I post here my recent column in the Catholic Weekly on the resignation of the Pope, in answer to numerous questions on the subject.
Like everyone else, I was surprised by the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict, whom we had all come to love. This raises many questions. Is this provided for in law? To whom does the Pope submit his resignation? And can the Cardinals elect someone who is not a Cardinal?
We were all surprised by the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict. He has done so much good for the Church in his almost eight years as Pope, and we were looking forward to many more years.
It is not surprising that as he approaches his eighty-sixth birthday, and in declining health and energy, he feels the burden of carrying the weight of the entire Church on his shoulders, with more than a billion faithful in his care and a very demanding daily workload. It is therefore understandable that Pope Benedict feels that he cannot do justice to the position and he chooses to relinquish it to a younger person. If one looks at the secular world, there is virtually no one anywhere near his age who is still the head of a large organisation, let alone an organisation as large as the Catholic Church.
It is clear that Pope Benedict had considered the possibility of resigning some years ago. In 2010 he told the German journalist Peter Seewald that “if a Pope clearly realises that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”
To put the resignation in perspective, the Code of Canon Law requires all bishops to submit their resignation to the Pope on reaching their seventy-fifth birthday, obviously because at that age it is increasingly difficult for anyone to discharge the duties of his office. Also, and perhaps just as relevant, is the provision that a bishop who, because of illness or some other grave reason, has become unsuited for the fulfilment of his office, is earnestly requested to offer his resignation (cf. Can. 401, §§ 1 and 2; Can. 411).
The same criterion applies to parish priests, who are to submit their resignation to the diocesan bishop on turning seventy-five (cf. Can. 538, §3). In the case of both bishops and parish priests, their resignation need not be accepted by the higher authority (cf. Can. 401, Can. 538, §3).
Even though the Pope is elected for life and does not need to submit his resignation, the Code of Canon Law specifically mentions this possibility: “Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone” (Can. 332, §2).
The last phrase about the resignation not needing to be accepted simply acknowledges the fact that, since the Pope has no lawful superior in the Church, there is no higher authority to whom he can submit his resignation and who can accept or refuse it. In this case, Pope Benedict announced his resignation in a meeting of Cardinals. Once the Pope has freely and publicly manifested his intention to resign, his resignation takes effect automatically at the time he determines.
We are of course not used to a Pope resigning, the last one to do so being over 600 years ago, but it is possible that now that Pope Benedict has resigned, other Popes may choose to do the same when they feel that they are no longer capable of carrying out the duties of the office satisfactorily.
Can the Cardinals elect as Pope someone who is not a Cardinal? While in modern times this has not happened, there is no reason why it could not happen, since there is no requirement in Canon Law that the person elected Pope be a Cardinal. There is nonetheless a longstanding tradition to this effect, going back to the Roman Synod of 769, which decided that the Pope was to be elected from among the Cardinal bishops, priests and deacons of Rome and the surrounding dioceses (cf. J. Flader, Question Time 2, Connor Court 2012, q. 173). Even today, all the Cardinals of the world are assigned to a Roman parish so they would all fulfil this condition.
The Code of Canon Law envisions the possibility that the one chosen to be Pope is not even a bishop, in which case he is to be ordained a bishop immediately (cf. Can. 332 §1). But it should be remembered that those to be named Cardinals need not be bishops, in which case they are to be ordained bishops (cf. Can. 351, §1). So there may be a Cardinal in the conclave who is not yet a bishop and he could be elected Pope.
How about the election of someone who is not in the conclave? This too is possible, especially if the one elected is a Cardinal who was not able to attend the conclave due to illness or for some other grave reason. Indeed, the norms for papal elections promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1996 envision the possibility that the newly elected Pope does not reside in Vatican City and also that he is not already a bishop (cf. Universi Dominici Gregis, 90).
In any case, it is all up to the Holy Spirit and so we pray very much for the Cardinal electors and for the next Pope, whoever he may be.