Analysis – Pope’s visit to Italian city highlights need for rules on former pontiffs
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis has quashed rumors that he plans to step down soon, but his planned visit next weekend to the Italian city of L’Aquila will underscore the Catholic Church’s need to regulate the status of pontiffs who resign instead of reigning for life.
L’Aquila is the burial place of Celestine V, who resigned as pope in 1294 after just five months to resume his life as a hermit, establishing a papal prerogative. Pope Benedict XVI, who in 2013 became the first pontiff in about 600 years to step down, visited L’Aquila four years before stepping down.
When the Vatican announced in June Francis’ August 28 trip to L’Aquila – to attend an annual “feast of forgiveness” – it fueled speculation that a conjunction of events – including the enthronement of new cardinals the day before the visit and meetings the day after on the new Vatican constitution – could prefigure a resignation announcement.
However, in an exclusive interview with Reuters on July 2, Francis, 85, laughed off the idea, saying “it never crossed my mind”, while leaving open the possibility that he could quit. for health reasons in the distant future.
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Church law states that a pope can resign, provided he does so voluntarily and without pressure, but it lacks specific rules about his status, title and obligations thereafter.
Before Benedict abdicated on February 28, 2013, he wrote his own rules, investing himself with the title of pope emeritus, deciding to continue wearing white and living in the Vatican.
But his presence has sown confusion among the faithful, with some right-wing conservatives still refusing to recognize Francis as pope.
Francis wants to set rules for former popes in stone in canon (Church) law. But he is reluctant to do so while Benedict, 95, is still alive because he could be considered insensitive, according to a senior Vatican source.
Since his resignation, Benedict XVI has occasionally allowed his views on specific topics to be aired outside the Vatican, much to the delight of some conservative colleagues who have used them as ammunition to challenge his successor’s more open and inclusive papacy.
RESIGNATIONS IS NO LONGER UNTHINKABLE
There is near-universal agreement among leaders of the 1.3 billion-member church on the need for protocols now that papal resignations are no longer unthinkable.
Cardinal George Pell, a prominent conservative close to Benedict XVI, says that if a retired pontiff could retain the title “pope emeritus”, he should become a cardinal again and be known as “cardinal (surname ), pope emeritus.
Pell also says that a former pontiff should not wear the white papal cassock, as Benedict XVI does. It’s important for Catholics to know that “there is only one pope,” he told Reuters in a 2020 interview.
Canon scholars and lawyers from the Italian University of Bologna say the Church cannot even risk the appearance of having “two heads or two kings” and have offered a set of rules.
They say a pope who resigns should not become a cardinal again, as Pell proposes, but be known as “bishop emeritus of Rome.” They say he might wear white “in public appearances”.
He could live anywhere but should avoid writings or statements that could be seen as “competing” with his successor, the proposal says.
Any papal document would likely take the form of an apostolic constitution enacting changes in church law.
Francis says if he resigns for health reasons, he wants to be known as Bishop Emeritus of Rome. He would live in the Italian capital because “it’s my diocese” and would not return to his native Argentina.
He wants to live modestly in a residence for retired priests and near a church where he could hear confessions.
Asked in the Reuters interview when he thought it might be, Francis replied: “We don’t know. God will tell.”
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones)
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