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What is the precedent for a pope to resign?

TR: The number of popes who may have resigned has been estimated as high as 10, but the historical evidence is limited. Most recently, during the Council of Constance in the 15th century, Pope 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 his decision was made freely, and Dante placed him in hell for it.

Most modern popes have felt that resignation is unacceptable. As Pope 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 code of canon law in 1917 provided for the resignation of a pope as do the regulations established by Paul VI in 1975 and John Paul II in 1996. However, a resignation induced through fear or fraud would be invalid. In addition, canonists argue that a person resigning from an office must be of sound mind

In 1989 and in 1994, Pope John Paul II secretly prepared letters offering the College of Cardinals his resignation in case of an incurable disease or other condition that would prevent him from fulfilling his ministry, according to Msgr. Sławomir Oder, postulator of the late pope’s cause. In his 1994 letter the pope said he had spent years wondering whether a pope should resign at age 75, the normal retirement age for bishops. However, John Paul also wrote, “I feel a serious obligation of conscience to continue to fulfill the task to which Christ the Lord has called me as long as, in the mysterious plan of his providence, he desires.”

Why did Pope Benedict resign?

TR: In Light of the World, by Peter Seewald, published in 2010, Pope Benedict responded unambiguously to a question about whether a pope could resign: “Yes. If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”

On the other hand, he did not favor resignation simply because the burden of the papacy is great. “When the danger is great one must not run away,” he explained.

“For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say someone else should do it.”

On Feb. 11 Pope Benedict announced that he would resign on Feb. 28. He explained: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” He added: “[I]n order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

If a pope resigns and another is elected, are there in effect two popes at the same time?

KU: No, there are not. A person is not ordained pope as though this were a fourth category in the sacrament of orders: deacon, priest, bishop, pope. Rather, he is elected bishop of Rome. (If the person elected by the cardinals were not a bishop, he would be ordained one so that he could be the bishop of Rome.) A person is pope because he has a particular office—bishop of Rome. When he is no longer bishop of Rome, he no longer is pope.

If a pope resigns from being pope, then what is he?

KU: We have to sort out what is attached to the person and what is attached to the office. We can parallel it to any bishop who resigns as head of a diocese. If a pope resigns as bishop of Rome, all the responsibilities and powers linked with that office are no longer his. He is therefore no longer: vicar of Peter, head of the college of bishops, patriarch of the West, primate (chief bishop) of the bishops of Italy, metropolitan of the dioceses surrounding Rome or head of Vatican City State. But he would remain a bishop and a cardinal.

Would a retired pope still be infallible?

KU: Infallibility is a gift given to the church as a whole. It is exercised by the pope when he defines a doctrine to be believed by all the faithful, but it is not a gift given to the pope as a personal quality. The bishop of Rome, because of his office, can give expression to the faith of the church and exercise the infallibility with which the church is endowed. If he resigns from that office, he can no longer act in this way.

If a pope retires, what would he be called?

KU: The title “Pope” (from the Greek pappas, “father”) was a term of affection used of bishops from early times. By the 12th century, it had come to be understood as particularly appropriate for the bishop of Rome, because his diocese was the center of ecclesial unity. (Hence also the title “Holy Father.”)

There are no guidelines on what we would call a retired pope. It would seem appropriate to give him an honorary title. We attach “emeritus” to a title we give someone who has the honor but not the power of a previous position. He might appropriately be called Pope Emeritus.

Where would a pope live after resigning?

KU: The bishop of Rome is a member of the Conference of Italian Bishops. If he resigns, he continues as a member of that episcopal conference. He may want to stay among them. However, he is free, as any retired bishop is free, to live wherever he wishes.

[Benedict, once retired, plans to live in a monastery that had been used as the Vatican gardener’s house but was later established as a cloistered convent by Pope John Paul II in 1994. Different orders of cloistered nuns have lived in the monastery, each for a fixed term of three to five years. The monastery is currently being remodeled. Until the work is completed, a date not yet determined, the retired pope will live at the papal villa in Castel Gandolfo.]

Who governs the church before the new pope is elected?

TR: The interregnum and election of a new pope are governed by the rules established in the 1996 constitution “Universi Do-minici Gregis” (“Of the Lord’s Whole Flock”) of John Paul II, as modified by Benedict in 2007.

When a pope resigns or dies, all the cardinals and archbishops in charge of departments in the Roman Curia, including the secretary of state, lose their jobs. The ordinary faculties of these offices, which are run by their secretaries during the interregnum, do not cease, but serious and controversial matters are to await the election of a new pope.

If a matter cannot be postponed, the College of Cardinals can entrust it to the prefect or president who was in charge of the office when the pope died (or to other cardinals who were members of that congregation or council). Any decision made is provisional until confirmed by the new pope.

