The recent hospitalization of Pope John Paul II has revived interest in numerous questions about what happens to the church when a pope is sick and what would happen if he became disabled.
What happens to the church when a pope becomes ill?
If the pope becomes sick, he can delegate some of his authority to the cardinal secretary of state or to any other person. The logical person to run the church while the pope is sick would be Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state, who is more like a prime minister than a U.S. secretary of state. Such delegation presumes that the pope is still capable of making at least some decisions (such as the decision to delegate) and of communicating. He cannot, however, delegate certain aspects of his authority, such as his ability to teach infallibly.
The life of the church, which occurs mostly at the local level, continues even if a pope is seriously ill. Mass is celebrated and the sacraments are provided in parishes. Bishops continue to run their dioceses. In the Vatican, the pope has had more than 26 years to appoint people whom he trusts to follow the policies he has set. They can continue to do the ordinary business of the Vatican, but they cannot change policies without his approval. Also, when differences of opinion arise in the Vatican or between diocesan bishops and Vatican officials, these would normally be brought to the pope for decision. If he is too sick to deal with these, problems will not be dealt with.
Can a pope resign?
Yes. The number of popes who have done so has been estimated to be as high as 9, but the historical evidence is not clear. Most recently, during the Council of Constance in the 15th century, Gregory XII resigned to bring about the end of the Western Schism, and a new pope was elected in 1417. Pope Celestine V’s resignation in 1294 is the most famous, because Dante placed him in hell for it.
Most modern popes have felt that resignation is unacceptable. As Paul VI said, paternity cannot be resigned. In addition, Paul feared setting a precedent that would encourage factions in the church to pressure future popes to resign for reasons other than health. Nevertheless, the 1917 Code of Canon Law provided for the resignation of a pope, as do the regulations established by Paul VI in 1975 and John Paul II in 1996. But a resignation induced through fear or fraud would be invalid.
Will John Paul II resign?
John Paul II sees the papacy not just as a job but as a vocation or mission from God. God has given him this mission, and he will not lay it aside no matter how much suffering he endures. Many people also feel that John Paul has spent his life teaching us how to live, and now he is teaching us how to approach death. For a Christian, death is not the end, but a new beginning. This may be his final lesson to the church.
On the other hand, John Paul has loved and served the church all his life. If he concludes that it is necessary for the good of the church for him to resign, then he will. This is what Cardinal Angelo Sodano, said on Feb. 7, 2005, in response to questions from reporters about the possibility of the pope resigning: “Let’s leave this to the pope’s conscience. If there is a man in the church who is guided by the Holy Spirit, if there is a man who loves the church, if there is a man with marvelous wisdom, it’s the pope.”
What happens if a pope falls into a coma?
Significant problems would arise. Under such circumstances Vatican officials could continue to operate under their normal authority, but any decision requiring the pope’s approval (like the appointment of bishops or approval of major documents) would simply have to wait.
Nor is it clear who would be responsible for making medical decisions for a pope in a coma. Prior to the 19th century, this was less of a problem, because the role of the papacy was more limited and because doctors were more likely to kill a person with their primitive medical care than keep him alive—for example, by bleeding him. The ability of modern medicine to keep the body alive while the mind is deteriorating will eventually present the church with a constitutional crisis. And despite church teaching that extraordinary means need not be used to keep alive a dying patient, who will have the authority to disconnect the life-support system of a pope if that becoumes necessary? More important, who will have the credibility within the church to do this without causing an ecclesial crisis? Clearly, the pope should write a living will to indicate his desires and specify who has the authority to make medical decisions if he is unconscious. The best choice would be a family member, old friend or person appointed by the pope himself, whose love and loyalty to the pope would be unquestioned but who would at the same time have the ability to make an informed decision.
If a pope continued in a coma for long time, incapable of communication, the church would be in serious trouble. Some believe that John Paul has written a secret document to deal with this, but such a document might be questioned canonically since it has not been formally promulgated. If he were a simple bishop, his see, or diocese, would be considered impeded, and the provisions of canon law for this situation would be followed.
What would happen if a pope became mentally disabled?
