Pope Francis just turned 87 years old. In the long history of the papacy, very few popes have lived to such an old age, but modern medicine has increased longevity, his health issues are surprisingly few, and he seems determined to continue governing the Catholic Church as long as he can.
After a bad bout of sciatica, when asked if he could continue, he told an interviewer, “I don’t govern with my knee.” True enough. But at 87, the human body does not recover as easily from any mishaps or misfortunes.
He had a three-hour surgery last summer. They say that an hour of anesthesia is like running for 3 miles. Not many 86-year-olds run 9 miles with no ill effects.
Pope Francis has let it be known that early in his papacy, he drafted a letter of resignation to be used should he ever become enfeebled to such a degree that he could not continue. But there are no legal protocols to govern such a circumstance.
The last three papacies were contrasts in papal succession. Pope John Paul I died in his sleep after only 30 days as pope. He was like a comet that ran through the sky, brilliant but short.
Pope John Paul II’s last years were seen as heroic by his acolytes but they were a disaster for the Church. His secretary, Archbishop, later Cardinal, Stanislaw Dziwisz; the secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano; and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ran the show for the last few years and they knew the pope’s mind as well as anyone. But large decisions were delayed, such as taking action against serial pedophile and sex abuser Fr. Marcial Maciel. Theologically, the idea of those assistants running the papacy raises an interesting question. Assistants to the pope, indeed the entire Roman curia, shares in the execution of his office, but do they share in the grace of office?
It was Ratzinger who, as Pope Benedict XVI, and having experienced the long, slow decline of his predecessor, broke with 500 years of tradition and resigned when he felt unequal to the job. In his retirement, he served as a discrete confidant to his successor Pope Francis. He famously turned away the cardinals who appealed to him for help in resisting some of Francis’ initiatives during the twin synods on the family in 2014 and 2015.
Contemplating the end of the Bergoglio papacy, the most striking fact is how thoroughly Pope Francis has upended the old papal court. Think of this for a minute—everyone knew the name of John Paul II’s secretary and everyone knew the name of Benedict’s secretary. How many people can name Pope Francis’ secretary? Or knows that there are two? Or that he is on his second batch of secretaries? When the newly elected Pope Francis announced he intended to live at the Domus Sanctae Marthae rather than in the apostolic palace, he said it was because he did not want to be lonely. The change had profound institutional effects. The papal court drew power from its isolation, but Francis is not isolated.
This makes it unlikely that Francis’ last years in office will resemble those of John Paul II, with entrenched, powerful prelates running the show on his behalf. His desire to stay at the helm, especially through next year’s second session of the synod on synodality, makes it unlikely his final years will resemble those of Benedict either. I don’t see Pope Francis resigning. If he were to step down before next October’s synod, the conclave would become a referendum on synodality just as the 1963 conclave was a referendum on continuing the Second Vatican Council. When the cardinals elected the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, as the new pope, they were endorsing the council. As pope, Paul VI had that extra wind at his back as he steered the council forward. Still, Francis has given no indication he will resign.
It is not clear to me why popes should not, like other bishops, resign at the age of 75 or at least at the age of 80, when cardinals lose their right to vote. The age of 80 is also a hard deadline for diocesan bishops and curial officials whom the pope allows to stay on after 75.
One bishop friend told me years ago that he thought bishops should resign at 65 or 70, and return to being a pastor; that men in their 70s lose steam and should make way for a new crop of vibrant bishops. It is a great idea but it will never happen.
The culture of the hierarchy is often impenetrable. For example, when Benedict resigned, most commentators, myself included, anticipated that the cardinals in conclave would seek out a younger man as a result. All the images of the frail pontiff and Benedict’s own words saying he was no longer able to do the enormous work, these pointed to the selection of a young and vigorous candidate. The cardinals drew the exact opposite lesson: If a pope could resign, they were less reluctant to choose an older man. Bergoglio was already 76 years old when he was elected Bishop of Rome.
It is foolish to predict when Francis will call it quits, or when, like most popes, a health crisis will carry him to the next world. One thing is clear: It is time for an organization that routinely elects elderly men to virtually absolute authority to come up with some protocols to govern the various circumstances occasioned by increasing longevity.
Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.