December 3, 2023
Newsletter no. 194
In last week’s newsletter, as part of our ongoing series of essays on the role of the pope as it is described in canons 331-333 in the Code of Canon Law, we discussed the first section of canon 332, which has to do with the election of a pope. The second section of canon 332 deals with the resignation of a pope, and it reads as follows: “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff [that is, the pope] resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.” When the Code was promulgated in 1983, it must have seemed very unlikely that a pope would resign, since papal resignations were rare (although not unheard of), and the previous pope to have resigned was Gregory XII in 1415, who did so under pressure. The last pope to have resigned freely and on his own initiative—in other words, not under pressure—was Celestine V in 1294. However, in 2013, thirty years after the Code’s promulgation, Benedict XVI resigned unexpectedly because of physical frailty. To cite his words: “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 [papal] ministry.” Benedict’s resignation set a precedent: now future popes might consider resigning when they felt that they were no longer capable of carrying out the burdensome responsibilities of the office. Indeed, Pope Francis has occasionally suggested that he is open to resigning if need be. All of this brings canon 332 out of the realm of remote possibility and into that of actuality.
The canon states that a pope’s decision to resign has to be made freely, and so Benedict XVI emphasized that his resignation was entirely his own choice: “With full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter…in such a way that, as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant….” In other words, a pope cannot be forced out of office. But what happens if a pope becomes so incapacitated, whether physically or psychologically, that he cannot govern? Or what happens if he is impeded from governing by external circumstances—if, for instance, he is kidnapped and finds himself completely out of contact with the rest of the Church? Or what happens if he falls into heresy, or his decisions become erratic? Unfortunately, there is no provision for handling any of these situations, although there are examples of each of them from over the course of the lengthy history of the papacy.
The canon also notes that a papal resignation has to be “properly manifested.” This presumably means that it has to be unambiguously stated and that someone or some entity (perhaps the Church as a whole?) must be informed of the resignation, but that detail is not specified. Benedict XVI announced his resignation at a meeting of the cardinals, which is how it was “properly manifested.”
Finally, as canon 332 says, it is not necessary for validity “that it is accepted by anyone.” To put it in other terms, the pope needs no one’s permission to resign; he does not need anyone to agree with his decision or to ratify it. If it is freely arrived at and “properly manifested,” his decision is sufficient of itself. In resigning from his office, just as in carrying out his office, the pope is theoretically autonomous and beholden to no one but God.
What a pope might do after his resignation is not a topic that is broached in the canon. Benedict XVI chose of his own accord to style himself “pope emeritus,” to wear a modified version of the traditional papal attire, and to live in a monastic setting on the grounds of Vatican City. Francis, the new pope, respected his predecessor’s wishes, although he was under no obligation to do so, since, upon his resignation, Benedict had made himself subject to his successor.
That a future edition of the Code of Canon Law will ever address the difficult problems involved in a pope’s resignation—for example, whether a resignation should always be left entirely up to the pope himself, and what the nature of his status after leaving office should be—is most likely something that we shall not see in our lifetimes.
Next week’s newsletter will take up canon 333, the last in this set of three canons on the role of the pope.
This coming Friday, December 8th, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, the patronal feast of the United States and for that reason a holy day of obligation. Masses will be celebrated at 6:00 pm on Thursday, December 7th, and on December 8th itself at 7:00 am, 9:00 am (school Mass), 12:15 pm and 6:00 pm. The church and the rectory will be open all day on the 8th.
The regular schedule of Masses is as follows:
Monday to Friday – 7:00 am and 12:15 pm
Saturday – 8:00 am, 12:15 pm and 4:00 pm (Sunday Vigil)
Sunday – 8:00 am, 10:00 am, 12:00 noon, 2:00 pm (Hungarian) and 6:00 pm
Confessions are heard on Saturdays from 3:15 to 3:45 pm
The church is open Monday through Friday from 6:30 am to 6:00 pm,
Saturday from 7:30 am to 5pm, and Sunday from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm.
The parish office is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm.
The Blessed Sacrament is exposed for veneration on Sunday afternoons.