Inevitably when the Pope is publicly seen as suffering from his ailement, the media starts talking about successors or resignations. In fact, there’s been media discussion of papal retirement or resignation for years now. Of course, that has more to do with antipathy for this Pope’s orthodoxy more than anything.
Peter Steinfels discusses the case of what to do if the Pope becomes mentally or physically incapacitated, something he says is of increasing concern with medical advances prolonging life, although I’m sure popes have become incapacitated in the past. He proposes the two main concerns:
What to do in the emergency case of a pope so incapacitated he could not carry out his duties? And how to make such an emergency much more unlikely?
Another question is whether we need to do anything? Seriously, I think this type of thinking betrays the attitude of “bishop as corporate manager.”
The bishop, and especially the Pope, is a spiritual father as much as anything else, and his presence is as much to be a sign of unity and the presence of Christ as it is to manage the curia, write encyclicals, and appoint new bishops.
Steinfels says the pope is the public face of Catholicism and seeing him as mentally enfeebled would alter the symbolism of his leadership. That’s for sure, but then he wouldn’t be making public appearances in that case.
I understand the practical issues involved here, but I have to wonder what would be the symbolism of casting aside our spiritual father because of his infirmity. It’s not unlike the impulse to put our elderly parents in nursing homes. Sometimes, it is done by necessity, but certainly is not the best solution.
I certainly don’t like arbitrary term or age limits on the Pope, such as Steinfels proposes. That really would make the papacy more like a corporate executive or elected official. And there are real theological questions about the authority of a term-limited or age-limited pope. (Age-limiting a bishop is different because there is a higher authority, the pope, who can decide to keep the bishop in place if possible. There is no such authority over the pope.) I think limits would create a greater problem in the Church than a possibly enfeebled pope. Better to leave things as they rather than go looking for new problems.