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Popular misconceptions: Benedict's resignation and choice of successor

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 14, 2013

The mainstream media are suddenly taking a keen interest in Vatican affairs, sending reporters to process the latest unfounded rumors from Rome. Meanwhile self-proclaimed experts on Catholicism are flooding the internet with their own theories. As a result, thousands of inaccurate stories are appearing every day. Once again I encourage readers to treat every new report with caution, and sensational reports with outright skepticism. To separate the wheat from the chaff, keep checking this site.

We cannot correct every misleading story that appears in the media; there are simply too many. But we can, and will, offer occasional bulletins to clear up the most popular misconceptions. For instance:

  • The Vatican is not hiding evidence of a medical crisis that prompted the Pope’s resignation. Yes, the Holy Father recently had the battery replaced on his pacemaker, but that is a routine operation. Yes, he stumbled and hurt his head during his trip to Mexico last year. But the injury was not severe, he completed all events on his schedule for that trip, and he has recovered fully. (It would have been sensible for Vatican officials to disclose the accident at the time, but the cult of secrecy runs deep.) Those who see the Pontiff on a regular basis report no signs of physical illness, apart from the ordinary effects of aging in general and arthritis in particular. It’s still possible that the Pope has suffered some new medical setback in recent weeks, but if that is the case, even high-ranking Vatican officials are still in the dark about it. The conspiracy theories, alleging an old illness or injury that has been hidden from the public, are simply wrong.
  • Pope Benedict will not directly influence the choice of his successor. The Pope will leave Rome after his resignation, to live for a while at Castel Gandolfo. He probably will not return to Rome until his successor has been elected. He will not participate in the meetings of cardinals prior to the conclave, and he would not be eligible to vote in the conclave in any case, since he is over the age of 80. Certainly everything he says between now and February 28 will be carefully scrutinized for signals about his thoughts on the future of the papacy. But those who know Pope Benedict well agree that he will do his best to avoid influencing the papal election.
  • The Pope is not resigning because of the sex-abuse scandal (he has borne that burden for more than a decade, and made significant progress), nor because of turmoil at the Vatican bank (with a new president to be appointed soon, that crisis may already be past), nor because he is depressed by what he reads when he logs onto his Twitter account (in fact he does not use the internet at all; aides have posted quotes on his Twitter account). He has explained his motivation twice: he finds that he no longer has the strength and stamina to carry out his duties. Again the conspiracy theories are misguided.
  • The Pope is not planning to enter a monastery. He will take up residence, eventually, in a building on the Vatican grounds that has been used as a monastery. The nuns who occupied that building have already left. It is now being renovated. The Pope has indicated that he wants to make it his home for a life of seclusion and prayer.
  • Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the former Secretary of State, will not preside over the papal conclave. He too is over 80 years old, and cannot enter the conclave. As dean of the College of Cardinals he would preside at a papal funeral, and thereby command the attention of the world. But there will be no funeral in this case. Cardinal Sodano retains considerable influence, which he will probably use during the interregnum. But once the conclave begins he will be on the sidelines.
  • Cardinal Francis Arinze is not among the top candidates for the papacy. He was properly listed among the leading papabili 5 or 10 years ago, but now he too is over the age of 80, and more than 4 years have passed since he resigned from his important role as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. He will not be at the conclave, and it seems very unlikely that the conclave will choose him.
  • Pope Benedict has not decreed that his successor will attend World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, or that his private secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, will continue in his post as prefect of the pontifical household after his resignation. It’s a safe bet that both of these statements are true—that the new Pope will go to Rio, and Archbishop Ganswein will keep his position. But the Pope cannot bind his successor, and it would be prudent for Vatican spokesmen to speak accurately about these matters, observing the proper protocol. The new Pontiff could theoretically decide not to travel to Rio. He could choose another prefect for the pontifical household, and/or give Archbishop Ganswein a diocesan assignment. In all likelihood the new Pope will honor the old Pope’s decisions, but he is not required to do so.
  • No cardinals will lose their eligibility as electors between the date of the Pope’s retirement and the opening of the conclave. The canonical rule stipulates that a cardinal loses eligibility if he passed his 80th birthday before the Holy See becomes vacant. That vacancy will occur on February 28. Thus Cardinal Walter Kasper, who will turn 80 on March 5, will remain eligible to vote in the conclave.

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