The author of these words was none other than the redoubtable champion of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning. The Westminster archbishop’s exalted regard for papal power caused his friend William Ward to remark that Manning would like nothing so much as to find a papal encyclical on his breakfast table every morning alongside The (London) Times.
The reasons for Manning’s lament recurred a quarter century later. Pio Nono’s successor, Leo XIII, was 68 and in delicate health at his election in 1878. Cardinals doubtful about the wisdom of entrusting the papacy to a man so different from his predecessor in outlook and character took comfort in the thought that, if they had made a mistake, the Grim Reaper would correct it before too much damage was done. At the century’s end, Leo was still alive. One of the few cardinals able to remember the 1878 conclave remarked: We thought we were electing a Holy Father, not an eternal father. Leo finally died in 1903 at the age of 93. The closing years of the long pontificate were a time of drift and decline.
Pius XII’s final years were worse. The pope retired into ever more remote isolation, writes Eamon Duffy, into a suffocating atmosphere of exalted piety exacerbated by hypochondria. With important curial offices unfilled and the pope’s weekly meetings with the remaining curial prefects abandoned, access to the pontiff was controlled by the Bavarian nun who presided over his kitchen: Mother Pasqualina, known in the Vatican as virgo potens.
Today’s situation is different. Of the five stated reasons for Manning’s lament in 1876, only one exists now: illness. The pope is increasingly a prisoner in his own body, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger announced recently. The Archbishop of Paris was confirming what television has shown us for a year and more: unmistakable symptoms of the Parkinson’s disease still not conceded by papal spokesmen. A prelate noted for his mordant wit, and more candid than most, recently remarked to friends: In modern times no pope is ever in poor health until rigor mortis actually sets in. An exaggerationyet one with a basis in reality.
Manning could not complain today of papal inactivity. Like many others who see the pope up close, Cardinal Lustiger expressed admiration for John Paul’s ability to continue a program that would tax the strength of many younger men, and for his undiminished mental powers. Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, voiced similar admiration in a radio interview earlier this year. Though Lehmann said far less about the pope’s physical condition than his French colleague, he raised an international flap by stating his conviction that if the pope ever felt that he could no longer carry out the duties of his office, he would resign. Fair-minded observers recognized this statement for what it was: a tribute to John Paul’s humility and courage. In Rome, however, prelates normally unavailable to the media rushed to microphones to declare resignation unthinkable, and the very suggestion disloyal.
On the occasion of the pope’s 80th birthday on May 18, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that John Paul would never resign. The available evidence confirms this prognosis. Some speculate nonetheless that the statement might be in the category of assurances from British chancellors of the exchequer during past financial crises that the pound would not be devalued, only hours before this took place.
As the shadows of this long pontificate lengthen, discussion of papal resignation has become open. Why, many ask, should the bishop of Rome be the sole exception to the requirement that bishops submit their resignations at age 75? When Paul VI instituted this rule in 1966, it shocked those imbued from their seminary days with the notion of a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5: 6). No one had told them that the discussion of priesthood throughout Hebrews refers either to Jewish priests or to Jesus Christ, never to the ordained ministers of his church.
This helps explain why a cardinal in northern Europe who lived well into the present pontificate could not conceive of a retired bishop. A father is always a father, he said repeatedly, voicing the view that was once universal. A North American cardinal whose resignation was accepted on his 75th birthday never recovered from the shock. Even after his successor’s death more than a decade later he was still lamenting a double standard: European bishops remained in office long past the age limit, because they never resigned. Friends solicitous for His Eminence’s self-esteem concealed from him the information that the pope had asked the prelates in question to stay on.
This brings us to the first difficulty about imposing a papal age limit. Though resignation is requested (rogatur is the word used in Canon 401) of bishops who have completed their 75th year, acceptance is at the pope’s discretion. Canon 332 par. 2, which provides for a pope’s resignation, says that it is accepted by no one. A mandatory age limit for popes would exclude the possibility of exceptions, in the light of a pontiff’s continued vigor and the church’s needs.
Even without a mandated retirement age, papal resignation is fraught with problems. The first is common to all powerful leaders. Those behind the throne want their chief to remain, lest their own positions be threatened. When the leader is old and tired, how can he or she resist the pleas of long trusted associates that resignation would be a grave mistake? In the case of the papacy there is, additionally, the fear of creating a precedent that could limit the freedom of future popes. This consideration appears to have weighed heavily on Paul VI in his declining years.
A further problem is the limitation that an emeritus pope could place on the freedom of the cardinals to choose his successor. The history of papal elections is one of alternations. Even after a long pontificate, when all, or almost all, the electors have been chosen by the just deceased pope, the cardinals often elect a successor strikingly different from his predecessor. This happened with the elections of Leo XIII in 1878, of Pius X in 1903, of Benedict XV in 1914 and of John XXIII in 1968.
The recently installed archbishop of New York had been selected months, if not years, before his predecessor’s death. Because he was not Cardinal John O’Connor’s candidate, however, the appointment could not be announced while O’Connor lived. No matter how scrupulously a resigned pope might isolate himself from the conclave following his resignation, his shadow could fall heavily on the cardinals gathered to elect his successor.
The problem of a truly enfeebled popeeven more of one incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease or similar ailmentsremains. There have been such cases. There will be more. When these crises occur, we muddle through. In theological language we trust in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s role, however, is not to shield us from disasters, but to be with us amid disaster. The president of a national bishops’ conference got it about right when, responding to the assertion that the Holy Spirit guided the selection of church leaders, he stated: The Holy Spirit has nothing to do with it. The Spirit moves into action after the appointment has been made.
If pastoral efficiency is the criterion, there is a strong case for a papal age limit. Especially in a time when medical science can prolong human life to an extent previously possible only in exceptional cases, leaving a pontificate’s end to chance and individual choice almost guarantees recurrence of the conditions deplored by Cardinal Manning in 1876. If bishops are asked to resign at 75, would it not be reasonable to request the same of the bishop of Rome five years later?
But do we really want to make efficiency the church’s governing rule? Or is it more important to show the world that Christ’s mystical body, once called by its theologians the perfect society, is different from all other societies and lives by different rules?
One thing is certain. A papal age limit would have made impossible the pontificate of John XXIII, elected only weeks before his 77th birthday. Given the polarization of opinion among today’s Catholics, opinions will differ as to whether that would have been a good thing.