Three major officials do not lose their jobs: the vicar of the diocese of Rome, the major penitentiary and the camerlengo. The vicar for Rome provides for the pastoral needs of the diocese of Rome and continues to have all the powers he had under the resigned or deceased pope. The major penitentiary deals with confessional matters reserved to the Holy See, and he is allowed to continue functioning because the door to forgiveness should never be closed.

The camerlengo (Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone) is the most important official during the interregnum. While a pope is in office, he has the authority to act for the pope in certain areas when the pope is away from Rome. On the resignation or death of a pope, the camerlengo takes charge of and administers the property and money of the Holy See. During the interregnum he reports to the College of Cardinals, which governs the church until a pope is elected. He also organizes the conclave. By appointing the cardinal secretary of state as the camerlengo, Benedict simplified the organizational structure and made sure that his secretary of state had an important role during the interregnum.

Although the government of the church is in the hands of the College of Cardinals until a new pope is elected, the powers of the college are limited. It cannot change the rules governing papal elections, appoint cardinals or make any decisions binding on the next pope. The cardinals meet daily in a general congregation, presided over by the dean of the college (Cardinal Angelo Sodano), until the conclave begins. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was dean prior to the last conclave, and his speech as dean to the cardinals prior to the conclave received great attention from the cardinals and the media.

Is there campaigning prior to the conclave?

TR: Any discussion, let alone campaigning, prior to the death of a pope is strictly forbidden. The prohibition against discussing papal succession while the pope is still in office dates back to Felix IV (526-30), who instructed the clergy and the Roman Senate to elect his archdeacon, Boniface, as his successor. The senate objected and passed an edict forbidding any discussion of a pope’s successor during his lifetime.

Discussions prior to the conclave do occur privately among cardinals, but public campaigning, even after the pope’s death, is frowned upon and would probably be counterproductive. Normally the discussion of candidates is done privately by cardinals over dinner or in small groups.

Cardinals who travel a great deal are sometimes suspected of doing this in order to meet and become known to other cardinals prior to the conclave. The cardinals have also gotten to know each other at synods of bishops, extraordinary consistories and other meetings where they see each other in action. But the best known cardinals tend to be those working in Rome where they meet prelates when they visit Rome. Curial cardinals are also better known by the Vatican press corps, which covers the conclave.

When and where is the conclave held?

Unless circumstances prevent it, the conclave takes place inside Vatican City and begins 15 days after the resignation or death of the pope. For serious reasons, the cardinals can defer the beginning of the conclave, but it must begin within 20 days of the pope’s resignation or death. The exact date and time are set by the College of Cardinals.

The election takes place in the Sistine Chapel, with the cardinals living in the five-story Domus Sanctae Marthae, a Vatican residence with 105 two-room suites and 26 single rooms built in 1996, which is vacated by its usual residents during a conclave. The rooms are assigned by lot. A number of elections in the 19th century were held in the Quirinal Palace, which was one of the pope’s palaces until the fall of the Papal States in 1870. The last election to take place outside Rome was in Venice in 1800.

Where does the word “conclave” come from?

TR: In the 13th century the papacy was vacant for a year and a half before the election of Pope Innocent IV and for three and a half years before the installation of Pope Gregory X. In the first case the election was finally forced by the senate and people of Rome, who locked up the cardinals until a pope was chosen in 1243. In the second case, the people of Viterbo in 1271 not only locked the cardinals in, but tore off the roof of the building and put the cardinals on a diet of bread and water. The word “conclave” comes from the Latin, “with a key,” as in locked with a key.

Today the cardinals are locked in to ensure secrecy and to protect them from outside influence. Before the conclave begins, all telephones, cell phones, radios, televisions and Internet connections are removed. No letters or newspapers are permitted. All the rooms are swept for electronic bugs by trained technicians. Whether this will be sufficient to prevent more sophisticated eavesdropping remains to be seen.

Who is permitted in the conclave?

T.R.: All cardinals under 80 years of age when a pope resigns or dies have the right to vote for the next pope, unless they have been canonically deposed or, with the permission of the pope, have renounced the cardinalate. Even an excommunicated cardinal can attend. However, a cardinal who had resigned and joined Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to enter the conclave in 1800 but was turned away. Once inside the conclave, an elector may not leave except because of illness or other grave reasons acknowledged by a majority of the cardinals.

Also permitted in the conclave are nurses for infirmed cardinals, two medical doctors, religious priests who can hear confessions in various languages, the secretary of the College of Cardinals, the master of papal liturgical celebrations with two masters of ceremonies and two religious attached to the papal sacristy, and an assistant chosen by the cardinal dean. Also permitted are a suitable number of persons for preparing and serving meals and for housekeeping. They must swear absolute and perpetual secrecy concerning anything they learn concerning the election of the pope.

