As the Catholic Herald recently reported, rumours continue to abound about Pope Francis’ future after the Holy Father recently told reporters he can no longer travel like he once did, and one day may have to retire. Pope Francis repeated a phrase – “the door is open” – adding that there was nothing wrong with a Pope stepping down. Returning from Canada, the Pope said: “It’s not strange. It’s not a catastrophe. You can change the Pope.”
This is not the first time the Pope has used such rhetoric, not least in reference to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Last month, speaking with Reuters, the Pope said he might resign if poor health made it impossible to continue. The Associated Press also reported that Pope Francis said he would not live in the Vatican or return to Argentina if and when he retires, during an interview with TelevisaUnivision. While denying he was planning to retire anytime soon, the Pontiff said the “the door is open” after Benedict XVI had stepped down.
Speaking of his predecessor, during the TelevisaUnivision interview, the Pope said: “I think for having taken the first step after so many centuries, he gets 10 points.” At the start of his papacy, Pope Francis had said he would like to see the resignation of popes become normalised, and later said he had a feeling his pontificate would be brief, describing his predecessor’s decision to step down as “courageous”.
Benedict XVI has then laid the groundwork for Pope Francis to go. Had he not created the precedent, it is extremely unlikely the current Pontiff would be considering the move at all. Benedict XVI has also acted a loadstar for conservatives during Pope Francis’ pontificate, inspiring many opposed to the incumbent Pope.
While Benedict XVI has been accused of undermining Catholic unity – with Canon lawyers questioning his decisions to retain his papal name and continue wearing a white cassock – his retirement did not fundamentally undermine Church unity, suggesting that if Pope Francis were to retire it too would not be fatal for the unity of the Church.
While it could be said that two retired popes represent double the challenge of one, given Benedict XVI’s age (he is 95 while Pope Francis is 85), it seems unlikely the former pope is going to live much longer. Again, just as having a Pope Emeritus Benedict did not undermine Church unity, it seems unlikely that a Pope Emeritus Francis would either.
But, of course, the legacy of Benedict XVI creates challenges as well: if he has been a loadstar for conservatives, then until his death a retired Pope Francis could well be a loadstar for liberals. This may be especially so given the makeup of the College of Cardinals. Just as Benedict XVI has allowed his views to be known post-retirement, so too may Pope Francis once out of office.
Meanwhile, if retirement becomes normalised within the papacy, then younger popes may be selected, a trend which could have major implications for the Church. Moreover, it is hard to see how having multiple retired popes in the future is going to help Church unity, exacerbating factionalism.
What we can say however is that without Benedict XVI’s decision, it is highly unlikely the current Pope would be contemplating retirement at all. Despite ill health and a noticeable decline, St. Pope John Paul II continued in office until his death. Moreover, Benedict XVI has continued to inspire conservatives, offering a counterweight to the current Pontiff.
The downside for conservatives is that, if Benedict XVI can inspire an opposition of conservatives, Pope Francis could – in retirement – inspire an opposition of liberals. Bigger questions also remain about what the role of an Emeritus Pope should be, and whether in the future younger popes will be selected for the role.
However, by retiring in the first place, Benedict XVI seems to have done opponents of Pope Francis an enormous favour.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund