As the child abuse scandals continue to mount, it seemed it was only a matter of time until something directly involving Joseph Ratzinger, also known as Pope Benedict XVI, came to light. Now that serious misconduct has been discovered during Ratzinger’s tenure as Archbishop of Munich, there are cries from the peanut gallery for the 83-year-old German pope to abdicate the throne. While for the time being the Vatican is defending Pope Benedict XVI’s reign, this situation begs the question of how exactly does the head of the Catholic Church leave his post, and can be he forced to do so?
When you get right down to it, a pope is for all intents and purposes also a bishop. Since it is possible for an Archbishop to resign (and be forced to resign) his post, it should be possible for a pope to do so as well. A bishop representing a diocese must resign his post at the age of 75, if it is requested. Also, members of the College of Cardinals are disbarred from conclaves upon their 80th birthdays. However, neither of these rules apparently applies to the Archbishop of Rome, a.k.a. the pope. So this only leaves a resignation from the pope himself as a way to exit stage left.
The best proof that the pope has a legitimate right to resign his office comes from the late 13th century. Pope Celestine V, famous for initially refusing the papacy, issued a papal decree in 1294 confirming the right of a pope to voluntarily give up his post. Not long after he resigned his position so he could return to his life as a hermit. Since then there is a provision in the Catholic Code of Canon law allowing for a pope to resign his office. The procedure is vague. The only real requirement is that the sitting pope must openly manifest his resignation. It is not clear whether this means a formal letter to the College of Cardinals, some proclamation at Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Cathedral or a note left for the papal valet.