Power Vacuum?: Canon law and the continuity of papal leadership

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.

Another Option

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.

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Richard Sullivan
8 years 9 months ago
Perhaps there should be term limits of ten or fifteen years for the Pope with mandatory retirement at age seventy five. Additionally, the Pope upon his election should be required to sign a retirement document that will become effective when he is no longer physically or mentally able to peform his duties for a period of two or more months.
Robert O'Connell
8 years 9 months ago
I am confident in the Holy Spirit.  Focusing on sede apostolica impedita strikes me as a distraction from the real problems of the Church and the rest of the world. 
8 years 9 months ago
Should the Pope schedule his retirement?



Peter Schineller's interesting "Power Vacuum?" (America 10/12) pinpoints a serious situation, triggering some possible answers to his own critical question, "What might be done?"


No doubt, the two closest papabili at the last 2005 conclave were Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former rector of the Biblicum and former archbishop of Milan, both 78.


Had Cardinal Martini been elected pope, Cardinal Ratzinger would no longer be capable  of electing a pope today, since he was 80 on April 16, 2007.


In the late 1980s, during my four years at the Vatican, I knew a number of cardinals who, not pleased with Pope Paul VI's those-past-80-must-not-vote decision, began lodging a quiet personal protest by not joining the rest of the Sacred College at solemn ceremonies in St. Peter's Basilica.


An 80-year-old cardinal is now, by law, decreed to be too old to elect a pope, but not too old to be pope. Both the King and I would say, "is a puzzlement."


If a new law, preferably proposed by the pope himself, were to oblige the reigning pope to resign upon reaching the age of 80, all the world's cardinals would have ample time to prepare for a conclave known to occur with certainty months, even years, ahead of time, on a date already determined by the pope's well known birthday, and not depending on his  failing health and on his always uncertain day of death.


The scheduling of important diocesan, inter-diocesan and national events, personal vacations, priests' retreats, travels to foreign countries, appearances and speeches at national, international and UN events, etc., would be tremendously simplified for cardinals who are presently forced to rush to an unexpectedly scheduled papal conclave.


Fr. Larry N. Lorenzoni, S.D.B.


1100 Franklin Street

San Francisco, CA 94109

Phone:    (415) 441-7144

e-mail:    [url=mailto:lorenzoni@aol.com]lorenzoni@aol.com[/url]



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