Q&A on Papal Transition, Conclave & Election of New Pope 
By Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ – originally appearing in America Magazine

When did Pope Benedict create new cardinals? 

On Nov. 24, 2012, the pope created six new cardinals, all of whom are under 80 years of age and therefore eligible to vote in a papal conclave. 

On March 24, 2006, Benedict created 15 new cardinals, 12 of whom were under 80 years of age. On Nov. 24, 2007, Benedict created 23 new cardinals, 18 of whom were under 80 years of age. On November 20, 2010, he created 24 new cardinals, 20 of whom were under 80. On February 18, 2012, he created 22 new cardinals, 18 of whom were under 80. 

Up until 2012, unlike his predecessor John Paul II, Benedict followed church rules and kept the total number of cardinals under 80 years of age at 120, the number established by Paul VI. Under John Paul the number went up to 135 in 2001 and 2003. 

As of Feb. 11, 2013, 67 of the 118 cardinal electors were appointed by Benedict. The rest were appointed by John Paul II. Cardinal Lubomyr Husar will turn 80 on Feb. 26, and therefore, he is not able to attend the conclave unless the pope grants him an exception. 

What happens if the pope dies before a consistory? 

If a pope dies after the names of new cardinals are announced but before the consistory, the men nominated as cardinals are not cardinals and they do not get to go to the conclave and vote for the next pope. For example, Hans Urs Von Balthasar was never a cardinal although he was announced in 1989 but died before the consistory. 

The English translation of Canon 351, #2, of the 1983 Code of Canon Law can be misleading on this because of the use of words like “announcement” and “publication.” The translation by the CLSA (Canon Law Society of America) reads: 

Cardinals are created by a decree of the Roman Pontiff which is made public in the presence of the College of Cardinals. From the moment of announcement they are bound by the duties and possess the rights defined by law. 

The British translation reads: 

  • Cardinals are created by decree of the Roman Pontiff, which in fact is published in the presence of the College of Cardinals. From the moment of publication, they are bound by the obligations and they enjoy the rights defined in the law. 

The Latin text is: 

  • Cardinales creantur Romani Pontificis decreto, quod quidem coram Cardinalium Collegio publicatur; inde a publicatione facta officiis tenentur atque iuribus gaudent lege definitis.

I consulted four prominent canon lawyers in the U.S. and one in Rome (who consulted his Roman colleagues) and all agreed that if the pope dies before the consistory, the men are not cardinals. They say that cardinals are created at the consistory when the names are read out. That is the technical meaning of the words in the code. 

The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law from the CLSA says: “This reflects the time when the college served as the papal court and appointments to the cardinalatial dignity were subject to debate and required the consent of the college.” In modern times the consent has become pro forma. 

The text of Universi Dominici Gregis supports the view that they are not cardinals until the consistory: “A Cardinal of Holy Roman Church who has been created and published before the College of Cardinals thereby has the right to elect the Pope.” 

Supporting this view is the language that the John Paul used in his 2003 announcement: “The month of October, the month of the Holy Rosary, is approaching. I entrust to Our Lady in a special way the consistory that I intend to hold on October 21, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of my pontificate. Putting aside once again the established numerical limit, I will create new cardinals.” Note he uses the future tense, “I will create new cardinals.” 

Finally, the Annuario Pontificio uses the formula “creato e pubblicato nel Consistoro” in the brief biography of each of the cardinals and uses the dates of the consistories not the earlier announcements for cardinals. 

What happens when the pope gets sick? 

If the pope becomes sick, he can delegate some of his authority to the cardinal secretary of state or to any other person. In the long history of the papacy, popes have formally or informally delegated authority to Vatican officials, cardinal nephews and other members of their families. But today the logical person to run the church while the pope is sick would be Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 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 communicating. He cannot, however, delegate some aspects of his authority, such as his ability to teach infallibly. 

The life of the church, which is lived mostly at the parish level, continues. Mass is celebrated and the sacraments are received. Bishops continue to run their dioceses. In the Vatican, the pope appoints 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, a pope can resign. Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will resign on February 28. 

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, 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 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 (canon 187). 

In 1989 and in 1994, 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. 

