Answering Your Questions About Papal Resignation

Pope Benedict’s announcement yesterday that he is resigning has taken the world by surprise. In response, I’ve already heard a number of questions, and it seemed wise to create a basic Q&A to clarify any confusion you might have about papal resignation.

Q: Can the Pope Resign?

A: The first reaction several people expressed to Benedict’s resignation was “I didn’t know the pope could do that!” At least one person has told me that Benedict was supposed to have consulted with the College of Cardinals first.  No doubt, Benedict’s resignation comes as a shock, but canon law actually contemplates the possibility of a papal resignation, and it doesn’t require consulting anyone:

Can. 332 §2. If it happens that the Roman Pontiff 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.

Obviously, this canon exists for a reason. If that wasn’t enough, there have been a handful of popes throughout history who have resigned: Benedict IX, Gregory VI, St. Celestine V, and Gregory XII.

Q: Why is Benedict Resigning?
A: Unfortunately, the Internet was almost immediately abuzz with baseless scandal-mongering.  For example, one of the first questions I was asked was, “Is this to ensure that we don’t find that Benedict was involved in abuse cover-ups?”

Regarding the sex-abuse scandal specifically, it’s worth remembering that then-Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the strongest forces for good within the Church on this issue.  And Phil Lawler, whose book analyzing the sex abuse scandal is the best that I’ve seen yet, has been clear on Benedict’s positive role here.

More generally, I know that scandal-mongering on all sides will view as proof of (insert pet cause or rumor), as scandal-mongers often do. But there’s no evidence for any of it. Instead, the facts are pretty clear:

    • Pope Benedict, at age 85, is the fourth oldest pope, at least out of the last seven hundred years.  By way of comparison, Pope John Paul II died at age 84.
    • Although he was expected to have a short reign (being 78 when he was elected), Benedict has already served a longer-than-average pontificate.  The average pontificate lasts about 7.2 years.  Benedict will have served 7.86 years.
    • That Benedict’s health has been declining is no secret.  Back in October 2011, Benedict began using a rolling platform in processing down the aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica.  At the time, CWN noted that “at the age of 84 he has slowed noticeably.”  That was well over a year ago.
    • The modern papacy isn’t what it used to be.  There was a time when a pope never needed to leave Italy (or even Vatican City).  But both Paul VI and John Paul II were globe-trotting popes, accessible to the Catholic faithful all over the world.   This aspect of the modern papacy requires a certain physical stamina no longer possible for Pope Benedict, whose doctor has forbidden him from transatlantic travel, presumably including events like the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
    • Benedict has long argued that the modern papacy may call for the resignation of an infirm and dying pope.  For example, a few years back, Benedict told Peter Seewald:  “If a Pope clearly realises 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.”  Seewald included this interview in his 2010 book Light of the WorldMaybe we should have paid more attention, in hindsight.
    • Certainly, Benedict’s resignation sounds very much like his statement to Seewald, remarking that “in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, 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 recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
    The clear picture emerges is of a pope who has believed (for years) that the modern state of the papacy may call for a pope to resign, should his health deteriorate beyond a certain point.  Apparently, he now considers himself to fit this description.
    Pope Gregory XII, the last pope to resign.

    Q: When was the Last Time that a Pope Resigned?
    A: One reason Benedict’s announcement is such a surprise is that the last papal resignation was in 1415.  put another way, the last time a pope resigned, Protestantism didn’t exist, and the New World hasn’t been discovered.

    Q: What will we call Pope Benedict After he resigns?
    A: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. [Update: I may have spoken too soon on this one.  While this was the initial report, there’s now talk about “Bishop of Rome, emeritus,” and keeping “Your Holiness” as an honorific. That may not be settled until the next papacy.] He will remain a Cardinal, and a member of the College of Bishops… just as any other Bishop-emeritus remains a bishop.

    Q: Where will Ratzinger Go?
    A: First, to the Papal residence in Castel Gandolfo.  Then, once renovations are complete, he will move into a cloistered convent located within Vatican City.  This is according to Fr. Lombardi, Vatican Spokesman (h/t Commonweal).

    Q: Will Cardinal Ratzinger Vote for the Next Pope?
    A: Not according to Fr. Lombardi.  Benedict will take no part in the conclave at all.

    Speaking of the conclave, I’ll do another Q&A soon on the upcoming papal election, so feel free to add any questions you have (about the resignation or election) in the comments below.

    And, of course, have a blessed Lent!

    Update: I have finalized the Q&A on the papal conclave.


    1. Is it true there is an age limit to be an elector? Is B16 too old?

      I think if there is to be a pope before Easter, St. Patrick’s day with a Feast of St Joseph coronation is the only time to it…

      1. Mack,

        That’s sort of a ridiculous question, isn’t it? It would be like me asking, “do you still beat your wife?” It’s not even plausible that Benedict would host some sort of international cover-up from a cloistered convent.



