Six months ago Pope Francis brushed off speculation he was about to resign due to health problems, but even if he had toyed with the idea, he faced one major obstacle: there was already another ex-pope in retirement.
The death on Saturday of Benedict, who in 2013 became the first pontiff in 600 years to step down instead of reigning for life, should make any decision to step down easier on Francis and the Church, which has struggled enough with having “two popes”, let alone three – two retired and one reigning.
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.
Now that longer life spans have made papal resignations no longer unthinkable, there have been repeated calls from Church leaders to regulate the role of former pontiffs, in part because of the confusion stemming wrought by two men wearing white living in the Vatican.
Francis told a Spanish newspaper last month that he did not intend to define the juridical status of popes emeritus, although he had previously indicated privately that a Vatican department could script such rules.
Australian Cardinal George Pell, a conservative who was close to Benedict, has written that while a retired pontiff could retain the title of “pope emeritus”, he should return to being a cardinal, and be known as “Cardinal (surname), Pope Emeritus”.
Pell also said a former pontiff should not wear white, as Benedict did, telling Reuters in a 2020 interview that it was important for Catholics to be clear that “there is only one pope”.
Academics and canon lawyers at Italy’s Bologna University who have studied the issue say the Church cannot risk even the appearance of having “two heads or two kings” and have proposed a set of rules.
They say a former pope should not return to being a cardinal, as Pell proposes, but be called “Bishop Emeritus of Rome”.
Francis told Reuters in July that is precisely what he would want to be called.
In that case there might not be any need for new legislation he would then be subject to existing rules covering retired bishops.
Existing rules say bishops emeritus should “avoid every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority to that of the diocesan bishop, with damaging consequences for the pastoral life and unity of the diocesan community”.
Although he had retired, Benedict wrote, gave interviews and, unwittingly or not, became a lightning rod for opponents of Pope Francis, either for doctrinal reasons or because they were loath to relinquish the clerical privileges the new pope wanted to dismantle.
Francis told Reuters that he would not stay in the Vatican or return to his native Argentina but live modestly in a home for retired priests in the Italian capital “because it’s my diocese”. He said he would want it to be near a large church so he could spend his final days hearing confessions.