Papal Abdication, Part II – Some Pressing Questions
decision of Pope Benedict XVI to step down from the papacy leads to a number of interesting procedural questions. The canonical practice is for the conclave to begin 15 to 20 days following the death of the pontiff. However, Benedict is not dead and his resignation is not set to take effect until February 28. Does the waiting period start today, or does it begin on February 28? In other words, may the conclave begin on March 1, or must the College of Cardinals wait to assemble until March 15 – or even March 20? This is a matter of interest because of the timing of the resignation – Ash Wednesday is February 13, and Easter is March 31. The later the starting date, the more likely there will be a clash between the celebrations of Holy Week and the installation of the next pope.
Now some may think this conclave will be a quick one. I truly doubt that. After all, there is no clear frontrunner at this moment. In addition, Pope Benedict made a change to the voting procedures in 2007 that is likely to extend the conclave beyond a day or two – it is now necessary that the new pope be selected by a 2/3 majority of the cardinals present and voting. This has the potential to extend the conclave beyond a few days and potentially into an affair that lasts a week or two. This raises the specter of not having a pope by Easter if the conclave begins later rather than earlier.
There is also the question of what to do with a former pope. Will Benedict retire to a monastery to live out his last days? He certainly cannot remain in the Vatican – there can, of course, be only one pope at a time. And regardless of where he ends up, will this be the end of the scholarly work of a man who is a noted theologian? Indeed, can he have any public role or duties? Again, the questions abound here.
Previous abdications have been coerced ones, and as a result have had unhappy consequences. This is a very different situation – and the precedents set here have the potential to be ones of great import if papal retirements become the custom rather than the rare exception.