No, “pressure” to resign from the papacy does not make resignation invalid…

Eamonn Clark

Look. I’m not a professional canon lawyer. But two days in a row now even I have been able to point out some whoppers, both involving juridical validity.

It’s been irresponsibly suggested that “some canon lawyers” (who?) say that if a pope resigns due to scandals, he “cannot be said to have made his decision of his own free will – even if he insists that he is doing so.”

As the kids say these days – lolwut?

Even though the Holy Father apparently has said he has no intention of resigning, he is an unpredictable man, isn’t he. So let’s take a look at this important topic anyway.

Okay, so just a few questions to start us off… Since when is there a legal definition of “scandal”? And who determines whether there is such a “scandal”? And wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that a person who sees danger and ineffectiveness coming for him due to a scandal would truly want, as an authentic good, to leave office?

If it is true that scandal precludes the resignation of office, it would mean that the person is stuck there, even if due to his own sins and the real good of the Church requires his resignation. On what planet is this a juridic reality? The fact is that there are always scandals and pressures facing popes which would incline them to leave office, many of which are unknown to most people. So is every papal resignation therefore invalid?

No, of course not. As my own professor of canon law told our class, one of the important tools in reading and interpreting canon law is common sense. 

Let’s go through the text, shall we? My comments in bold.

Can. 187 Anyone responsible for oneself (sui compos) can resign from an ecclesiastical office for a just cause. Obviously, the pope is such a person. Note that mounting scandals and ineffectiveness due to pressure to resign would certainly constitute a “just cause.”

Can. 188 A resignation made out of grave fear that is inflicted unjustly or out of malice, substantial error, or simony is invalid by the law itself. This means that, even if there is grave fear on the part of the office holder, that fear must be caused by a serious threat to that person which violates justice in its mode or in its end… We could quibble about exactly what “unjustly” and “out of malice” mean, (and it’s unclear to me if “out of malice” is its own clause – perhaps so) but at present, there seems to be nothing but serious complaints and demands for answers. No threats against the life or liberty of the person of the Holy Father.

Can. 332 …

§2. If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone. The key here is how to interpret the word “freely.” As we have seen, grave fear of being an ineffective pastor or of harming the Church through giving scandal would not suffice to inhibit freedom in the proper way, even for holders of a “normal” office. The office of the papacy, however, is not a normal office – it is the supreme office of the Church militant – and so even more stringent requirements would seem to obtain with regards to proving who seems to be the pope isn’t the pope or who seems to have left the papacy has not.

…ah but wait – let’s go back a few hundred canons…

Can. 14 Laws, even invalidating and disqualifying ones, do not oblige when there is a doubt about the law. When there is a doubt about a fact, however, ordinaries can dispense from laws provided that, if it concerns a reserved dispensation, the authority to whom it is reserved usually grants it. So since there is at least a serious argument to be made that “scandal” and “pressures” do not of themselves suffice to render a resignation null when it is properly manifested, there is at least doubt about the law. This subjects the invalidating law, c. 332 §2, to a “stricter” interpretation. Any claim must overcome the arguments provided.

What, then, might actually render an attempted resignation invalid due to a restriction of freedom? Well, the pope could not be tortured to procure a resignation, for example. He also could not reasonably be presumed free when publicly and presently threatened with death or imprisonment by those with clear means to procure either. Anything like this, in which an invalidating pressure is manifest to all reasonable persons, when the Holy Father actually manifests an intention to resign it would indeed be invalid. Otherwise, we have at a minimum a doubtful application of law, which, especially given the importance of the office, should therefore be subject to strict interpretation, as explained above.

Therefore, the Pope is perfectly free to resign, no matter how bad the scandal gets.

Well, that’s my basic argument. Someone will have to show me where I’m going wrong, if indeed that’s the case. We didn’t even get into c. 17… That would be important too.

Text and context.