Can a Pope be Removed from Office?

Q: In a recent piece you explained that the Pope can resign if he chooses.  To me that raises another question: What would happen if a Pope became so mentally debilitated that he didn’t know what he was doing?  It seems to me that he wouldn’t be able to resign under those circumstances.  Is there some legal mechanism that would allow the Church to remove him, and call for a conclave to elect a new Pope?  Or is there at least a way for the cardinals to take charge of running the Church until that Pope passes away?  –Paul

A: Paul makes reference to the recent column, “Can a Pope Ever Resign?” which showed that a Pope can indeed resign from office if he wants to.  But as noted in that column, canon 187 holds that anyone who wishes to resign from an ecclesiastical office can do so only if he is sui compos, a term which is difficult to translate into English.  A person who is sui compos is capable of making rational decisions and taking responsibility for his actions.  Someone who is mentally ill, or suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, or in a coma (to cite only a few examples) is held to be non sui compos—a term which the code defines as describing a person who habitually lacks the use of reason (c. 99).  “Habitually” in this context means that the person is unable to think rationally in a regular, ongoing sort of way.  As such it wouldn’t apply to someone who has merely fainted for a minute or two, or who’s been put under general anesthesia only for the duration of some surgical procedure.  The code is talking here about someone who is routinely unable to think and make decisions for himself.

It’s quite easy to imagine that someone might hold an ecclesiastical office—a diocesan bishop, let’s say, or the mother superior of a convent of sisters—and over time, the office-holder’s health might gradually deteriorate to the point where he/she is no longer sui compos.  It has certainly happened in the Church, more often than readers probably realize, that an elderly church official has reached a point where those who live and work with him recognize that dementia has set in, and the person no longer can understand what is happening around him.  Readers who have experienced this situation with their own family members can appreciate that it’s not always easy to realize what is happening, and pinpointing the exact moment when an elderly relative has crossed this line is virtually impossible!

Humanly speaking, there is no particular reason why this couldn’t happen to a Pope as well.  But the Code of Canon Law makes only a single, passing reference to this possibility.  Canon 335 notes that when the Roman See is vacant [due to the death of the Pope] or completely impeded [because the Pope has become non sui compos], no innovation is to be made in the governance of the Church.  The canon adds that special laws which have been enacted for these circumstances are to be observed.

This may be a relatively short canon, but it contains a lot of information that is vital if we’re to find the answer to Paul’s question.  Let’s take it apart and see what we can establish.

We’re all familiar with the concept of a vacant papal see, which this canon mentions first.  When the Pope dies, and before a new Pope has been selected, there is naturally a period of time when the Catholic Church has no Pope.  The canon notes that during this period, no substantial changes can be made in the Church’s governance—because only the Pope has the authority to make such changes.  If there is no Pope, there can be no substantial changes—it’s as simple as that.  This means that during a vacancy, no new bishops can be appointed, no new Vatican congregations can be created (and the existing governmental structure cannot be reorganized), and no church official who answers directly to the Pope can be fired and replaced, to cite only a few examples.  These kinds of changes have to await the election of a new Pope.  The Church instead operates on a sort of “auto-pilot” during this time.

During a vacancy, there are indeed “special laws which have been enacted for these circumstances,” as the canon mentions.  In fact, Pope John Paul II made some significant changes to these special laws during his papacy—and Pope Benedict XVI changed them again after his own election in 2005.  In short, the Church has a system in place, explaining what is to be done after the Pope has died and before a new Pope has been chosen to take his place.

If we return now to canon 335, it indicates that when the papal see is completely impeded, the Church is to do the very same thing: follow the “special laws which have been enacted for these circumstances.”  But the fact is, there are no special laws that have ever been enacted!  Neither John Paul II (who promulgated the 1983 Code of Canon Law, including this canon) nor Benedict XVI has ever promulgated any special laws that would apply in this scenario.

So what would the Church do if the Pope became incapacitated?  At first glance, it’s unclear.  But let’s take a look at what happens in the case of a diocesan bishop who becomes incapable of governing his diocese, and has to be removed—and then we’ll be able to see whether the same process could be applied to the Pope, who is after all the Bishop of Rome.

