Is Pope Francis planning to step down?

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Is Pope Francis planning to step down? How the Vatican calendar set off a storm of speculation.

This week, Pope Francis said something that was both utterly uncontroversial — and qualified as major news.

As human beings age, he said in his general audience address Wednesday, they must come to terms with their physical limitations.

“When you are old,” the pope said, “you are no longer in control of your body. One has to learn to choose what to do and what not to do.”

The sentiment might have been expressed by any senior citizen. The fact that it was Pope Francis — and that it came as rumors swirled about his health and possible abdication from the papacy — turned those few words into a big story.

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Francis is 85 years old. Last year, he underwent surgery on his colon and was hospitalized for almost two weeks. Recently, he postponed a July apostolic visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, citing advice from his doctor; and on Monday, the Vatican announced that Francis would not participate in the Corpus Christi mass due to health concerns.

But the speculation reached a fever pitch because of events that were added to the papal calendar.

First, the pope announced a late-August gathering of all the world’s cardinals, who ordinarily come together when it’s time to elect a new pontiff. The Vatican also announced a papal trip to the central Italian city of L’Aquila, for a feast first held by Pope Celestine V more than 700 years ago. While in L’Aquila, Francis will visit Celestine’s tomb.

A visit to Celestine V’s tomb is something of an alarm bell for Vatican-watchers. Celestine rocked the Catholic hierarchy when he abdicated in 1294, after just five months as pope. No pope had stepped down before. Benedict XVI made the visit to Celestine’s tomb in 2009; he later became the first pope in nearly six centuries to step down.

Searching for clarity on both the current situation and the implications should Francis opt to leave the papacy, Grid turned to George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon chair in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel is also the author of “Witness to Hope,” a biography of Pope John Paul II.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: To get the rumors out of the way — what can you share in terms of what you have heard, and what you think may be going on, in terms of Pope Francis’ health and possible plans to step down?

George Weigel: It’s unclear to me why there should be so much fevered speculation over the possibility of a papal abdication, as Pope Francis has made it clear for nine years that he approved of Pope Benedict’s decision to abdicate and would do the same if he felt it necessary.

As for the pope’s health, I find it curious that there has been no statement from his doctors about his condition since his intestinal surgery last summer; the only public statements have come from the Holy See Press Office. A papacy committed to transparency should clarify if the pope is suffering from any other illness, beyond the obvious problems with his knees and his sciatica.

G: Why has his announced visit to L’Aquila, to attend a feast in August, sparked so many of these rumors? Is it just because Celestine V inaugurated the feast — and was among the few popes to resign?

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GW: The Italian press loves to fantasize about every papal action, the world press follows the Italian lead, and this is no exception. I must say, though, that the choice of date is curious, coming as it does right between a consistory for the creation of new cardinals on Aug. 27 and a general meeting of all the world’s cardinals, presumably with the pope, on Aug. 29-30.

G: A question about the precedent: Less than a decade ago, Benedict resigned, of course — but before that, 600 years passed without a resignation. Why is it so rare?

GW: Because it was long understood that the papacy was a lifelong commitment. As human longevity increased, and the burdens of the papal office increased, it was clear that the question of an incapacitated pope was going to have to be addressed at some point. Benedict XVI decided that that point had been reached.

G: Benedict’s retirement caused controversy among some Catholics. Why?

GW: Because, again, it was long understood that accepting the office of Peter was accepting a lifelong commitment. And then there was the example of John Paul II, who inspired many people around the world by sharing his suffering with the church and the world.


G: Is there a protocol for a papal resignation? If so — what does that look like?

GW: A pope does not “resign,” for there is no one to whom the pope would offer his resignation (as, for example, President [Richard] Nixon’s resignation was effected by a letter to Secretary of State [Henry] Kissinger). A pope abdicates and does so by signing an instrument of abdication, declaring that he is abdicating the office of Peter by his own free will on such a date and at such a time.

G: What about protocol as to how a pope should conduct himself after resignation? Benedict went to a monastery; is it mandated that a former pope not be public, outspoken and so on?

GW: There are no formal protocols at the moment, but Benedict has been wise to avoid public statements beyond his occasional writings. And I should note that he doesn’t live in a monastery but in a small convent once occupied by contemplative nuns at the back of the Vatican gardens.

G: Speaking of precedent, have there ever been three living popes — as there would be were Francis to resign and a successor chosen? What are the implications of that?

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GW: There is only one pope at a time. So if Francis resigned, his successor would be the only pope.

G: Explain for the layperson how the process works in the wake of abdication — in terms of notification, timing, convening of the College of Cardinals and so forth?

GW: The pope signs an instrument of abdication setting a date and time for his laying down the office of Peter. When that date and time are reached, the dean of the College of Cardinals (now Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re) formally notifies the College of Cardinals that “the See is vacant” and summons them to Rome, where the college then sets the date at which a conclave to elect a new pope will begin. That can be 15 days after the abdication but must be no later than 20 days after an abdication.

G: Do cardinals have a power — implicit, subtle or otherwise — to “suggest” or in other ways influence a pontiff making such a decision? Put differently — one hears of “pressure to step down”; who if anyone can exert such pressure?

GW: That would be very unlikely, although I am sure Pope Benedict discussed his idea of abdicating with a few close advisers. One hears all sorts of nonsense in Rome, not least in the Italian media and in the woolier parts of the Catholic blogosphere.

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G: Again, for the layperson, could you describe the selection process for a new pope? And rough sense of the timing?

GW: The new pope is elected by a two-thirds majority of the voting members of the College of Cardinals (i.e., those cardinals who have not reached their 80th birthday by the day the conclave begins). During the conclave, the cardinal-electors live in the Domus Sanctae Marthae (St. Martha’s House), a Vatican guesthouse, and are completely sequestered from contact with the outside world. The actual voting takes place in the Sistine Chapel. A conclave can be as short as two days but could last a week or more.

G: Who are the likely candidates to succeed Francis? What profile might the cardinals be looking for?

GW: Among the names one hears are Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna and Cardinal Péter Erdő of Budapest. Race, ethnicity and nationality mean very little in the selection of a pope in the 21st century, although a good command of the Italian language, the working language of the Vatican, is considered a baseline by many.

G: Whenever Francis leaves the papacy — what would you say are the key elements in his legacy?

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GW: He has highlighted the mercy of God, but that was also a theme emphasized by Pope John Paul II. He has begun the financial reform of the Vatican, but that must be completed by his successor. He has enjoyed a quite favorable press, although there has been little serious exploration in the media of the autocratic style in which he governs, which has created some serious tensions. There will likely be a re-examination of his approach to China, which has not been favorably received by many throughout the world church, in the next pontificate. And there will be questions raised about his approach to a Catholic church in Germany that seems to be rapidly marching toward a schism — a break with the universal church based on a rejection of settled Catholic doctrine.

G: How — if at all — might his exit change specific doctrine and/or attitudes toward abortion, same-sex marriage and other major issues the Catholic Church faces?

GW: No chance at all. These are not “attitudes,” but matters of settled Catholic doctrine. The pope is the servant of that doctrine, not its master. But let’s not confuse what seem to be hot-button issues in the West with the challenges the church faces throughout the world. The “major issue” the church faces throughout the world is the question of how to preach the Gospel and invite people into friendship with Jesus Christ. That “issue” presents itself in a very different way in those parts of Africa where Christianity is experienced as liberation and empowerment than it does in the often-cynical West.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.