As a result, although Pope Francis remains hospitalized while recovering from intestinal surgery on Sunday at a Rome hospital, he remains Pope and is very much in charge. The Vatican said Tuesday that Francis had breakfast, read newspapers and took a walk, and that his post-operative recovery was progressing normally.
Still, his week-long hospital stay, the first of his papacy, has sparked interest in how papal power is exercised in the Holy See, how it is transferred, and under what circumstances.
Is that how it works:
The role of the pope
The Pope is the successor of the Apostle Peter, the director of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and the pastor of the universal Catholic Church on Earth, in accordance with the internal canon law of the Church.
Nothing has changed in his status, role or power since he was elected Pope number 266 on March 13, 2013, even as he underwent three hours of surgery Sunday to remove half of his colon.
That state is by theological design.
“The authority of the Pope is supreme, full and universal,” said canon lawyer Nicholas Cafardi. “So if his authority is at that level, who can decide 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 running of the Vatican and the church to a team of officials who operate whether he is in the Apostolic Palace or not, and whether he is conscious or not.
Chief among them is the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. In a sign that Francis ‘hospitalization did not anticipate changes in church governance, Parolin was not even in the Vatican during Francis’ scheduled three-hour surgery. He was in Strasbourg, France, to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the death of the patron saint of Alsace.
Other functions of the Vatican are carried out normally. His daily noon bulletin came out again on Tuesday with the names of the new bishops appointed by the pope in Nicaragua, Nigeria and Great Britain. They are presumed to have been approved in advance, although Francis was able to sign decrees and handle other important matters from his hospital bed, as Saint John Paul II was known to have done during his many hospitalizations.
What happens when a Pope gets sick?
Canon law has provisions for when a diocesan bishop becomes ill and cannot manage his diocese, but none for a pope. Canon 412 says that a diocese can be declared “impeded” if its bishop, due to “captivity, exile, exile or incapacity”, cannot fulfill his pastoral functions. In such cases, the day-to-day running of the diocese shifts to an auxiliary bishop, vicar general, or someone else.
Although Francis is the bishop of Rome, there is no explicit provision for the Pope if he is similarly “impeded.” Canon 335 simply states that when the Holy See is “vacant or totally impeded,” nothing can be changed in the government of the church. But it does not say what it means for the Holy See to be “totally impeded” or what provisions might come into play if it ever were.
“We really don’t have rules for this,” Cafardi said. “There are no canons and there is no separate document that says how the disability would be determined, whether the disability could be permanent or temporary, and more importantly, who would rule the church at that time. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We just let it go. in the hands of the holy spirit. ”
And the letter from Pope Paul VI?
In 1965, Pope Paul VI wrote letters to the dean of the College of Cardinals with the hypothesis that if he became seriously ill, the dean and other cardinals should accept his resignation.
Paul foresaw the possibility that as popes continued to live longer, they could become incapacitated by a stroke, dementia, or some other long-term progressive illness that would make it impossible for them to do their jobs and unable to resign freely.
In a letter, published in 2018, he cited an ailment “that is presumed incurable or of long duration and that prevents us from sufficiently exercising the functions of our apostolic ministry.”
The letter was never invoked since Paul lived another 13 years and died on the job.
But experts say it is unlikely that Paul’s letter was used, as canon law requires that the papal resignation be “freely and properly manifested,” as was the case when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation in 2013.
The scenario that Paul envisioned, laying out the reasons for his resignation in advance for a time when he might not be conscious or incapable, “is not valid, because for a pope to validly resign from office he has to be lucid,” said Kurt Martens. . , canon lawyer and professor at the Catholic University of America.
What happens when a Pope dies or resigns?
The only time papal power changes hands is when a pope dies or resigns. At that time, a whole series of rites and rituals come into play that govern the “interregnum”, the period between the end of a pontificate and the election of a new pope.
During this period, known as the “vacant seat” or “empty seat”, the chamberlain or chamberlain directs the administration and finances of the Holy See. It certifies the death of the Pope, seals the papal apartments and prepares for the burial of the Pope before a conclave to elect a new Pope. The position is currently held by Cardinal Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s lay office.
The Camerlengo has no role or duties if the Pope is simply sick or incapacitated.
“You have two options: either you have a pope or you don’t have one, and as long as you have a pope, and in the event that he is not dead, he rules the church,” Martens said. “Even if he is dying, he rules the church.”
And what about Pope Benedict XVI?
Although there is a retired pope living on the grounds of the Vatican, he also does not have a formal role to play.
Benedict, 94, stepped down as pope on February 28, 2013, when he became the first pontiff in 600 years to resign. Since then he has lived in a converted monastery in the Vatican gardens.
Quoting his private secretary, RAI state television said Benedict XVI was praying for Francis’ recovery.