      2. Not so. Ratzinger claimed immunity as “head of state” to avoid giving evidence in the courts where he was being sued for cover-up involvement while Cardinal. Now he will be just a run of the mill “religious” and unable to avoid legal process anymore. That may explain why he wishes to remain “cloistered” away on the Vatican grounds rather than retire in Germany where he could get served with papers.

      3. Joe,

        Why do you think it is ridiculous? If Ratzinger is unable to retire in a location immune from service of process, it might affect his plans. Yet having “two popes” at the Vatican may prove contentious … see:

        As a lawyer and a Catholic maybe you can shed some light here. Care to address the question?

        – Mack

    2. Question: We still call Pope Gregory the XII, Pope. And in fact all those others as well, Popes Benedict IX, Gregory VI, St. Celestine V.

      Why would we begin to call Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal or Bishop? As for me personally, he will always be Pope.

    3. Now that the Vatican has started Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II on the road to sainthood, is it possible that they will declare Pope Benedict XVI venerable while he still lives? I know that can’t possibly happen, but I have already been given a good jolt regarding Paul VI. If Bertone gets the nod, can the Three Days of Darkness be far behind? Am I being too cynical? What will it take to get the average Catholic to notice that the goings on at the Vatican are not normal and resemble more of a spiritual chastisement than a blessing?

      1. Steve,

        With all due respect, you’ve taken your private interpretation of a private Marian revelation, and are using that to denigrate the visible leadership of the Church, including the Holy Father.

        All of this is built heavily on an extremely tendentious reading of history, that requires seeing a random minor historical figure (Bernardino Nogara) as somehow the key to understanding the last hundred years of Church history. This view of history has more to do with Gnosticism or the occult than with Catholicism.

        If you’re genuinely convinced that the end of the world is immanent now because of Nogara, or Pope Pius XI, or the Second Vatican Council, or Benedict XVI, or the possible canonizations of John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II, or the next papal election, why don’t we put your predictions to the test?

        As I understand, you’re predicting an imminent “Three Days of Darkness,” in which the entire world goes dark for three days (other than blessed candles)? Give me a time frame that you predict that this will happen in. And if it doesn’t happen within that timeframe, and you’re still alive, use that as a catalyst to return to Catholic orthodoxy.



      2. My first choice for the 3DofD is July 11, 2013. My second choice is for the 3DofD is October 11, 2013. I would prefer that the Church return to orthodoxy with the next conclave!

        I don’t think Jesus just decides one day to send the Church in a nosedive with the entire world close behind. Something has to happen on our end to cause, a catalyst of what is done and what is not done. Our Lady makes two requests of the Pope (one request will be given formally at a future time). If you see Fatima as an apocalyptic announcement to the world and look at what happened in the interim, you are left with the following:

        1) Our Lady of the Rosary returns as she promised to formally request the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by the Holy Father in union with all the Bishops of the world in 1929. Six days after this request, the Lateran Treaty is ratified, the Pope inherits a mountain of money as a result and Bernardino Nogara is given the monies to invest. If Pius XI acted on this request in a timely manner, who could doubt that the world would have been spared the horrors of the Gulag if not the Holocaust.

        2) Our Lady requests that the Holy Father establish the Five First Saturday devotions of reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary throughout the world. Our Lady states that this is God’s wish. Our Lady makes this request after the terrifying vision of hell and says the Five First Saturdays are a remedy to keep numerous souls from falling into damnation. Any Pope since 1917 should have done this.

      3. I ran out of time this morning so I wanted to add that since Sodano and Ratzinger exclaimed in June of 2000, that Fatima seemed to belong to the past, a July 13, 2013 or an October 13, 2013 date would leave no doubts as to a Fatima connection. Remember when Pope John Paul II was shot on a May 13th in 1981? The Vatican successfully spinned that event as part of the Third Secret of Fatima, which didn’t make any sense when given any scrutiny at all. If anything, the shooting of the Pope was a warning not to take a trainload of pagans and witch doctors to Assisi where they desecrated the holy Catholic altars. Delayed, the abomination of desolation at Assisi took place and perhaps as a result, John Paul II was slowly deprived of his athletic physique with a debilitating disease. At any rate, it does seem an odd ending for the Hero Pope of the Third Secret, but I’m betting the real Hero Pope was John Paul I, Albino Luciani. It was John Paul I who made it the priority of his pontificate, to root out those responsible for the Vatican Bank Scandal and for whatever reason, JPI was dead thirty-three days later.

