Incapicitated Pope

Question that popped into my head and hoping someone had an answer; what would happen if the pope were rendered unable to perform as pope? Like, if the pope had a mental illness or was incapable of leading, but refused to step down. Could he be forced to resign?

He remains the pope, regardless of his health. No, a pope can not be forced to resign.

It is important to note that in 2000 years this has never occurred. It appears that God protects His Church. :wink:

I doubt that this is true

We have no such guarantee from God that no pope will ever become totally incapacitated and unable to perform his duties yet unable to resign. But the answer is simple. He can never be removed and will have to die in office in order for the Church to move on.

Can a Pope be Removed from Office?

As we all know, there is no higher-ranking official in the Catholic Church than the Pope. Canon 331 is unambiguous: the Pope alone has supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church. (See “Are there Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” for more on this topic.) Consequently, in the absence of any “special laws which have been enacted” to handle this particular situation, there is nobody on earth who has the authority to make an official determination that the Pope is incapacitated and must be removed, or that somebody else should henceforth govern in his place.

It simply cannot be done.

The fact is, if a Pope were to become so debilitated that he actually became incapable of governing the Church, and was so physically and/or mentally incapacitated that he couldn’t even resign his office, nobody could step in and take charge. There is absolutely no legal mechanism that would permit any cardinal, or even the College of Cardinals together, to decide that the Pope is no longer sui compos and somehow to take charge themselves.

Readers might be alarmed at the possibility that governance of the Catholic Church could theoretically grind to a halt like this! But think about it this way: the inability of anyone on earth legally to decide that a Pope should be removed also serves as a buffer, to ensure that nobody with ulterior motives, no matter how high-ranking, can ever lawfully take power away from the Pope. If others in the Catholic hierarchy ever wanted to allege, let’s say, that the Supreme Pontiff was obviously losing his mind because he’d started making some bizarre governing decisions, their opinion wouldn’t make any difference—they couldn’t do a thing about it. On top of that, they’re actually blocked by existing law from making such public objections: canon 1404 states tersely that the First See is judged by no one. Once the Pope himself has made a decision, no appeal can be lodged—so if someone ever wanted to argue that a decision that the Pope made was irrational, there’s simply no way procedurally to do that!

I did my thesis on Conclaves so I know quite a bit on it.

An incapacitated Pope would need to resign on his own accord or die. If he became mentally ill, the Curia would know it and would just ignore potential bizarre edicts.

Certain things can only be done by a Pope, but a huge chunk of the Curia would still function even if the Pope weren’t fit to lead.

Interestingly there was a big possibility to actually have an incapacitated Pope during the 1940s. Hitler and Pius XII disdained each other and there was the chance that Hitler would invade the Vatican. It would throw the Church into a huge crisis and had happened before. The Pope prepared a resignation to go into effect just in case he would be kidnapped, so the Church could get a new Pope and still function, and the former Pope would just be a kidnapped Cardinal.

That is really interesting! Thanks

What basis in law would the Curia have to “ignore bizarre edicts”? Who would decide they are bizarre? The Pope has immediate and universal jurisdiction, so his edicts could potentially affect more than just the Curia. What if he began removing bishops for no apparent reason? Could he be ignored safely then?

While there is nothing in Canon Law or in Universi Dominici Gregis about it, it would just be prudence. If a Pope had obvious mental illness and turned into George III, the Curia would know that it impeaches his dictates.

If a Pope were to order that everyone coming to Mass should wear tin-foil helmets and vestments, do you think the Curia would pass the order down to the rest of us? Of course not. There is no basis for it in the law but they’d just ignore it anyway.

The Curia doesn’t have to “pass orders down” to us. The Pope has universal, ordinary, and immediate jurisdiction.

The Holy Father could order my pastor to be transferred to another ZIP code, and our bishop wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. The Holy Father could excommunicate everyone in my parish, and likewise.

Thanks for argumentative attitude and the very elementary lesson, but your interpretation of what I said is incorrect and you’re missing the point.

If the Pope has a decision, while he has immediate jurisdiction, the Curia is the body that would distribute and enforce it. That’s what it’s there for – it works as his arm.

Take the issue of, say, when Peace is to be offered to each other at Mass. If the Pope wanted to move it to another part of the Mass, he would direct it to the Congregation for Divine Worship and they would pass the order down to the dioceses.

