ASK FATHER: Could a “Pope Emeritus” under 80 vote in a Conclave?

popes_posterFrom a reader…


Canonically speaking, if a Pope emeritus were alive at the time of the conclave to elect his successor’s successor, given he was a Cardinal and Pontiff, may he vote if he were under 80 years old? If he is over 80, may he participate in the same manner that other super-annuated cardinals are permitted to participate?

We are waaaay into the realm of speculation.

However, if we start from a couple of premises, and noting that we won’t be seeing anything like this in the near future, maybe we can think it through.

First, being a Cardinal is an specific role.  It can be conferred and removed and resigned.  It seems to me that when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected, he ceased to be a Cardinal and began to be Roman Pontiff.  With his resignation, he did not become a Cardinal again.  Before he resigned, Benedict could have decreed that, with the instant of his resignation, he would be a Cardinal again, or still.  He didn’t do that.  Furthermore, in no way has he comported himself as a Cardinal, retired or other.

WERE Benedict a Cardinal, then, being over 80, he would not be able to vote in the Conclave, but he would be able to participate in the events leading up to the Conclave.   If he thought he was still a Cardinal, he could have – before his abdication – changed the laws of the Conclave in regard to voting age.  But, he didn’t.

The same would apply to Pope Francis were he to resign.  He would have the option to say, “After I resign, I’ll be a Cardinal.”  He would have the option to do what Benedict did… or didn’t.  He could determine – before his resignation – what his role would be or he could be silent about it.  The next Pope could determine a role for him, or not.

So, this is waaaay out there in the realm of unsettling speculation.

I, for one, don’t long to see a multiplication of these resignations or emeriti, regardless of the affection one might have for them.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Matt R says:

    Now of course the college is even more split, but limiting participation to those under 80 seems to have been a way to protect Vatican II and the new Mass and not simply a practical way to keep the conclave in the Sistine Chapel.

  2. Peter in Canberra says:

    Mark Twain said: “If voting made a difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.”
    The same would seem to apply to the current Roman swamp.

  3. Imrahil says:

    It seems that Cardinals are created by decree of the Pope (can. 351). The law never says that the cardinalate is lost in any other way that (as it obviously is) a deposition by the Pope, in particular, it does not say that a cardinal ceases to be cardinal when he becomes a Pope.

    His cardinalate is obviously, in practice, dormant, as the prerogatives (derived from the Papal office) in the Worldwide Church are by far outdone by the prerogatives of actually having the Papal Office, and the role of adviser to the Pope is void. Still, I don’t see a cardinal actually ceases to be a cardinal upon becoming Pope, and consequently I don’t see that he would have to re-raise himself to cardinal on abdication for being a cardinal.

    In particular, the cardinalate (no longer) depends on having the office of cardinal-bishop, titular priest, or titular deacon of a specific diocese, church or deaconry. They are to be granted such Offices (can. 350 § 2); here legal practice has obviously exempted the Popes from, and precedent has been set for former Popes to exempt them likewise. But their cardinalate does not depend on it.

    So, yes, if he is under 80, he has the right and actually the duty of active vote in the following conclave, unless he exempts himself beforehand (which would be advisable). But then, a Pope physically capable of voting and below 80 that resigns is inconceivable to begin with.

  4. TonyO says:

    Also, even if being a cardinal were a role conferred and removed by appointment, it does not follow that the resigning pope could confer it on himself. If, as you suggest, Fr. Z, that the Benedict’s or Francis’s cardinalate “ceased” upon being pope by the mere fact of being pope because being pope is incompatible with being a cardinal, then while pope they could not confer the cardinalate upon themselves. And when they ceased to be pope they could not confer it upon themselves. The notion that they could as pope confer it upon their ‘future selves to be’ once the resignation takes effect is not very plausible.

    It does seem, like Imrahil suggests from Canon Law, that once appointed cardinal, the role persists until it is revoked by positive act of the pope. It does not lapse in virtue of elevation to the papacy.

    Furthermore, in no way has he comported himself as a Cardinal, retired or other.

    We have no examples of other cardinals who have been the pope and are now resigned from being the pope and gone back to being cardinal, so who know what behavior is “like” that situation? Certainly the Pope Emeritus is behaving as someone who refuses to jog the elbow of the current pope in any way, and to avoid giving even the remote appearance that he might do so. This is “not comporting himself as a Cardinal” because cardinals normally confer with the pope and advise him – something Benedict is avoiding. This says nothing about whether he has the right to do these things.

  5. Imrahil says:

    Dear TonyO,

    thanks for your agreement. Sorry I have to disagree with you on this point:

    If the Pope did lose his cardinalate upon becoming Pope (as I think he doesn’t), then nothing would stand in the way of him granting it to himself on abdication. He cannot, of course, do so after he has abdicated. But when he is still Pope, a decree like “after the effect of my resignation I shall take the post of Cardinal”, to be read, as you suggest, “I, being the Pope, confer the cardinalate on my future self” would certainly be possible. He is the Pope; as long as it is in accord with God’s law and does not cut the power of his successors, he can do everything. Nor would such a decree be manifestly unjust (or unjust at all).


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