Who are the cardinal electors?

TR: All cardinals under 80 years of age when the pope dies or resigns have the right to vote for the next pope. As of Feb. 11, 2013, there are 118 cardinal electors, of whom 67 were appointed by Benedict and the rest by John Paul II. The average age of the electors is 72. About 52 percent are from Europe (24 percent from Italy). Latin America has 16 percent; Asia 9.3 percent; Africa 9.3 percent. The United States has 9.3 percent, second only to Italy; Canada 2.5 percent. Curial cardinals make up about 35 percent of the electors, with an additional 10 percent being former Vatican officials who now head dioceses.

The maximum number of cardinals was set at 70 by Sixtus V in 1586. John XXIII ignored this limit, and the college grew to over 80 cardinals. In 1970 Paul VI reformed the College of Cardinals by increasing the number of electors to 120, not counting those 80 years of age and over who were excluded as electors. John Paul II exceeded this limit by two in 1998 and by 15 in 2001 and 2003. Benedict XVI returned to the legal limit of 120 until February 2012 when he raised it to 124. In November 2012, he returned to 120.

How has Benedict XVI changed the makeup of the College of Cardinals?

T.R.: Popes tend to make only minor adjustments in the geographical distribution of cardinals, but since the total number of cardinals is small, a couple of cardinals here or there make a difference. John Paul increased the number of Eastern European cardinals and decreased the number of Italian cardinals. Benedict has increased the percentage of Italian cardinals in the conclave and reduced the percentage of cardinals from the third world.

Has the pope always been elected by the cardinals?

TR: Although the College of Cardinals elects the pope today, this was not the rule until the 11th century. Some early popes (including perhaps St. Peter) appointed their successors. Although appointing one’s successor was provided for by the Roman Synod of 499, this method fell out of favor when Felix IV (526-530) and Boniface II (530-532) tried to impose controversial candidates as their successors.

In the early church, popes were usually chosen by the clergy and people of Rome in the same way that bishops in other dioceses were elected. This democratic process worked well when the church was small and united. But disagreements led to factions who fought over the papacy. Nobles, emperors and kings interfered in papal elections as the church became rich and powerful.

The papal electors were limited to the clergy of the Diocese of Rome by the Roman synod of 499. No bishop was elected pope until 891 (Formosus). Since 1179, only cardinals have voted for the pope except for the election in 1417 that ended the Western Schism.

What happens on the first day of the conclave?

TR: On the morning the conclave begins, the cardinal electors celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. In the afternoon they gather in the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace and solemnly process to the Sistine Chapel. The cardinals take an oath to observe the rules laid down in “Universi Dominici Gregis,” especially those enjoining secrecy.

They also swear not to support interference in the election by any secular authorities or “any group of people or individuals who might wish to intervene in the election of the Roman pontiff.” Finally, the electors swear that whoever is elected will carry out the “munus Petrinum of pastor of the universal church” and will “affirm and defend strenuously the spiritual and temporal rights and liberty of the Holy See.” The constitution also says that the new pope is not bound by any oaths or promises made prior to his election. After the oath is taken, everyone not connected with the conclave is ordered out with the Latin words Extra omnes, “Everybody out!”

The Sistine Chapel and the Domus Sanctae Marthae are then closed to unauthorized persons by the camerlengo. Outside the conclave, the camerlengo is assisted by the sostituto of the Secretariat of State, who directs Vatican personnel to protect the integrity and security of the conclave.

After everyone else leaves, an ecclesiastic chosen earlier by the College of Cardinals gives a meditation “concerning the grave duty incumbent on them and thus on the need to act with right intention for the good of the universal church, solum Deum prae oculis habentes [having only God before your eyes].” When he finishes, he leaves the Sistine Chapel with the master of papal liturgical ceremony so that only the cardinal electors remain. The time in the chapel is for prayer and voting in silence, not campaign speeches. Negotiations and arguments are to take place outside the chapel. If they wish, the cardinals can immediately begin the election process.

How does the balloting take place?

TR: The regulations for balloting are very detailed to eliminate any suspicion of electoral fraud—no hanging chads here.

Three “scrutineers” (vote counters) are chosen by lot from the electors, with the least senior cardinal deacon drawing the names. He draws three additional names of cardinals (called infirmarii) who will collect the ballots of any cardinals in the conclave who are too sick to come to the Sistine Chapel. A final three names are drawn by lot to act as revisers, who review the work done by the scrutineers. Each morning and afternoon, new scrutineers, infirmarii and revisers are chosen by lot.

