In an interview published on December 18 by the ABC newspaper, Pope Francis revealed that he had written a letter of resignation and that this was delivered to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then Vatican Secretary of State. The resignation would become valid if the Pope is prevented, for health reasons, from carrying out the duties of a pontiff.
This revelation, however, leaves many questions open. It reveals something of Pope Francis’ way of operating, which is also reflected in the pontificate.
First, it is striking that the Pope only now spoke of a possible resignation in the event of an impeded see. One could say there was no opportunity before, but that is not true. The Pope has granted many interviews, and in many cases, there has been talk of the Papacy emeritus, of coexistence with Benedict XVI, and even of his possible decisions in the event. Never once has the Pope revealed that he left such a note.
He only did it now, and we must ask ourselves: what led him to make this revelation?
Indeed, the pontificate is in a complicated situation. Pope Francis has overcome critical moments, and although his health is not at its best – when is it at 86? – it is true that a possible, necessary succession does not seem imminent.
Yet there is talk of succession, and for some time now. Even before, one could say, the intestinal surgery of July 4, 2021, which made the possibility of a conclave more concrete. Indeed, Pope Francis confided to the Jesuits of Slovakia that some had “already given him a funeral.”
But before that episode, it must be considered that a 2020 article by Father Antonio Spadaro in the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica questioned whether the pontificate of Pope Francis had ended its propulsive thrust (spoiler alert: according to Spadaro, obviously not). And then there was a book by Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio and frequent visitor to the Domus Sanctae Marthae, which was entitled “The Church burns,” addressing the theme of a crisis in the Church itself.
Beyond the narrative put forward by the Pope himself, that everything is going well, that everyone is happy, and that the reforms are working, in the Vatican and beyond, various questions are being asked about the results of the “Cura Bergoglio,” and not all the answers are positive. To the contrary.
Also, in this case, the last Christmas greeting speech to the Curia, which Pope Francis gave on December 22, is indicative. After spending years outlining the illnesses of the Curia and the antidotes to the diseases of the Curia or listing the reforms made as if to respond to the accusations of not having done enough, Pope Francis has instead proposed a somewhat moralistic speech in which he apologized for being harsh at times but explained that, deep down, it is helpful to “afflict those who are already consoled” and that true mercy passes through accepting the limits of the other.
The question that could be asked is whether the Pope accepts the limitations or errors of the other when these are outside his sphere of friendship, but it would be a nasty and deceptive question that is dropped here.
However, returning to the central discourse, Pope Francis seems to have wanted to give a foothold to those who criticize him, almost as if seeking some respite to complete the last stretch of his pontificate in peace.
This search for breathing space brings various problems, which are the problems of the pontificate itself.
The first: who authenticated the Pope’s letter of resignation, or at least his signature? The renunciation must be deliberate, accessible, and public if there is a letter. An autograph from the Pope is not enough, certification is needed.
Second: who would have the task of defining the “impeded see of the Pope”? The question is so delicate that there is a group from the University of Bologna that is tackling it, making proposals both on the management of a possible impeded see and also on the juridical status of Pope Emeritus.
Paul VI had indeed written such a letter, but even in that case, a public validation of the letter would have been necessary. What Pius XII wrote when he learned of the Nazis’ plans to kidnap him is of another literary genre: he was at war, and a kidnapped Pope was undoubtedly an objective impediment that the college of cardinals could have recognized.
In the case of Pope Francis, the question would be even more complex. Who would take the responsibility of defining the Pope’s situation as “an impeded see”? And are there circumstances outlined to do that?
The Pope does not mention whether he is referring to a see impeded in the event of an irreversible or simple illness that completely alters perceptions. Perhaps there is a hint in the letter. But it seems that no one has seen that letter and that the Pope himself delivered it in a sealed envelope. When then to open it? When do circumstances arise? And who takes responsibility for deciding on the case?
All these questions are indicative of Pope Francis’ way of doing things. In eschewing institutions, Pope Francis avoids behaving institutionally. Although his legislative activity was extensive during the pontificate, it was mainly an emergency legislative activity because it was carried out through the personal decrees of the Pope. These documents (rescript and motu proprio) are generally used for minor modifications and interpretative clarifications but hardly for structural changes.
Emergency legislation, wholly tied to the person of the Pope, creates a government vacuum. Beyond the reform of the Curia and the decentralization to which this aims, everything has been centralized in the hands of the Pope. Even the interpretations are the Pope’s. It is difficult for anyone to make decisions knowing that the Pope might not endorse them.
Here, then, is that the idea of a letter of resignation seems to be more of a declaration of war than an act of normalization. The Pope warns that he could always leave but that no one can define whether this resignation will be valid because there is no supreme legislator, the Pope, who would, in that case, be incapacitated.
Is this a deliberate confusion? Maybe yes. In the ABC interview, Francis also lets it be known that he has never wanted to define the legal status of the Pope emeritus and that he knows that the Conclave could be a bit confusing because the new cardinals created in recent years do not know each other. But, at the same time, the Pope lets it be known that he is okay with it because the Conclave will, in any case, be the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit himself has never inspired him to define the status of the Pope emeritus.
In this climate of uncertainty, Pope Francis is defining the last phase of his pontificate, which is the change of an era. The rumor that he wanted the bishop of Hildesheim, Heiner Wilmer, as the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has not yet been confirmed. There is still no new prefect of the Dicastery of Bishops. The prefect of the Dicastery for the Oriental Churches, Cardinal Sandri, was supposed to remain until he was 80 but was suddenly replaced.
Future decisions will come, after all, without warning. A papal “shock and awe” that aims to leave a Curia in the image and likeness of Francis. He also has the idea of appointing a woman to head a dicastery, perhaps within two years, because there is a dicastery head whose term is expiring and who leads a dicastery that a woman could preside over. Again, nothing specific, nothing definite.
The narrative of the pontificate remains of the reforms made, the path of transparency, and the economic reform that “is working well.” But all this narrative seems to struggle to find correspondence with reality.
In the end, the question is always the same: is Pope Francis at the end of his pontificate, or will he end his pontificate?