      4. Perhaps the most productive thing to do would just to sit back and see if the world is plunged into three days of darkness at some point this year. When it’s not, you’ll be left with two choices:

        (1) To keep pushing the date of this apocalypse back, further and further; or

        (2) To concede that your elevation of your own private interpretation of a private Marian dogma (that itself has absolutely no binding power on the popes… or anyone other than the seers themselves) over the Magisterium was prideful and reckless.

        Right now, you’re behaving like the Protestant Family Radio people were last year, who swore that the world would end in 2012. They first went for (1) before finally conceding (2).



      5. I can promise you that I won’t have any other dates after October. And since you are equating me with “protestant family radio people”, just consider that I am basing my version of events on the reality of a visit from the Queen of Heaven to Fatima. The Popes have been unanimous in their support of the authenticity of the Fatima apparitions.

        And consider the depth of the deception that has taken place if a version of events similar to this one is confirmed some day. Archbishop Paul Marcinkus was Pope John Paul II’s personal bodyguard, Vatican Banker and a key player surrounding the events of the untimely death of Pope John Paul I and Vatican finances. In spite of numerous requests, Marcinkus never testified citing diplomatic immunity.

        We already know that John Paul II was passed off as the Hero Pope of Fatima, with the attempt on his life. John Paul II became the Bishop in white, predicted by Our Lady to be killed and according to the Vatican, lived in spite of the prophecy of the Blessed Virgin. Then there is the matter of the $55,000,000 some say $100,000,000 sent to Poland’s Solidarity by John Paul II. Again seeming to advance the collapse of the Soviet Union and placing JPII alongside Ronald Reagan as key players in bringing The Wall down. But the consecration and conversion of Russia belong to the Second Secret that deals with material chastisements. The Third Secret we are told by the Bishop of Fatima, concerns only our faith!

        “The Big City half in ruins” of the Third Secret refers to the war torn cities of Asia according to Cardinal Ratzinger in his 2000 Commentary on the Fatima Message. Is Our Lady now a correspondent for CNN or, is Our Lady referring to the Church as it appeared in 1978 to the real Bishop in white, Albino Luciani who would have discovered the Vatican’s darkest secrets after being elected Pope? Our Lady told Sister Lucia to release the Third Secret no later than 1960 because then it would be “more clear”. How would a future attempt on a future Pope’s life on May 13, 1981 be more clear in the year 1960? But if the Third Secret refers only to our faith, releasing the Third Secret as the Second Vatican Council was in the final planning phase makes sense.

        There’s way too much to cover on the subject in a combox, but I wanted to hopefully show you that you don’t have to be “prideful and reckless” to give weight to Our Lady of the Rosary’s warnings and requests. The Modernists and Freemasons are quick to point out that the Papacy is immune from any Marian involvment. And caring enough about the Catholic Church to give thoughtful consideration to certain people and events who played key roles, is the last thing any protestant or mayan calendar buff would ever dream of.

      6. Steve,

        I’m sure that I don’t need to tell you that all of what you wrote above is highly-speculative prognostications based on secrets that you imagine were revealed at Fatima, and which you imagine were covered up by the Vatican, and none of what you are claiming (absolutely none of it) is remotely Magisterial.

        I appreciate your promise that you “won’t have any other dates after October.” Assuming that you are proven wrong, can I get you to promise to recant these esoteric views after October 2013?



    4. If what I heard on the news is correct, only Cardinals under the age of 80 can be part of the conclave, which would mean that the then Cardinal Ratzinger would not be able to. If this is incorrect please let me know (the lengths to which the news reports are trying to turn this into both scandal & a political election are staggering).

    5. Thank you for a calm and reasoned discussion of the resignation. Very refreshing after all the speculation and sensationalism.
      This is not to say that we shouldn’t have questions, but we should also have benevolence.

    6. Will Benedict ever be involved in future ceremonies? I confess to enjoying his appearance in public. Even with his intentions of going into prayerful retreat it would be a shame to leave him out of all holy events.
      I also wonder if the future Pope will ever spend time with Benedict in private. He still has a lot of wisdom regarding the Church.

    7. The Pope can do whatever he wants to; he’s the friggin’ Pope!!! That is how it seems to us Protestants.

      Seriously, it does make me sad to see this Pope step down because he had such a positive view of Luther and was so willing to work with the Lutheran churches. I pray that the next Pope will be open to “our common path to full visible unity.”

      1. I do hope I wasn’t the only one to get the “Family Guy” reference there 😉

        Yes, I also hope that the next Pope continues Pope Benedict’s good work with the Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran churches. Better get praying!

    8. I feel like a Baptist sheepishly bumping into another Baptist in a liquor store whenever I see Restless Pilgrim both here and at Taylor Marshall’s blog. LOL!

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