Q. 1. I was shocked to hear that Pope Benedict XVI resigned. I did not know that a Pope could resign. I thought he was elected Pope for life. Can you explain to us Catholics what happened here?
A. 1. Because the Popes are elected to reign until death, such a resignation is an uncommon event. In history, only 5 Popes have resigned with certainty. These events took place between the 11th and the 15th centuries. There are claims that 4 previous Popes had resigned between the 3rd and the 11th centuries. Such cannot be confirmed.
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI came as a surprise to the entire world. It is not because it was a unique situation, but rather because it had not been done for at least 600 years as previously mentioned.
Church Canon Law # 332 §2. states:
"If 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."
On the matter of the election of the Pope, it has to be remembered that the Pope was beforehand a Cardinal, then a Bishop, then a priest. And, with the title of Pope came the title of "Bishop of Rome." Logically, since a Bishop can resign, and do so, then it is common sense that the Pope should also be able to resign. Regarding the resignation of a Bishop, the Code of Canon Law states:
Canon Law # 401 §1. "A diocesan bishop who has completed the seventy-fifth year of age is requested to present his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who will make provision after he has examined all the circumstances.
§2. A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office."
It should be noted that the Pope does not have to accept the resignation of a Bishop. That explains why some Bishops are still in office months or years later. Consideration is given to the health of the Bishop and the Church's ability to find an immediate replacement.
On the matter of the resignation of the Cardinals, Canon Law # 354 and the General Norms # Art 5 - § 2. state:
Canon Law # 354 "The cardinals who preside offer dicasteries and other permanent institutes of the Roman Curia and Vatican City and who have completed the seventy-fifth year of age are asked to submit their resignation from office to the Roman Pontiff who will see to the matter after considering the circumstances."
Art 5 - § 2. "Once they have completed seventy-five years of age, cardinal prefects are asked to submit their resignation to the Roman Pontiff, who, after considering all factors, will make the decision. Other moderators and secretaries cease from office, having completed seventy-five years of age; members, when they have completed eighty years of age; those who are attached to any dicastery by reason of their office cease to be members when their office ceases."
Canon Law # 187 states that anybody can resign from any ecclesiastical office for a just reason, so long as he is "sui compos." A person who is considered "sui compos" is one who has the ability to think for himself, and make responsible choices using his own mental power.
The opposite of being "sui compos" is one who is mentally disabled, unconscious, insane, or suffering from dementia. Such a person would be unable to rationalize what he is doing, and to take responsibility for his actions. So if the Pope could not make a rational decision on his own, he would not be in a position to make the decision to resign.
In summary, if a Pope decides to resign, his decision has to be fully free.
Now to return to the matter of the resignation of the Pope. Since the Pope is the supreme authority of the Church (Canon Law # 331), no one can accept his resignation. There is no earthly power over the Supreme Pontiff! So no one can block his resignation if ever the Pope decided to proceed with it as happened on February 11, 2013.
How does the Pope proceed with his resignation?
Since the Pope is elected by the Cardinals, common sense directs that he should present his resignation to the College of Cardinals. Accordingly, on February 11, 2013, Pope Benedicts XVI, in Latin, announced his resignation to the Cardinals. Note that he did not present his resignation to anyone since no one could accept it; he merely made an announcement of the fact. Such took place during an ordinary consistory that had been set aside to canonise the martyrs of Otranto.