There are no procedures (like those in the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) for dealing with such a situation. The Rev. James Provost wrote in America (9/30/2000):
Medieval canonists argued that if the pope became mentally disabled, he could no longer function as a human being and should be treated as if he were dead; a new pope would then be elected. More recent scholars have argued that the Holy Spirit would never let such a situation happen, although that seems a weak argument in light of the precedent of Urban VI (pope from 1378 to 1389), whose serious emotional or mental disturbances led the cardinals to exercise the option of electing another pope. This launched the church on the disastrous Western Schism (1378-1417).
A resignation could also be problematic, because to resign from office one must be of sound mind (Canon 187). If any other bishop became mentally disabled, his see would be considered impeded, and the provisions of canon law would be followed.
What could the church do if the Apostolic See became impeded?
Canon 335 of the current Code of Canon Law directs that special laws are to be followed if the Apostolic See becomes impeded, but no special legislation has been promulgated. “This is a rather serious vacuum in the church’s constitutional law,” wrote Father Provost in the same article in America, and explained:
Since there are no rules for what to do in this situation, the standard canon law procedure is for the officials to turn to parallel cases for direction. Moreover, whatever they do will have to be seen by the church at large as being correct in order to avoid cries of foul play, or even another schism.
What parallels would be of help in this situation? First, the standard for what it means to be impeded is already given in the church’s law concerning a diocese. The pope is a diocesan bishop, so the norm of being incapable of communicating, even by letter, would apply to him. Second, who makes the determination that the pope is so impeded that something must be done? When a pope dies, it is the camerlengo who officially makes this determination. The camerlengo is a very trusted cardinal named by the pope to this special job. He would appear to be the logical one to make the determination that the pope is impeded. He needs to rely on truly competent experts in determining that the pope is dead; the same would be true in determining if the pope is impeded.
Who takes over while a pope is impeded?
Since there is no special legislation specifying who takes over while the pope is impeded, Father Provost looks for similar situations in canon law:
In a diocese, a coadjutor or auxiliary bishop automatically does so; otherwise, the diocesan bishop is supposed to have drawn up a list of those to be named. Only if there is no list do the consultors [a committee of priests appointed by the bishop] elect an administrator. The pope already has an auxiliary, the cardinal vicar of Rome, who does the daily running of the Diocese of Rome for the pope. On the other hand, when a pope dies, the camerlengo together with two other cardinals provides a sort of collegial administration until a new pope is elected.
A similar process could be followed if a pope were impeded. But this would be different from the way the law says an impeded diocese is to be run, and it should be worked out in the section on “special laws” for the impeded Roman See that is still missing.
But the person who takes over would not be pope, and so could not exercise supreme jurisdiction. This would hold up the appointment of bishops, action by the Roman Curia on issues of major importance that require the pope’s prior approval, the creation of new dioceses and the like.
But what would happen if the secretary of state argued that he was the equivalent of the pope’s auxiliary bishop? The prospect of the Vatican secretary of state and the vicar of Rome arguing over who is in charge is frightening, which is why there is need for special legislation.
Popes Who Resigned
Historical evidence for papal resignations is limited, especially if one eliminates resignations that may have been forced.
1. Clement I (92?-101). Epiphanius asserted that Clement gave up the pontificate to Linus for the sake of peace and became pope again after the death of Cletus.
2. Pontian (230-235). Allegedly resigned after being exiled to the mines of Sardinia during persecution of Maximinus Thrax.
3. Marcellinus (296-304). Abdicated or was deposed after complying with Diocletian’s order to offer sacrifice to pagan gods.
4. Martin I (649-655). Exiled by Emperor Constans II to the Crimea. Before he died, the clergy of Rome elected a successor, whom he appears to have approved.
5. Benedict V (964). After one month in office, he accepted deposition by Emperor Otto I.
6. Benedict IX (1032-45). Benedict resigned after selling the papacy to his godfather Gregory VI.
7. Gregory VI (1045-46). Deposed for simony by Henry III.
8. Celestine V (1294). A hermit, elected at age of 80 and overwhelmed by the office, resigned. He was imprisoned by his successor.
9. Gregory XII (1406-15). Resigned at request of Council of Constance to help end the Great Western Schism.
Source: Patrick Granfield, “Papal Resignation” (The Jurist, winter and spring 1978) and J. N. D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (1986).
For more information on papal transtion, see "Papal Transition," by Thomas J. Reese, S.J.