A Francis resignation seems unlikely – but then he is the 'Pope of surprises'

The Pope is on retreat this week, which is a good reminder to all of us, clerical and lay, that we do need time out and time away, in order to reflect on what really matters in our lives – that is, our relationship with God – and to refresh our spiritual lives. Perhaps that is why the Pope has gone to Ariccia, some miles from Rome, a place where he will be insulated from the usual pressures of life in the Vatican and “living over the shop”.

That may be especially welcome at the moment. If recent reports, originating with the Italian journalist Antonio Socci, are to be believed – and presumably Socci has well-placed sources – the Vatican is currently a hotbed of intrigue. In particular, according to the Socci story, there is a plot afoot to persuade the 80-year-old Pontiff to resign.

It is not a wholly implausible story. The resignation of Pope Benedict, only the second papal resignation in recent history, introduced the possibility that a future Pope might at some time or another be expected to follow suit. Now that dying in office is no longer de rigueur, it follows that resignation is a possible, even the likely end, of every papacy. Moreover, because the Pope can now retire, there will be people who think that he therefore should, even must, retire, at some point.

The fact that this “plot” has leaked could mean one of two things. It could be that the feeling the Pope should retire is now so widespread, that it cannot be kept secret – in other words there are too many people in on the plot. But it could mean something else entirely, namely that the plotters are very few in number and are airing their idea to see if it gains traction. Their idea might be to launch a snowball that then turns into an avalanche in the way of which nothing can stand.

We don’t know what the reaction to this idea is in the corridors of power, which is the only reaction that counts. But the reaction elsewhere has been muted. There has been no horrified response by all and sundry saying that the Pope must not under any circumstances resign. Resignation has been mooted and Catholics have by and large shrugged. This seems to indicate that the idea per se is not to be ruled out, but is rather something we can all live with. So the question is not whether Pope Francis should resign, but when he should choose to do so. The real question is one of timing.

Needless to say, no one has the power to force a papal resignation, except perhaps the papal doctors. It is up to the Pope alone, and a resignation, to be valid, must be freely chosen. (One could imagine a medical team judging a pope, any pope, no longer capable of fulfilling his duties – which would be an interesting scenario for canon lawyers.) But the Pope is free to do as he likes in this matter, and must remain free to do so. To lose that freedom would be a serious curtailment of the papal power.

Is the plot a real plot? In that certain people have gathered over their cappuccinos and discussed it, yes; that a delegation will form and go to the Pope telling him to go, as has been the fate of several British prime ministers, I doubt it. The precedent that that would create is simply too dangerous. And Pope Francis shows no sign of giving up, or even slowing down. He has, however, been a Pope of surprises, and may surprise us all again.