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Canonical Rules on the Resignation of a Pontiff, and the Election of a New Pontiff (part I of II)

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The following is a guest post by Dante Figueroa, Senior Legal Information Analyst at the Law Library of Congress.  Dante has previously written blog posts on canon law and the papacy:  Canon Law Update; Citizenship in the Vatican City State; Medieval Canon Law; and The Papal Inquisition in Modena.

Roman Pontiffs from Saint Peter to Pius the Ninth
Roman Pontiffs from Saint Peter to Pius the Ninth

In a Concistoro ordinario pubblico (from the Latin consistorium, assembly, referring to the consultative council of a sovereign which in this case included the Cardinals of the Catholic Church) held on February 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation to the Petrine Ministry (Papal Office) effective as of February 28, 2013. Previously, only four Pontiffs in the history of the Catholic Church had resigned: Pope Benedict IX (resigned in 1045); Pope Gregory VI (resigned in 1046); Pope Celestine V (resigned in 1294); and Pope Gregory XII (resigned in 1415).

This is an excerpt from Pope Benedict’s speech as translated from the original Latin into English:

After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God … well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Since the last papal resignation was nearly 600 years ago, this month’s announcement took the world by surprise and resulted in many questions. I will address several of the most important juridical questions arising from Pope Benedict’s resignation, for which there are responses in current Canon law, as well as other questions for which there are no canonical rules or precedents.


To whom does the Pontiff present his resignation?

Simply stated, the Pontiff presents his resignation to no one. Canon 332 §2 of the Code of Canon Law provides that: “[i]f it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.”

Pope Gregory XII
Pope Gregory XII. Photo by Dante Figueroa.

The Papal resignation does not require acceptance by the Sacred Congregation of Cardinals (Cardinalium Collegium). Canonically, a resignation from ecclesiastical office is legally efficacious only when accepted by a hierarchical superior. As the Pontiff has no hierarchical superior within the Church, from the ecclesiological and juridical viewpoints, no acceptance of the Pontiff’s resignation is necessary for the resignation to take effect; hence the words used by Pope Benedict: “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God.” It is important to include this phrase in light of Canon 332, showing that no acceptance from the Cardinals is necessary. He did not tell the Cardinals: “I submit my resignation for your consideration or approval.” Hence the importance of including the words he actually uttered from a juridical viewpoint. In effect, this canonical formula entails the understanding that the Pontiff’s mission does not arise from his election by the cardinals, but from his acceptance of the mission that God has entrusted to him in a particularized manner. Consequently, the language of Canon 332 §2 is correctly interpreted and understood when it states that it is not necessary that the resignation be “accepted by anyone.”


What title will the outgoing Pontiff have?

The Code of Canon Law does not contain a clear canon or rule on this matter. In this situation, it is necessary to make use of other canonical rules concerning the interpretation of lacunae (gaps in legislation) in the Code. Canons 17 establishes that “ecclesiastical laws must be understood in accord with the proper meaning of the words considered in their text and context. If the meaning remains doubtful and obscure, recourse must be made to parallel places, if there are such, to the purpose and circumstances of the law, and to the mind of the legislator.” Canon 331 states that the Supreme Pontiff is the Bishop of Rome. Based on these two canons, Monsignor Patrick Valdrini, professor of Canon Law (ordinario di Norme generali di Diritto canonico) and Vice-Chancellor (pro Rettore) of the Pontificia Università Lateranense (Pontifical Lateran University) stated in a recent interview, that Pope Benedict will probably bear the title of “Vescovo emerito di Roma” (Emeritus Bishop of Rome). On the day of Pope Benedict’s resignation, Padre Federico Lombardi, Press Director for the Holy See, also confirmed the reasonableness of this hypothesis.


What role will former Pope Benedict have in the government of the Holy See?

Effective March 1, 2013, ­­ the current Pontiff will have no role whatsoever in the administration of the Holy See. He will no longer be a member of the College of Cardinals of Holy Roman Church (Canon 349), or not participate in any manner whatsoever in the preparation of the Conclave that will elect the next Pontiff. Pope Benedict has stated that he will retire to a life of prayer and seclusion.


Who administers the Holy See in the interregnum (between the Papal resignation and the assumption of the new Supreme Pontiff)?

At 20:01 hours of February 28, 2013, the Holy See becomes Sede Vacante (vacant), which happens when a Pope dies or resigns (Canon 332). Technically, the seat of Saint John Lateran, which is the cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome, becomes vacant. Canon 335 provides that “[w]hen the Roman See is vacant (Sede Vacante) or entirely impeded, nothing is to be altered in the governance of the universal Church; the special laws issued for these circumstances, however, are to be observed.”

 When a Pontiff dies, or in this case with the resignation of Benedict XVI, all the heads of the Roman Curia also resign, with the following exceptions aimed at maintaining the regular operations of the Vatican: (a) the Cardinal Camerlengo, who administers the property and rights of the Holy See; (b) the Cardinal Major Penitentiary; (c) the Cardinal Vicar General for the Diocesis of Rome; (d) the Cardinal Archpriest of the Vatican Basilica; and (e) the Vicar General for Vatican City (Apostolic Constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis, on the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff,” issued by Pope John Paul II on February 22, 1996). 


What administrative acts may be carried out during the Sede Vacante, and who may order or supervise them?

During the Sede Vacante, the government of the Church and all the civil power of the Supreme Pontiff concerning the government of Vatican City State are entrusted to the College of Cardinals solely for the dispatch of ordinary business and of matters which cannot be postponed, and for the preparation of everything necessary for the election of the new Pontiff. The College of Cardinals may not administer matters which “pertain to the Supreme Pontiff during his lifetime or in the exercise of his office; such matters are to be reserved completely and exclusively to the future Pope” (Universi Dominici Gregis, Part I, Ch. I(1)). During the Sede Vacante the College of Cardinals may issue decrees only in cases of urgent necessity during the time the Holy See is vacant. Such decrees are valid for the future only if the new Pope confirms them.

Also, during the Sede Vacante, there are two kinds of Congregations of the Cardinals: General Congregations, which include the whole College and are held before the beginning of the election; and Particular Congregations. The Particular Congregations are made up of the Cardinal Camerlengo and three Cardinals chosen by lot from among the Cardinal electors already present inRome.  

Having covered issues related to the Pontiff’s resignation, in my next post I will turn my attention to the canonical rules governing the election of the future Pope.


  1. Dios permita a la Iglesia Católica permanecer fortalecida en estos momentos donde se prueban muchas cosas al interior de la religión, encontrándose de por medio los Cardenales en Roma, cuya decisión para elegir un nuevo Papa tiene una especial trascendencia por existir presuntos intereses “renovadores” contra otros conservadores, tales como los temas del matrimonio de los sacerdotes activos o extinción del celibato, los temas de la desviación sexual de muchos sacerdotes, el manejo del patrimonio económico del Vaticano y muchos otros que presentan serias controversias que deben ser solucionadas y principalmente la imagen de los católicos romanos ante las demás iglesias del mundo.

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