Should There be a Retirement Age for Popes?

Pope Benedict’s resignation, effective February 28, is not precedent setting. It has been done before.

However, the question remains: What does it mean for the Church as an institution?

Now that a pope has resigned, the possibility of a papal resignation is much more present than it was before. By doing it, the Holy Father has made it possible for all of us to consider that his heirs on the throne of Peter might do it also.

It is no longer unthinkable that a pope would resign his office.

I am from a political background, so I tend to look at things like this at least partly in terms of a transference of power. In my experience, power, wherever you find it, always attracts careerists who will shove, bully and manipulate to gain that power. The thought that came to my mind almost immediately after I heard of the pope’s resignation was, Will this lead to people hectoring and manipulating in an attempt to force popes to resign in the future?

Modern medicine gives more people the opportunity to live into a frail old age than ever before. This applies to popes as well as you and me. For any man to be elected pope, he must have lived long enough to have the experience and holiness the position requires. It takes years of walking with the Lord to become holy in the sense that a leader of His Church must be holy. Peter himself was a brash young man who had a lot of learn at the beginning.

Pope John Paul II was a surprising selection for pope for many reasons, his relative youth among them.

Yet, in time, everyone ages. So electing younger popes would only delay the questions I’m raising. It would not avoid them.

One possible way to avoid future popes being pressured to resign would be to do away with the possibility of resignation. Pope Benedict’s resignation was conducted by Canon Law, not dogmatic Church teaching. So, the ability of a pope to resign can be eliminated altogether, making the Papacy a lifelong sinecure with no off ramps.

Another way to do this would be to establish a retirement age for popes. I think it would have to be rather elderly, given that our previous popes have done some of their most marvelous work when they were well past 75.

These thoughts are just me, mentally noodling with the situation. They are thinking thinking, not suggestions, or even formed opinions. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to talk about it. Our pope has resigned. What does that mean to the Church in these perilous times?

There will be a new pope and he will lead us without departing from the Gospels of Christ. I do not doubt that.

But all human beings are frail and fallen. It is inevitable that this new pope — and all those who follow him — will be subject to the increasing viciousness of a world that is moving from moral nihilism to moral self-destruction. The pope, as the leader of the Catholic Church, must stand against the gates of hell.

I am praying for this unknown man as he goes about his days, almost certainly unaware of what awaits him in March. I am also grateful to the core for the steady and unyielding leadership Pope Benedict XVI has given us.

May his tribe increase.


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  • Manny

    Here’s an interesting question based on your blog.
    How do we know that this current Pope wasn’t hectored and manipulated and forced to resign?

    Now I don’t think so, but what do I know.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      I don’t think so. I think he took everyone by surprise. But the new reality he has created by his action (and I am NOT criticizing him in the least, btw) is something that may need tending to as time goes by. I do not want popes hounded out of office by being pressured to resign. In fact, I do not want popes to be pressured to resign, period. We are entering perilous times for Christians and we need a strong voice from Rome.

  • Bill S

    I have an opinion on everything and this is no exception. Unless there really is such a thing as redemptive suffering, what John Paul II went through was unnecessary and inhumane. He could have and should have been relieved of his public responsibilities.

    Because the Pope essentially rules as a monarch, there is no way to vote him out of office as we would with a president. Pope Benedict’s humility has given the Church the opportunity to replace him with someone with more vigor. I see nothing wrong with that.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Actually Bill, I think John Paul II gave us a living (and dying) testimony to the incalculable value of every human life in every stage of that life. Old age is not a cataclysm, it is a stage of life, like any other. Every person is of value beyond our comprehension of value, no matter how old or young they are. That was the message Pope John Paul II gave to all of us with his long leaving-taking.

      • William T

        For years, I had a subscription to L’Oservatore Romana, in English, which is the pope’s semi-official newspaper. During the long, long, long, long decline of Pope John Paul, the paper gradually emptied of content. He might have been giving us a dramatic example of what dying is like, but he wasn’t leading. Things basically stopped. The Church was in the hands of anonymous men who claimed to be doing his will, and who tried to give the world the impression that, somehow through the haze and nausea of his deepening illness, he was directing things. Pope Benedict–even though he was one of those anonymous men–watched this happen, and mercifully decided that this would not happen to the Church on his watch. Thanks, Pope Benedict.

        • pagansister

          I watched my mother and my husband’s uncle die slowly from Parkinson’s. My mother was bedridden, with no control of anything, mentally or physically in her last year and a half. How was the previous Pope doing any leading at all? The world watched Pope John Paul II die slowly too. I suspect it was common knowledge that there was no way in his last years that he was making decisions for the Church. It was, IMO, sad to see him almost being displayed in the last few months, to the faithful. Who was making those decisions? Perhaps Benedict 16, having been in close contact with his predecessor, doesn’t want a repetition of what happened—though I suppose as far as we know, he doesn’t have the same disease–but does have a pace-maker which was recently replaced, and perhaps other health problems that haven’t been revealed. As to a “retirement” age? Hard to say, since the job is supposed to be “life time” similar to our Supreme Court Justices.

  • Will

    Cardinals cannot vote for Pope once they turn 80. There is some logic to age limits. I would be surprised to see any rule made about papal retirement age, but perhaps this retirement will set a precedent for future popes.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      My whole reason for posting this particular post was to open up the question of what constitutes an orderly change of popes that is designed to protect the papacy from power plays. I am not convinced that setting a retirement age is a good idea. I honestly haven’t thought it through enough to have an opinion. As to the question of whether or not popes have been coerced to resign, only three popes have done so that I know of (this is not exhaustive and I may be wrong). The first was Pope Celestine, who changed canon law so that he could resign, the second was Gregory XII, who was coerced into resigning, and now Pope Benedict XVI, who took everyone by surprise with his resignation.

      Now that Pope Benedict has done this, he has broken the taboo about popes resigning, so to speak. It remains to be seen what effect this will have on future popes.

      • Fabio P.Barbieri

        Rebecca, one Pope signed a resignation document in the full expectation that it might become effective, though it never did. It was Pius XII and the document was to become effective if he was kidnapped by the Nazis. He probably had the precedent of Pius VI and VII, both abducted by Napoleon, in mind. As a precedent, it is recent, and more relevant than either that of Celestine V or Gregory XII.

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          I didn’t know about this Fabio. Thank you.

  • pagansister

    Interesting question. In another comment section about Benedict 16′s retirement, the poster mentioned an 80 year old possible candidate for the next pope. Does it make sense to elect a man who is already 80 years old and might have a very short time in office? Wasn’t Pope John Paul II in the post for many more years than most of the past men in that office?

  • Laddie V Mapani

    The moment you take the papacy and the Church as a Political Group you are lost. Only people outside the church think its something where you vote for liberal or conservative or where you have to be for contraceptives or against them. Us we believe its inspired by God and the Holy spirit is in the church. Political Cardinals will come short no matter what you think they lead GOD’s people and GOD is incharge. The age is already covered by the 80 year restriction.

  • Dee

    The Church is not a democracy, and I am a lay person. What I think on this subject is of absolutely no importance to the Office of Peter, which is as it should be.

  • HermitTalker

    The facts are that as the supreme law maker for the Church no current Pope or Council can tie a fuutre Pope’s hands to retirement – each decides. The reality of contemporary life and B XV1′s decision in his circumstances will be a precendent for the future: some future Pope will travel to another planet and will have to be physically capable of the journey. Common sense trumps all the time