The Curia does pass the order down. The Pope does not personally inform each diocese. Even if his order is immediate and supreme, the Curia is tasked with getting the word out there.

So could a current Pope amend Canon Law such that provisions would be in place to force the resignation of an incapacitated Pope that would bind future Popes until another Pope abrogates such a hypothetical canon?

So the Curia has a basis, not written in law, but a conspiracy to mutiny at the first sign the Pope does things that seem unreasonable? There doesn’t even need to be a formal decision, then, an ecclesiastical trial, an official pronouncement, the Pope’s servants can just ignore what he says if they stop liking it?

So could a current Pope amend Canon Law such that provisions would be in place to force the resignation of an incapacitated Pope that would bind future Popes until another Pope abrogates such a hypothetical canon?

Such a law might not have any force. The Pope is above the law, that is merely ecclesiastical laws, because he is Supreme Lawgiver. So it is unlikely that a law purporting to bind him would have any actual effect.

What the law can bind is the activity of anyone else, namely the Curia. As it is, if the see were impeded (this would be hard to determine because nobody has authority to pass judgement on the Pope’s competence) no changes are to be made, and it would effectively be treated as a sede vacante.

In theory, yes. There have been Popes who were validly deposed. Benedict IX even served as Pope thrice and was deposed each time.

Check out around the 1040s.

Under today’s law, a Pope cannot be deposed, but if a crisis were to happen where a series of Popes would be incapacitated, a successor down the line might very well might put in such a law, and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea. Perhaps the resignation of Pope Benedict would give the Church a sense of precedence that would make removal a possibility.

Of course, the problem then becomes how you define when a Pope is incapacitated. And you’re probably going to have pockets of people who won’t accept the deposing and they’ll have their own anti-popes like what is going on with some Traditionalist factions. It would cause big headaches, but so would the alternative to keep Popes who aren’t mentally fit. It’s funny, either way there would be problems, but that’s life I guess.

There were reports that Pope John Paul II had signed a conditional resignation that would take effect if he were disabled and unable to communicate. There were also reports of such a document signed by Pope Pius XII during World War II when he became aware of Nazi plots to kidnap him.

Obviously they’d wait till there are very clear and obvious signs and long term patterns of mental incapacity and not just arbitrarily start ignoring him when he forgets someone’s name.

Again, I give you the example of tinfoil helmets. If the Pope kept giving out crazy edicts, would the Curia enforce it? Is it a conspiracy or just plain prudence to ignore an insane Pope? There won’t be a trial to judge him as unfit, but the Curia would likely have an understanding that the Pope just isn’t well. They’d treat him like the way we’d treat a senile grandfather – patient and understanding, but knowing when to ignore something.

Which sounds more sane for the Curia to do, obey bizarre decrees from a senile Pope or blindly enforce everything he might say, from wearing tinfoil helmets to having nuns dress up like Ninja Turtles?

I know a few who would gladly obey…

Again, argumentative and missing the point completely.

Furthermore, Catholic doctrine puts conscience at the centrality of our actions. If the Cardinals knew, in their conscience, that a Pope isn’t in his right mind, they would be disobeying their consciences and doing wrong by enforcing nonsensical rules of a senile man. They’d be doing the Christ and the Church a huge disservice.

Tell me then, would all the Cardinals and bishops and priests and deacons and consecrated religious disobey the Pope with one mind as one body, or would some obey and cause controversy over whether obedience trumps conscience?

I am sorry if I am argumentative, but this is a forum and this is what we come here to do. If you don’t like it then you are free to leave the conversation.

What would most likely happen is that a senile Pope would be handled and kept out of the public eye by the people around him. Outside of those immediately around him, nobody else would even hear his senile dictates so the Church as a whole would not be subject to it. Likewise a senile grandfather would not be exposed to the public, akin to Ronald Reagan in his last years.

And you know what I mean by argumentative – things like Post 17 wherein a person obviously is just trying to have the last word and giving an argument that doesn’t pertain to the topic at all.

Interesting to note, Joseph Ratzinger apparently went against John Paul II’s wishes at one time toward the end. The Pope didn’t want Marcel Macial Dellogado investigated. Ratzinger obeyed at first but when the piles of information kept coming in, eventually he just went on and investigated anyway, according to Vatican journalist John Thavis. Monsignor Scicluna was, in fact, in the middle of interviewing one of Dellogado’s victims when he was notified the Pope died, and then he immediately stopped.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit