Rome – The Vatican has detailed laws, rituals, and roles to ensure the transfer of power when a pope dies or resigns. But none of them apply when sick or even unconscious, and there are no specific standards governing what happens when a pope becomes incapable.
As a result, even though Francis, 84, remains hospitalized as he recovers from bowel surgery on Sunday at a hospital in Rome, he is still Pope and very responsible. The Vatican said Tuesday that Francis had eaten breakfast, read the newspapers and walked around, and that his postoperative recovery was going normally.
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Yet his week-long hospital stay – the first of his pontificate – sparked interest in how papal power is exercised in the Holy See, how it is transferred, and under what circumstances.
Here is how it works:
THE ROLE OF THE POPE
The Pope is the successor of the Apostle Peter, the head of the college of bishops, the vicar of Christ and the pastor of the Universal Catholic Church on Earth, according to the internal canon law of the Church.
Nothing has changed in his status, role or power since he was elected 266th Pope on March 13, 2013, even though he underwent three hours of surgery on Sunday to remove half of his colon.
This status is by theological conception.
“The authority of the Pope is supreme, full and universal,” said canon lawyer Nicholas Cafardi. “So if his authority is at this level, who decides that he can no longer exercise that authority? There is no one above him.”
THE VATICAN CURIA
Francis may be in charge, but he already delegates the day-to-day management of the Vatican and the church to a team of officials who operate, whether or not he is in the Apostolic Palace, and whether he is conscious or not.
The main one is the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. A sign that Francis ‘hospitalization did not foresee any change in the governance of the church, Parolin was not even at the Vatican during Francis’ scheduled three-hour surgery. He was in Strasbourg, France, to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of the death of the patron saint of Alsace.
The other Vatican functions are proceeding normally. Its daily noon bulletin was released again on Tuesday with the names of the new bishops appointed by the pope in Nicaragua, Nigeria and Britain. They were probably approved in advance, although Francis could sign decrees and handle other matters of importance from his hospital bed, as Saint John Paul II had done during his many hospitalizations.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A POPE FALLS SICK?
Canon law has provisions for when a diocesan bishop becomes ill and cannot lead his diocese, but none for a pope. Canon 412 says that a diocese can be declared “hindered” if its bishop – due to “captivity, banishment, exile or incapacity” – cannot fulfill his pastoral functions. In such cases, the day-to-day management of the diocese passes to an auxiliary bishop, vicar general or someone else.
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Even though Francis is the bishop of Rome, no explicit provision exists for the pope if he likewise becomes “hindered”. Canon 335 simply states that when the Holy See is “vacant or entirely hindered,” nothing can be changed in the government of the Church. But he does not say what it means for the Holy See to be “entirely hampered” or what arrangements might come into play if it were.
“Really, we don’t have any rules for this,” Cafardi said. “There are no canons and there is no separate document that says how you would determine the disability, whether the disability could be permanent or temporary, and more importantly who would rule the church at that time. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Holy Spirit. “
AND THE LETTER OF POPE PAUL VI?
In 1965, Pope Paul VI wrote letters to the dean of the College of Cardinals speculating that if he fell seriously ill, the dean and other cardinals would have to accept his resignation.
Paul foresaw the possibility that as the Popes continued to live longer, they could become disabled by a stroke, dementia, or some other long-term progressive illness that would prevent them from doing their jobs and from doing their jobs. resign freely.
In a letter, published in 2018, he cited an infirmity “which is presumed incurable or of long duration and which prevents us from sufficiently exercising the functions of our apostolic ministry”.
The letter was never relied on, as Paul lived another 13 years and died on the job.
But experts say Paul’s letter would probably never have been used since canon law requires that a papal resignation be “freely and properly manifested” – as was the case when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation in 2013 .
The scenario envisaged by Paul – setting out the reasons for his resignation in advance for a time when he might not be conscious or capable – “is not valid, for in order for a pope to resign validly from office he must be lucid, ”said Kurt Martens, a canon lawyer and professor at the Catholic University of America.
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WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A POPE DIES OR RESIGNS?
The only time papal power changes hands is when a pope dies or resigns. At this time a whole series of rites and rituals came into play which governed the “interregnum”, the period between the end of a pontificate and the election of a new pope.
During this period, known as vacant seat, or “Empty Seat”, the camerlingue, or chamberlain, directs the administration and finances of the Holy See. He certifies the death of the pope, seals the papal apartments and prepares the burial of the pope before a conclave to elect a new pope. The post is currently held by Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s lay office.
The camerlingue has no role or duty if the Pope is simply sick or incapacitated.
“You have two options: either you have a pope or you don’t, and as long as you have a pope – and in the case here he is not dead – he rules the church,” said Martens. “Even though he’s dying, he rules the church.”
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AND POPE BENEDICT XVI?
Even though there is a retired Pope living on Vatican land, he also has no formal role to play.
Benedict, 94, ceased to be pope on February 28, 2013, when he became the first pontiff in 600 years to resign. He has since lived in a converted monastery in the Vatican Gardens.
Quoting his private secretary, state television RAI said Benedict was praying for Francis’ recovery.
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