A Very Hypothetical Question

Let us imagine, quite hypothetically, a Roman Catholic Pope, in his 80s, who is told by his physician that he is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  The Pope in question is well-read in canon law and church history, and therefore has a pretty good idea of the implications of such a diagnosis for somebody in his position, and for the Church as a whole.  The Church has dealt pretty successfully with evil popes, like the Borgias and a lot of the guys around AD 800 or so (of whom 1 out of 3 died violently, or so I heard today.)  That is to say, none of them did anything that affected the soundness of church doctrine or practice beyond their own lifetimes.  But there is no recorded instance (that I can find, anyway, by googling “Papacy dementia”) of a Pope who developed dementia while in office. 


(See “Ask a Catholic”, which tells us:

             Historically, I don’t know of any Papal cases. There probably were Popes that were removed from office by reason of health or political reasons. Never-theless, it is important to note, the Pope doesn’t stand alone. He is surrounded by all kinds of Cardinals and Secretaries of State and people who are in high res-ponsible positions around the Vatican and when they notice a Pope is failing for any kind of reason, I’m sure they get together and either would ask for his resig-nation or vote; after all they put him in the office. They can’t vote him out, but there can be a recognition that he is not fully himself at this time. It is so impor-tant to emphasize that, unlike our Presidency in the United             States, if something happens to the President, the Vice-President assumes his office — there is no vice-Pope; there is no assistant Pope. The Holy Father MUST resign of his own free will for it to be a valid resignation. If he doesn’t want to, then all you can do is pray that God takes him soon. The             First See (Rome) is judged by no one. We had a heresy called Conciliarism in which an ecumenical council thought they could depose a Pope. No one can depose the Pope even if he’s immoral or             loss his marbles.

            Now God forbid, if a Pope did get that way, maybe they might lock him in the closet or something like that, but you cannot remove him from office. I’m should there would be plenty of people that             are loyal to the Church and would take care that no damage would be done.

            On the issue of Infallibility: Even if, God forbid, a Pope was demented, infallibility would still be present. The Holy Spirit would stop him for saying something like “Jesus is really Mickey Mouse.” Infallibility is a negative charism, where the Holy Spirit would prevent him from making such a statement binding in faith and morals on the faithful. Whether or not he, himself, believes he             is Mickey Mouse, is not a part of infallibility so he might think he is a different character, but it is not part of infallibility.

            Infallibility only applies to the Pope’s teachings and the universal Church. This is where Catholic faith comes in. There was a Cardinal from Germany that has urged John Paul II to resign but you can never compel him to resign. This Office is so unique.On several related issues: If a priest has dementia, the bishop will take care of him fast. Some bishops have had this too and in these situations the Holy See will step in.

            Fr. Levis and Fr. John Trigilio from EWTN)


This raises at least as many questions as it answers.  For instance, if those who “step in” around a demented Pope make doctrinal pronouncements, will the Holy Spirit guide them and make them infallible? One would think it’s the least She could do. 


And, perhaps more to the point, just because the historical record apparently contains no instance of a demented Pope, that does not necessarily mean there has never been one.  Statistically, over 2000 years and 265 Popes, many of them of fairly advanced age, it’s hard to believe that at least one or two of them did not suffer from dementia, either age-related or from some other more common etiology.  We can only conclude that those around them did one helluva job of damage control and public relations, and/or that they did not “lock him in a closet,” but more likely hastened his heavenward journey. 


At any rate, with these issues facing him, our hypothetical Pope might very well choose to save the Church and everybody else a lot of trouble by retiring.  Is this hypothesis really off the wall?  I’m not a Catholic, I just read a lot, and have had a lot of experience with mental health in the civil legal system. 


Jane Grey

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