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Can the pope be forced to step down?

Text by Amara MAKHOUL

Latest update : 2010-04-19

A series of paedophilia scandals have left the Catholic church reeling and prompted calls for the removal of Pope Benedict XVI. But do ecclesiastical rules even allow this? France24.com takes a closer look.

With the Catholic church reeling from a series of paedophilia scandals, some protesters have called for the removal of Pope Benedict XVI. But do ecclesiastical rules even allow this?

What does Canon law say?

According to Canon law, the pope “possesses, by virtue of his office, ordinary, supreme, total, immediate, and universal power that he can always exert freely” (Canon 333).

It is specified in Canon 1404 that “The first See is judged by no one,” and that if this rule is violated, “the acts and decisions are invalid.” Canon law therefore does not provide the possibility of unseating the pope.

It does not mention the possibility of the pope stepping down, either. As religion historian Odon Vallet explains, “The pope is elected by cardinals, in what is seen as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. So it is not appropriate for him to choose to step down.”

What happens if he is gravely ill?

If a serious illness prevents the pope from carrying out his functions, it is expected that he can give up his duty. This option was, for example, considered shortly before the end of Jean Paul II’s pontificate, as he had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease since the 1990s.

Article 332 of Canon law says that “it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested” in order to ensure that it is not the result of any type of pressure.

In the past, European leaders often tried to wield such pressure; Emperor Napoleon I, for example, kept Pope Pius VII prisoner for two years in the Château de Fontainebleau.

Has a pope ever stepped down?

In more than 2,000 years, only two popes have given up their functions. In 1294, Celestine V gave up his duty because he did not feel up to it. It was said that he had been influenced by his successor, Boniface VIII. Gregory XII renounced his claim to the papacy in 1415 to put an end to the Western Schism, at the Constance Council* that he himself called. His resignation was pronounced by a proxy.

And what about the dogma of papal infallibility?

That one cannot criticise the pope, who is infallible, is a widespread notion. The First Vatican Council in 1870 adopted this dogma to better establish the church’s authority and to guarantee the church’s unity.

Papal infallibility also affirms the Holy Father’s superiority over the council. However, infallibility only applies to the religious doctrines articulated by the pope, and not to his opinions or the positions he takes on various issues. Since 1870, papal infallibility has only been applied once, in 1950, when Pope Pius XII adopted the doctrine of the assumption of Mary.

What could happen if the people called for the pope to step down?

“Given the Catholic church’s conflict-ridden history, it seems that if a council pushed the pope to give up his position, he could be obliged to do so,” says Vallet, referring to the case of Gregory XII cited above.

However, since any council must be called by the pontiff and he must ratify all decisions made at the council, there is not much room for that to happen.

On the other hand, given that the pope is not obliged to justify his stepping down, he could choose to do so for reasons other than illness – for example if he feels that his authority or legitimacy are too contested for him to carry out the duties expected of the head of the Catholic church.


*In the Roman Catholic church, a "council" is a meeting of bishops called to Rome by the pope. The pope arranges a council when a reform is necessary and especially when important decisions must be made. The First Vatican Council, for example, defined papal infallibility. The main change to emerge from the Second Vatican Council was the revision of the liturgy.

Date created : 2010-04-04

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