Pope Francis dismissed rumors that he was preparing to step down due to health issues six months ago, but even if he had entertained the idea, he faced a significant barrier: there was already another ex-pope who was retired.
Benedict’s passing on Saturday should ease Francis and the Church’s decision to stand down. The Church has already battled with having “two popes,” let alone three — two retiring and one reigning. Benedict was the first pope in 600 years to step aside rather than reign for life in 2013.
It could also prompt the current pontiff to review what happens to future popes who decide to shuffle away from office because of old age rather than holding on until they die.
Francis is now 86, one year older than Benedict was when he retired. Despite needing a cane and a wheelchair, he shows no sign of slowing down. Trips are planned for Africa this month and Portugal in August.
He has made it clear that he would not hesitate to step down someday if his mental or physical health impeded him from leading the 1.3 billion-member Church.
In an interview with Reuters on July 2, he dismissed rumours of imminent resignation. “It never entered my mind,” he said, also denying rumours among diplomats that he had cancer.
The previous month, the Catholic media world and some secular outlets were caught up in a frenzy of unsubstantiated reports and frivolous tweets speculating he would be out within a few months.
But as he now approaches the 10th anniversary of his election in March, and in four years his life’s ninth decade, the chances of resignation will increase.
Church law says a pope can resign but the decision must be without outside pressure, a precaution that harkens back to the centuries when European potentates influenced the papacy.