If a bishop becomes impeded from ruling his diocese, the procedure to be followed is spelled out quite clearly in the code.  For starters, canon 413.1 states that if the diocese has a coadjutor bishop, he takes control of governing the diocese.  (See “Bishops, Coadjutors, and Auxiliaries” for an explanation of what a coadjutor bishop is.)  If there is no coadjutor—and more often than not, there isn’t—interim governance falls to an auxiliary bishop, if the diocese has one.  Otherwise, the Vicar General takes charge, and every diocese must have one of these by law (c. 475).

Whoever assumes the diocesan helm in this situation is required to notify the Holy See as soon as possible, to explain that the bishop is impeded from governing, and that diocesan governance has been assumed by someone else (c. 413.3).  Note that under this system, the decision on how ultimately to resolve the situation is the Pope’s alone.  If a diocesan bishop has become non sui compos, because he is suffering from dementia, has become clinically insane, is in a coma, etc., only the Pope can remove him from office (cf. c. 416).  No matter how obvious the bishop’s incapacity may have become to everyone around him, they do not have the final say—the Holy Father does.

The Pope’s decision in such a situation may be to agree that the bishop needs to be removed—but then again, it might not.  Imagine a scenario where a bishop is surrounded by detractors, who are eager for him to go, in the hopes that his successor might be more ideologically agreeable to them.  If the bishop is having health problems, it would not be impossible for those hostile to him to allege that his mind is going, and that he needs to be replaced because he doesn’t know what he is doing!  In other words, there is, sadly, the real possibility that the process could be abused by persons in the diocese who have ulterior motives.  Fortunately there is a higher level of review in Rome, where the Pope assesses all the evidence and makes the final call.

With all of this in mind, then, can these canons on incapacitated diocesan bishops be applied to an incapacitated Pope?  Well, it’s hard to see how they could be!  Canonically, the provisions of canons 412-415, which address diocesan bishops, do not constitute the “special laws which have been enacted” for the specific case of an impeded Pope.  And on a more practical level, these provisions can’t possibly work, because in order to declare the Pope non sui compos, someone at a higher level would have to have the power to make that declaration.

As we all know, there is no higher-ranking official in the Catholic Church than the Pope.  Canon 331 is unambiguous: the Pope alone has supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church.  (See “Are there Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” for more on this topic.)  Consequently, in the absence of any “special laws which have been enacted” to handle this particular situation, there is nobody on earth who has the authority to make an official determination that the Pope is incapacitated and must be removed, or that somebody else should henceforth govern in his place.

It simply cannot be done.

The fact is, if a Pope were to become so debilitated that he actually became incapable of governing the Church, and was so physically and/or mentally incapacitated that he couldn’t even resign his office, nobody could step in and take charge.  There is absolutely no legal mechanism that would permit any cardinal, or even the College of Cardinals together, to decide that the Pope is no longer sui compos and somehow to take charge themselves.

Readers might be alarmed at the possibility that governance of the Catholic Church could theoretically grind to a halt like this!  But think about it this way: the inability of anyone on earth legally to decide that a Pope should be removed also serves as a buffer, to ensure that nobody with ulterior motives, no matter how high-ranking, can ever lawfully take power away from the Pope.  If others in the Catholic hierarchy ever wanted to allege, let’s say, that the Supreme Pontiff was obviously losing his mind because he’d started making some bizarre governing decisions, their opinion wouldn’t make any difference—they couldn’t do a thing about it.  On top of that, they’re actually blocked by existing law from making such public objections: canon 1404 states tersely that the First See is judged by no one.  Once the Pope himself has made a decision, no appeal can be lodged—so if someone ever wanted to argue that a decision that the Pope made was irrational, there’s simply no way procedurally to do that!

If the Catholic Church were simply a Fortune 500 company, this lack of any mechanism to remove an incapacitated CEO would be intolerable, and shareholders would be right to object to the absence of any contingency plans to address the situation.  But as we Catholics are well aware, the Church is not a business.  It was established by Christ Himself, Who assured the Apostles that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18), and Who established that the Pope is His Vicar on earth.  As such, the Pope acts in Christ’s place, so it’s hard to imagine that God isn’t watching over him!  Rather than questioning his mental or physical state, or complaining that he’s never promulgated the “special laws” pertaining to an impeded papal see, why don’t we pray for him instead?

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