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from issue no. 01/02 - 2005

«Nobody can limit the powers of the Pope»

«While the Pope is Pope, his powers cannot be limited by anybody. Only he can limit himself. The opportuness of proceeding or not proceeding in determinate acts must be left to his responsibility». An interview with Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda

by Gianni Cardinale

Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda

Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda

«I marvel and am much edified by the attitude of the Pope not just in these recent days, but since he has been suffering particularly. This suffering can be seen, one can touch it almost physically thanks above all to the media and to television especially. It is a profound witness to the Christian sense of pain and suffering». The words are those of Cardinal Mario Francesco Pompedda, one of the most brilliant canon lawyers in the Roman Curia, where he has filled the important and delicate posts of Dean of the Roman Rota and Prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signet. «Which does not», the Sardinian cardinal continues, «prevent him from continuing to carry on his mission, day after day, nor has even prevented him undertaking very fatiguing pastoral journeys out of Rome. Despite no longer being able to move quickly, he has not given up those acts of pastoral ministry. We can only thank the Lord for the great example we are offered. A particularly significant gift for those who live in suffering and in pain».

Your Eminence, during the Pope’s stay in the “Agostino Gemelli” clinic the question of the eventual “resignation” of the Pope came up again. What is the Canon Law on the matter?
MARIO FRANCE­SCO POMPEDDA: The renunciation of an ecclesiastical office is an ancient institute, as old as the Church. It’s not a recent invention. The current Code, however, provides norms specifying clearly that the renunciation must be made freely, hence without compulsion, must be conscious and must be expressed. As for the formalities of that expression there are no rules: the most important point is that it be done publicly, and in a definitive way. This institute is valid for any office. It is valid for bishops, for cardinals. It can be valid for the pope.
According to some, in the current canonical rules there is a gap relating to the case in which a pope is incapable of performing his ministry for reasons of health.
POMPEDDA: There is no rule in relation to it, because in the Church there is no earthly authority above the pope and which can, therefore, declare a pontiff out of office while still alive. However in the apostolic constitution Universi Dominici gregis the expression: «See vacant for any reason or cause» occurs twice. In effect these are two parentheses and they are there simply to remind us that what is disposed in the case of death and renunciation of the pontiff can also be valid in other contingencies that lead to the vacancy of a diocese and that are dealt with in the canonical tradition, such, for example, as impediment or manifest heresy…
Does impediment also mean not being able to speak?
POMPEDDA: Absolutely not. One can speak of an impeded See when a bishop is exiled or imprisoned and who thus – isolated – cannot communicate with the Church of which he is pastor. The case in which a bishop cannot express himself in words is different.
The large screen set up in Saint Peter’s Square during the Angelus recited from the Gemelli hospital

The large screen set up in Saint Peter’s Square during the Angelus recited from the Gemelli hospital

And in what way?
POMPEDDA: The main point is that a bishop - and by analogy also the pope – be able to express his will in a clear and manifest way. And that can be done with words, in writing or also in gestures, with expressions that clearly manifest his will. On this point I have already mentioned the case of the cardinal of Milan Andrea Ferrari who last century, in the last period of his life, could not speak and governed the diocese with written notes which manifested his decisions.
Cardinal Jorge María Mejía has said that it is “to be hoped” that the Pope has written a letter of “dispositions” in case he becomes “unable”.
POMPEDDA: I’m not acquainted with documents of the kind. In the abstract I can say that that sort of deed would have value provided it were freely signed and that there were no retractions, written or oral, left after the date indicated on the deed in question.
The Corriere della Sera of 6 February printed a comment foreseeing «a downscaling of his [the Pope, ed] acts of government and magisterium» and fearing a concrete situation that «will perhaps impose a diminution in the “acts” performed in the name of the Pope».
POMPEDDA: While the Pope is Pope his powers cannot be limited by anybody. Only he can limit himself. The opportuness of proceeding or not proceeding with definite acts must be left to his responsibility. I would therefore invite all, laity or churchmen, to abstain from making forecasts of the kind.

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