It is a sobering thought to think that the last time a Pope resigned (Pope Gregory XII in 1415), America had not yet been discovered. Yes, the possibility of a Pope’s resignation is anticipated in Canon Law (Canon 332), as long as it is disclosed “properly” and of his own free will. Pope Benedict met both the conditions in his statement earlier today to the consistory.
Three things are worth noting:
1) Even from before his election as Pope, Ratzinger has seen himself as frail; during his reign, he paced himself with his work load, trips, and meetings. This, despite the fact that he evidently comes from a family that enjoys longevity.
2) Usually, conclaves take place after a period of mourning for the deceased pontiff. It is a time of prayer and reflection, to be sure, but also a time of informal conversations among the cardinals as to who can best serve the Church as successor to St. Peter. This time, such conversations will take place with a different backdrop, and theoretically at least, the conclave could take place soon after the resignation. I would imagine we will have a Pope elected by Easter.
3) Anyone who tells you there is a “front-runner” simply does not know what he is talking about. The ripening period for “papabili” to emerge has just begun, though were I forced to identify one or two possibilities, I would look at the Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet (head of the Congregation of Bishops), or Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan (the Italians very much want the papacy back), or even Cardinal George Pell from Australia. If we are hoping for an American, of course, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan would be great.
— Father Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute and the author, most recently, of Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy.