory circulating that Pope Francis was ready to retire but was reluctant to do so while Pope Benedict was still alive. Now that Pope Benedict has passed, I can imagine that Francis would be concerned that people were expecting his imminent abdication.”

The Superior General

In his remarks to the Jesuits in the D.R.C., Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, also addressed the term of office of the global head of the Society of Jesus. While the superior general’s term has also been understood to be for life, the last three generals have stepped down before their death: Pedro Arrupe in 1983, Peter Hans Kolvenbach in 2008 and Adolfo Nicolás in 2016.

“The received historiography suggests that Ignatius did not want to keep calling the Jesuits back for chapters and to elect a general every four, six years or other length,” Mark Lewis, S.J., an American Jesuit and rector of the Gregorian Pontifical University, told America.

“Now that Pope Benedict has passed, I can imagine that Francis would be concerned that people were expecting his imminent abdication.”

Bart Geger, S.J., of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry and editor of the journal Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, agreed. “An ad vitam term frees the Society from the distractions of regular elections and grants the superior general greater authority and prestige, as he is unburdened by the specter of being a lame duck.”

A defining moment in this history came in a confrontation with Pope Paul IV in the 16th-century, Father Lewis explained:

At the first General Congregation in 1559, the Holy See [Pope Paul IV, through his representative Cardinal Pacheco] gave the members the freedom to elect whomever they wished but [stipulated] that the length of the new general’s term would be reserved to the Holy See. Subsequently, Laínez was given a term of three years. Paul IV, however, died in 1559, and since the requirements were made viva voce, most canonists agreed that the Society was freed from the three-year term. Laínez scrupulously asked the opinion of many of the members of that first congregation whether he should resign at the end of three years in order to observe the wishes of the pope and honor the condition of the election. All agreed that he should not be bound by the three-year term restriction, and so he governed for the rest of his life. This, in some ways, was the important precedent cementing the Constitutions’ articulation of a lifetime term.

Father Geger argues that this is not a small matter for the Society but “the single most defended point in the Jesuit Constitutions” for St. Ignatius. As Father Geger told America:

Ignatius granted the office of the superior general a theological significance that far exceeded what other institutes gave their highest authorities. Ignatius makes a startling assertion in the Constitutions that the Society does not give a superior general a degree of authority needed to fulfill his predetermined duties but rather the opposite: His duties are determined by the fact that he has pre-existing and total authority. Almost certainly, Ignatius was thinking of the words of the risen Christ: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations” (Mt 28:18).
It is no exaggeration that Ignatius understood the superior general not only as an exemplar of the ideal Jesuit but also a Christ figure in the Society. Just as the risen Christ is the head, animator and unifying principle of the mystical body of the church, so, too, is the superior general for the Society, the font from which all graces and missions flow to individual members.

For Father Geger, then, St. Ignatius had an understanding of office not unlike that of Pope John Paul II. This does not mean, however, that he did not foresee the need to adapt to circumstances. Father Geger notes:

Ignatius was well aware that a superior general might become too old or infirm to continue his duties. In that case, he mandated that “a vicar should be chosen to hold the entire authority of the superior general, although not the title, for the rest of the former general’s life” (Cons. §786). Symbolically speaking, then, Ignatius was making every effort to ensure that the superior general still fulfilled his duty to live and die for the Society.

Nevertheless, the order has adapted to practical exigencies. As Father Lewis told America: “In the 21st century, we are more aware of the extreme longevity of people. So Adolfo Nicolás proposed a general ad utilitatem [for usefulness]. The idea was to keep the term life-long, but to allow for resignations when a general no longer had the vitality to continue.”

Such considerations suggest to Aaron Pidel, S.J., a professor of theology at the Gregorian Pontifical University, that “if Francis means ad vitam the way the Jesuit Constitutions mean ad vitam when they describe the appointment of superiors general, this doesn’t necessarily indicate any great departure from the policy of his predecessor Benedict or Jesuit Generals Kolvenbach and Nicolas.”

“I am still not happy with the system where a pope writes an unpublished letter of resignation that can be revealed if he is incapable of governing.... We need something like the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

While Pope Francis thus seems to capture the spirit of St. Ignatius, Thomas Reese, S.J., a former editor in chief of America and a columnist for Religious News Service, suggested caution: “It is up to the Jesuits, not the pope, to determine how we will interpret and implement the Jesuit Constitutions. His opinions should be given serious consideration but not be considered definitive.”

Papal Reform

Aside from the question of terms, Pope Francis’ comments also elicited continued concerns about how the papacy is adapting to longer life expectancies, what Mary Doak calls “a real issue here that the church needs to give a great deal of thought to.” As Mr. Ivereigh argues: “The new factor popes today—like monarchs and presidents—must deal with is longevity combined with frailty: Today more people live longer and with debilitating conditions in a way that wasn’t possible even 50 years ago.”

Others shared that worry. Mr. Gaillardetz told America:“I am far more concerned about the pope’s resistance to established canonical norms for both papal resignations and the serious situation that might arise due to mental incompetency. Had Pope John Paul II had Alzheimer’s rather than Parkinson’s, we could have had a real papal crisis on our hands.”

Father Reese connected it to U.S. constitutional issues, writing: “I am still not happy with the system where a pope writes an unpublished letter of resignation that can be revealed if he is incapable of governing. There should be canon law delineating the process that has been publicly discussed and debated by experts. We need something like the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

While it is unclear what action Pope Francis will take with respect to norms for papal resignations, some scholars are hopeful. As Susan Wood told America: “Francis has taken the mandate ‘to repair my church’ seriously. This requires that he live in the present moment to fulfill his agenda of fashioning a missionary church and forming missionary disciples. He busies himself with what is, not with what might be.”

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