it may be time for him to retire – here’s what it could mean for the future of the papacy

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Pope Francis was recently forced to deny rumors that he was set to retire, saying instead that he has no plans to step down just yet.

But the 85-year-old Catholic leader, currently in Canada, was again filmed in a wheelchair. Indeed, in an interview before his trip, the pope left open the possibility of retiring if his health failed him.

Francis would be only the third pope in history to retire, but the second in a row. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 caught the assembled cardinals off guard.

Whether or not Francis steps down raises important questions about the future of the papacy in the face of medical advances and the changing realities of aging.

Pope until death?

Given the spiritual significance of a “good” death, it is not uncommon for religious leaders to die in office. Many will remember the huge crowds that gathered in St. Peter’s Square and around the world during Pope John Paul II’s final illness.

For Catholics, there are compelling theological reasons why a pope should hold office until his death. As Universal Pastor, Successor of St. Peter and Vicar of Christ, the Pope both embodies the Church as a whole and offers a visible, seemingly unbroken link with origins that would trace back, via Peter, to Jesus Christ. Several living popes (current and retired) may pose a challenge to this traditional view of the Catholic Church with a single, indivisible head.

More easily overlooked, but equally important to this papal tradition of dying in office, is the pope’s position as temporal ruler of Vatican City — and with it, the method of papal elections. Although Pope Francis governs a tiny territory, he is nonetheless the last absolute monarch in Europe.

For centuries, the aristocratic families of Rome fought over the throne of St. Peter and control of the Papal States that once occupied much of central Italy. Certain papal reigns – Paul III and Urban VIII, for example – were notorious for corruption and nepotism. Inevitably, the power and influence of the family ended with the death of a pope and thus discouraged their resignation regardless of their health.

While modern popes have clearly not enriched their families in the same way, the method of election has not changed significantly. Neither the motives of the electors, nor the college of cardinals. The death of a pope offers them yet another rare opportunity to exercise influence – and, for the papabile (“pope-able”) among them, the ultimate career progression.

Cardinals have therefore long had an incentive to choose an older pope. Old age can also make a candidate a suitable middle ground between deadlocked factions eager to review their options sooner rather than later. The same strategy of electing men, hopefully short-lived, could also be effective in times of crisis.

Human mortality and elective monarchy therefore explain why popes have generally been elderly men, especially by the standards of their day. Francis and Benedict were 76 and 78 years old, respectively, when they were elected (John Paul II, 58, was an exception in this respect).

The modern papacy

Air travel and the rise of mass media have also reshaped the modern papacy. Paul VI (who reigned from 1963 to 1979) became the first pope to leave Italy since Napoleon’s conquest of Rome, and the first to visit the United States, Australia and Israel. John Paul II, publicized and even more of a traveler, quickly became the “superstar” pope. And these days, every papal move, comment and announcement can be followed by the faithful on Twitter and YouTube.

However, modernity may still turn out to be the poisonous gift of the papacy. Advances in technology have transformed the papacy, increasing its visibility and creating expectations among the faithful that popes can struggle to meet. The demands of social media coverage and communication are constant and a less familiar part of life for aging popes who may struggle to meet them.

As the role has become more dynamic and burdensome, advances in human medicine pose an increasing challenge as people live longer, but the good health of older people does not keep pace.

In 2013, Benedict XVI, then the same age as Pope Francis now, no longer felt able to carry the burden of his office. His resignation demonstrates the predicament of the church.

Now Benedict’s occasional statements, such as his views on clerical celibacy, have made him a thorn in Francis’s side. His retirement home was even presented as the unofficial headquarters of the opposition. To stem the proliferation of rival power centers, Pope Francis may well wish to remain in office, if only to keep the number of popes emeritus to a minimum.

Pope Benedict XVI, predecessor of Pope Francis.
Godong/Alamy

Yet, currently 95 and extremely frail, Benedict’s poor health also illustrates the predicament the Church would have faced had he not retired. The Catholic Church is even retreating in Latin America, Pope Francis’ home region, challenged by secularization and the rise of evangelical churches. The need for an active and energetic – and therefore probably younger – papacy has never been clearer.

With the human lifespan set to increase even further – perhaps as much as 150 years – Pope Francis and the cardinals electing his successor have tough decisions to make.

Two successive papal retreats would set a sort of precedent. The Catholic Church values ​​tradition, but if young popes and papal retreats become the norm, then the Church of the future could look very different.

There are no easy solutions. A more vibrant and youthful papacy may well be an urgent necessity. For cardinals, entrusting the papacy to a younger man is a risky proposition – they may have to sacrifice their authority for a long time. But if a younger papacy results in a coterie of retired popes, it may paradoxically also undermine the very traditions that have legitimized papal authority for so long.


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