Catholic News Service reports: 

  • The 1989 letter was brief and to the point; it says that in the case of an incurable illness that prevents him from “sufficiently carrying out the functions of my apostolic ministry” or because of some other serious and prolonged impediment, “I renounce my sacred and canonical office, both as bishop of Rome as well as head of the holy Catholic Church.” 
  • 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. He also said that, two years earlier, when he thought he might have a malignant colon tumor, he thought God had already decided for him. 
  • Then, he said, he decided to follow the example of Pope Paul VI who, in 1965, concluded that a pope “could not resign the apostolic mandate except in the presence of an incurable illness or an impediment that would prevent the exercise of the functions of the successor of Peter.” 
  • “Outside of these hypotheses, 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,” the letter said.

Historical evidence for papal resignations is limited, especially if one eliminates resignations that may have been forced. 

  • 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.
  • Pontian (230-235). Allegedly resigned after being exiled to the mines of Sardinia during persecution of Maximinus Thrax.
  • Cyriacus. A fictional character created in the Middle Ages who supposedly received a heavenly command to resign.
  • Marcellinus (296-304). Abdicated or was deposed after complying with Diocletian’s order to offer sacrifice to pagan gods.
  • Martin I (649-655). Exiled by Emperor Constans II to Crimea. Before he died, clergy of Rome elected a successor whom he appears to have approved.
  • Benedict V (964). After one month in office, he accepted deposition by Emperor Otto I.
  • Benedict IX (1032-45). Benedict resigned after selling the papacy to his godfather Gregory VI.
  • Gregory VI (1045-46). Deposed for simony by Henry III.
  • Celestine V (1294). A hermit, elected at age of 80 and overwhelmed by the office, resigned. He was imprisoned by his successor.
  • 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). 

Why did Benedict XVI resign? 

In Light of the World, 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. 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 February 11, Pope Benedict announced that he would resign on February 28 because “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 also said, “in 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 recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfill the minitary entrusted to me.” 

What is the long-term impact of Benedict’s resignation on the life of the church? 

Pope Benedict’s resignation will make it easier for other elderly or sick popes to resign. It may even encourage the cardinals to elect a younger man with the understanding that he could voluntarily resign when he reached 75 or 80. Some fear that Benedict’s resignation will encourage people to pressure future popes to retire for reasons other than health—simply because they don’t like the pope or what he is doing or not doing. 

What happens if a pope goes into a coma? 

Problems would arise if a pope went into a coma. 

The first problem would be determining who is responsible for making medical decisions for the pope. Clearly the pope should write a living will to indicate his desires and 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 a tough decision. For Benedict, since his brother is still alive, he would be a perfect choice. But without such a document, decisions on his care would probably be made by the secretary of state, the highest ranking Vatican official. Having a cardinal under the age of 80 making these decisions would be unwise since it would feed the speculations of conspiracy theorists. 

While the pope is in a coma, Vatican officials could continue to operate under their normal authority but any decision requiring the pope’s approval (the appointment of bishops, the approval of major documents, etc.) would simply have to wait. 

Prior to the 19th century, this was less of a problem because role of the papacy was more limited and because doctors were more likely to kill a person with their care than keep him alive. The ability of modern medicine to keep the body alive while the mind is deteriorating will eventually present the church with a constitutional crisis. Although the church has traditionally taught that extraordinary means need not be used to keep alive a dying patient, John Paul II taught that a person in persistent vegetative state must be kept alive with fluids and nutrition. This could lead to an incapacitated pope in place for many years. 

Prior to John Paul’s death, some believed that he had written a secret document to deal with the possibility of his being in coma, but his secretary, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Stanislaw Dziwisz, indicated after the pope’s death that this was not the case. However, Msgr. Sławomir Oder, postulator of the late pope’s cause, says that he did (see “Can a pope resign?” above). There has been no indication that Benedict has written such a document. In any case, such a document might be questioned canonically since it was not formally promulgated. If he were a simple bishop, his “see” or diocese would be considered “impeded” and the provisions of canon law would be followed. 

What would happen if a pope became mentally disabled or suffered from Alzheimer’s? 

A pope in the early stages of Alzheimer’s could resign. If he refused, problems would arise. If a pope became mentally disabled, the church would face a constitutional crisis because there are no procedures for dealing with such a situation as there is in the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Rev. James H. Provost wrote in America (Sept. 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 becomes impeded? 

Canon 335 of the present 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,” the Rev. James H. Provost wrote in America (Sept. 30, 2000). Father Provost argued: 

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 the pope is impeded? 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 Roman diocese 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 those special prerogatives that go with the papal office, such as the exercise of supreme jurisdiction or the gift of infallibility. 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. 

For the complete text of “What If the Pope Became Disabled?” by the Rev. James H. Provost, click here.