Pope Francis says he may need to retire – here’s what it could mean for the Pope’s future

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Pope Francis has said that his recent visit to Canada showed that he may one day need to retire if his health continues to deteriorate. Although he was recently forced to refute rumors that he was about to step down, the 85-year-old Catholic leader has previously left open the possibility of retiring someday, and spends most of his Canadian trip in a wheelchair. spent using

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

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

Pope till 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 the last illness of Pope John Paul II.

For Catholics, there are religious reasons forcing a pope to remain in office until his death. As the Sovereign Shepherd, the successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ, the Pope presents both the Church as a whole and provides a visible, seemingly unobstructed link to Genesis, who, through Peter, is Jesus Christ. is asked to return. Multiple (current and retired) living popes with a single, indivisible head may challenge this traditional view of the Catholic Church.

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

For centuries, Rome’s aristocratic families competed for the throne of St. Peter and control of the Papal States, which once occupied much of central Italy. For example, some papal regimes – Paul III and Urban VIII – were notorious for their corruption and nepotism. Inevitably, the family’s power and influence ended with the Pope’s death and therefore discouraged their resignation regardless of their health.

While the modern pope has clearly not enriched their families in the same way, the mode of election has not changed significantly. Neither the College of Cardinals, nor the intention of the electorate. The death of a pope still gives him a rare opportunity to wield influence—and, for sinful (“Pope-able”) among them, the ultimate career progression.

Therefore, cardinals have long had an incentive to elect an older pope. Old age could also make the candidate a suitable compromise between the stalemate factions, eager to revisit their options at a later time. The same strategy of selecting short-lived men as expected can be effective in times of crisis as well.

Human mortality and elective monarchies, therefore, explain why the Pope is usually old, especially by the standards of his day. Francis and Benedict were 76 and 78, respectively, when they were elected (John Paul II, aged 58, was an outsider in this regard).

modern sinner

The rise of air travel and the mass media have also shaped the modern papacy. Paul VI (who ruled from 1963 to 1979) became the first pope to leave Italy after Napoleon’s conquest of Rome, and the first to visit America, Australia and Israel. The media-savvy and still more well-travelled John Paul II soon became known as the “superstar” Pope. And these days, every pope’s move, comment, and announcement can be followed by loyalists on Twitter and YouTube.

However, modernity may still prove to be the Pope’s poisonous cup. Technological advances have transformed the papacy, increasing its visibility and creating expectations among believers that the papacy may struggle to fulfill. The demand for social media coverage and communication is constant, and a less familiar part of life for older people who may struggle to deliver on them.

As the role has become more dynamic and burdensome, advances in human medicine pose a major challenge when people are living longer, but good health into old age is not keeping pace.

In 2013, Benedict XVI, then the same age as Pope Francis, no longer felt able to shoulder the burden of his office. His resignation reflects the plight of the church.

Now, Benedict’s occasional pronouncements, such as his views on clerical celibacy, have made him a thorn in Francis’ side. His retirement home is also presented as the unofficial headquarters of the opposition. To prevent the spread of rival power centres, Pope Francis wants to remain in office, if only to keep the number of pop emeritus to a minimum.

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

Yet, currently aged 95 and extremely frail, Benedict’s poor health also reflects the predicament the Church would have faced if he had not retired. The Catholic Church is also retreating in Latin America, Pope Francis’ home region, which has been challenged by secularism and growing evangelical churches. The need for an active and energetic – and therefore perhaps young – papacy has never been clearer.

Human life is yet to increase – possibly by 150 years – with difficult decisions for Pope Francis and the cardinals who elect his successor.

Two papal retirements in succession would set a precedent. The Catholic Church values ​​tradition, but if younger popes and papal retirement become the norm, the church of the future may look very different.

There are no easy solutions. A more dynamic, youthful papacy may be an urgent need. For cardinals, handing over the papacy to a young man is a risky proposition – they may have to relinquish their authority for a long time to come. But if a short papacy results in a congregation of retired popes, it can also paradoxically undermine the traditions that have legitimized the authority of the pope for so long.

This article has been updated to reflect the latest comments from Pope Francis.

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