|Even former popes can end up as prisoners in the Vatican|
Vatican flag (source: Wikimedia)
Since the last papal abdication, the Church has changed – we’ve had several Ecumenical Councils, including Trent and the two Vatican Councils, we’ve also had various revisions of Canon Law. What happened to Celestine V or Gregory XII after their resignations may not be that enlightening for those of us who are wondering what will become of Benedict XVI after 28 February 2013.
Many commentators have discussed the status, styles, and titles of the present Pope once his resignation comes into effect at 8.00pm (Roman time) in 17 days’ time. My guess is that he will become Bishop Emeritus of Rome and will probably continue to be called ‘Your Holiness’ and so on in conversation – just as a retired Archbishop (here in the UK) is still addressed as ‘Your Grace’. Of course, he will have no effective power at all, and will be subject to the duly elected pope, his successor – whoever he may be.
What we do know for certain, though, is that at the end of the day on 28 February, Pope Benedict XVI will no longer be the Pope, and will therefore not be a sovereign head of state. Neither will he have any part in the governance of the Church, though his successor may possibly wish to consult him, informally, from time to time.
In recent years there have been a number of unsuccessful attempts by individuals who have wanted to arrest or subpoena Pope Benedict XVI in relation to allegations of cover-ups connected to clerical child abuse cases. Some people, often clerical child abuse survivors, have also tried to name him as a defendant in various lawsuits. Many of these attempts to haul the Pope before the courts failed, on the whole, because popes, as internationally recognised sovereign heads of state, enjoy absolute immunity from prosecution. But what will happen to Joseph Ratzinger once his abdication comes into effect?
In just over two weeks’ time it is entirely possible that a judge anywhere in the world could seek the former Pope’s arrest on some allegation relating to his time as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – which, from 2001, dealt with all clerical abuse cases. If that happens, an international arrest warrant could be issued, or a request for his extradition made. Other individuals may decide to try and sue him for whatever reason. If circumstances like this were ever to arise, then Joseph Ratzinger would be at the absolute mercy of his successor (if, that is, he decides to stay in the Vatican).
What would happen if a reigning pope agreed to the extradition of a former pope? Would a situation like that lead to schism? We can only hope that such an event will never happen.
One of my great fears concerning the Pope’s decision to retire is the fact that this move will open him -- as a man -- to various legal attacks. Joseph Ratzinger will no longer be afforded the international legal protection that comes with being head of state. In that sense, then, as a former pope he will probably have to live like his late 19th century and early 20th century predecessors -- a prisoner in the Vatican. It is entirely possible that he won't be able to visit other parts of the world, such as his native Germany or Italian Rome, for fear of the lawyers.
Before he travelled to the UK in 2010, some high profile members of the legal profession (who should have known better) and minor celebrities made known their intention to have the Pope arrested for ‘crimes against humanity’ or whatever. They eventually realised that as head of a sovereign state Benedict XVI could not be subject to the laws of another nation. But, once he is divested, through his own free will, of his status as Pope and sovereign head of state, who knows what will happen. (I wouldn't be surprised if some of the Church's enemies are already lying in wait, legal documents in hand.)
After 28 February, it might be wise for the man once known as Pope Benedict XVI to never leave the protection of the Leonine Walls again. It might also be a good idea for the Cardinal Electors to ensure that his successor is a good and loyal friend to the man who will be soon be known as 'the former Pope'.
[PS -- Have you seen this amazing photo on la Repubblica? It shows a lightning bolt striking St Peter's Basilica today, the day the Pope announced his resignation.]