From a reader…
If a Pope wanted to ensure that the next holder of his office would be of like mind and continue his policies, is there any moral or theological impediment to his naming his own successor before his death?
Interesting theoretical question. I am unaware of any opinions by good, specific writers on the topic, though it is possible that someone like St Robert Bellarmine has already worked through the issues. I’ll take a stab anyway, animi caussa.
So, can a Pope do this, or has a Pope done this, or should a Pope do this?
There are a couple things to be held in tension. First, the Pope has from God full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, which he can always exercise unhindered. The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls. Next, we mustn’t exaggerate or overestimate what the Pope can do. He is still bound in some ways.
The way by which Popes, Bishops of Rome have been chosen has changed over the centuries, though for a long while now it has been pretty standardized: he is elected by the body or college of “hinge-men” or Cardinals, who are technically the special clergy of Rome. Keep in mind that Peter was, yes, the first “Pope”, but he also wasn’t. The office of “Pope” who is the Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter is a reality that has taken on more manifest work and institution than what Peter concerned himself with. While scholars are divided, it is probable that Peter chose his successor – probably Linus – by consecrating him. It is possible that Pope may have consecrated others. However, we generally go with Linus. So, Peter seems to have designated the one he wanted to succeed him and it seems that the Church of Rome followed his wishes. I don’t know if that is the same as choosing your successor or not, since the historical circumstances were entirely different. As the Church grew in number and in freedom and became more institutionalized, the method of choosing the leader changed. We must avoid anachronism problems.
Later, however, when the Pope really had become Pope in the more modern sense, I think there is the case of Felix IV who tried to designate his successor, a Boniface II. However, the secular state, the Senate forbade discussion of a successor and Felix was thwarted as the clergy of Rome objected and another was elected. As it turned out they sort of shared the role for a bit and then Boniface was duly elected in his own right. So, yes, Felix IV named his successor, but, no, it didn’t work… until it did.
Today, Popes are the Legislators in the Church. They literally lay down the law for how Popes are elected. Also, the state is completely out of the picture since the odd events of the conclave in which St. Pius X was elected. Now, every Pope can change his predecessors laws and procedures, though in fact they have remained pretty much the same for a long time, so long that it is nearly unthinkable to do it otherwise. Hence, Popes have a kind of moral bond, at least, to follow the same.
That said, the Pope, who has full authority, could theoretically step by step abrogate the laws of election of a Pope. He could, I suppose, even reprobate those laws, that is, abolish them in a such a severe way as to make it impossible to appeal to custom. Say a Pope did that and then completely wiped out the College of Cardinals, forbidding it, etc. Then I suppose he could establish a new office of Coadjutor Bishop of Rome with right of succession. That Pope could say, “Upon my death, Coadjutor Bishop of Rome John Zuhlsdorf will immediately succeed me and you shall prostrate yourselves three times as you approach him and then kiss his right shoe.” On the death of that Pope, I would take new name “Father Z I” or else “Clemente XIV Ganganelli I”, but I would defer the foot kissing thing for a while for reasons which should be obvious: by the time I get done with my first acts, many fewer people would have to kiss the sacred slipper.
But you asked if there were moral or theological impediments. I think there is certainly a moral impediment, unless the circumstances were so dire for the Church that something had to be done as the End Times drew to a close. But then, ironically, the Church of Rome might be more like it was in the beginning than it has become. Theological impediment? I don’t see one, given how the very earliest Bishops of Rome were chosen, or at least strongly indicated. However, it could be that the length of time and the association with the papal office of elections by a College of Cardinals is, by now, so deep, that that method could even have become its own theological locus.
So, yes, I think that a Pope cannot do this. Popes don’t have the moral authority to wipe out aspects of the Church’s life which are so deeply part of her marrow. I’m sure you can think of a few of those aspects (HINT: liturgy). It hasn’t clearly been done in the past and it would go directly contrary to how Popes have been chosen for a very long time. It would be an exercise of raw power that would not go unchallenged. No Pope would be stupid enough to try and I suspect that even the Holy Spirit could be bothered to intervene against a move like that.