The electors use rectangular cards as ballots with the words Eligo in summum pontificem (“I elect as supreme pontiff”) printed at the top. Each cardinal, in secret, prints or writes the name of his choice on the ballot in a way that disguises his handwriting. One at a time, in order of precedence, the cardinals approach the altar with their folded ballot held up so that it can be seen. After kneeling in prayer for a short time, the cardinal rises and swears, “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.” He then places the ballot in a silver and gilded bronze urn shaped like a wok with a lid.

The first scrutineer shakes the egg-shaped urn to mix the ballots. The last scrutineer counts the ballots before they are unfolded. If the number of ballots does not correspond to the number of electors, the ballots are burned without being counted and another vote is immediately taken. If the number of ballots does match the number of electors, the scrutineers, who are sitting at a table in front of the altar, begin counting the votes.

The first scrutineer unfolds each ballot, notes the name on a piece of paper and passes the ballot to the second scrutineer. He notes the name and passes the ballot to the third scrutineer, who reads it aloud for all the cardinals to hear. If there are two names on a single ballot, the ballot is not counted. The last scrutineer pierces each ballot with a threaded needle through the word “Eligo” and places it on the thread. After all the ballots have been read, the ends of the thread are tied together and the ballots thus joined are placed in a third urn. The scrutineers then add up the totals for each candidate. Finally, the three revisers check both the ballots and the notes of the scrutineers to make sure that they performed their task faithfully and exactly.

The ballots and notes (including those made by any cardinal) are then burned unless another vote is to take place immediately; in that case, the ballots of two votes are burned together. Special chemicals are added to make the smoke white or black. Since 1903, white smoke has signaled the election of a pope; black smoke signals an inconclusive vote. The only written record of the voting is given to the new pope and then placed in the archives in a sealed envelope that may be opened by no one unless the pope gives permission.

How long can the conclave last?

TR: The conclave lasts until a new pope is elected. To be elected, two thirds of the votes are required, calculated on the basis of the total number of electors present. If no one is elected on the afternoon of the first day, the cardinals meet again the next morning. If they are again unsuccessful, they immediately vote again. From then on, there can be two votes in the morning and two in the afternoon.

The last conclave to go more than five days was in 1831: It lasted 54 days. In the 13th century the papacy was vacant for a year and a half before the election of Innocent IV and for three and a half years before the installation of Gregory X. Since then 29 conclaves have lasted a month or more. Often wars or civil disturbances in Rome caused these lengthy interregnums. Sometimes delays were caused by the cardinals themselves, who enjoyed the power and financial rewards of running the papacy without a pope. These abuses led to rules governing an interregnum and requiring the speedy calling of a conclave.

In 2007 Pope Benedict instructed that if the cardinals are deadlocked after 33 or 34 votes (depending on whether there was a vote the first day), which would take 13 days, runoff ballots between the two leading candidates will be held. This procedure is problematic because if neither of the candidates is able to get a two-thirds vote, the conclave will be deadlocked with no possibility of choosing a third candidate as a compromise. The two leading cardinals cannot vote in the runoff ballots, though they remain in the Sistine Chapel, where conclaves are held. Nor do Benedict’s new rules say what to do if two candidates are tied for second place.

Who can be elected?

TR: In theory, any man can be elected who is willing to be baptized and ordained a priest and bishop. He does not have to be at the conclave. The last non-cardinal elected was Urban VI (1378). The last cardinal to be elected pope who was a priest but not a bishop was Gregory XVI (1831). Callixtus III (1455) was the last person to be elected who was not a priest. Most likely a cardinal elector will be elected, all of whom today are bishops.

What happens after the election?

TR: The cardinal dean asks the elected man, “Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?” Rarely does anyone say no. When offered the papacy at the conclave in Viterbo in 1271, St. Philip Benizi fled and hid until another candidate was chosen. Likewise St. Charles Borromeo, one of the few cardinals to be canonized, turned down the papacy. When Cardinal Giovanni Colombo, the 76-year-old archbishop of Milan, began receiving votes during the conclave in October 1978, he made it clear that he would refuse the papacy if elected. If the man says yes, then he becomes pope immediately if he is already a bishop. If he is not already a bishop, he is to be ordained one immediately and becomes pope.

He is then asked by what name he wants to be called. The first pope to change his name was John II in 533. His given name, Mercury, was considered inappropriate since it was the name of a pagan god. The custom of changing one’s name became common around the year 1009. The last pope to keep his own name was Marcellus II, elected in 1555.

The cardinals then approach the new pope and make an act of homage and obedience. A prayer of thanksgiving is then said, and the senior cardinal deacon informs the people in St. Peter’s Square that the election has taken place and announces the name of the new pope. The pope then may speak to the crowd and grant his first solemn blessing urbi et orbi, to the city and the world.

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