Yesterday's elevation of new cardinals by Pope John Paul II increases the number of men who will vote on his eventual successor. Since John Paul is 80 and ailing, can he resign and allow them to choose the next pope now?
Popes can retire--the official word is abdicate--but the last wholly voluntary abdication took place in 1294. That was by Celestine V, a hermit who hated being pope and resigned after less than four months in office. There have been a handful of other, more controversial abdications (Was the removal forced? Was the pope legitimate?), and the last one of these was in 1415.
Just because no pope has abdicated for hundreds of years doesn't mean that a resignation by John Paul isn't much discussed. One of the men he elevated to cardinal, Karl Lehmann of Germany, suggested in a radio interview that because of his health, John Paul might consider stepping down. But John Paul has given no indication that he wants to be around for the party to celebrate the selection of the 263rd pope. As for what happens if a pope becomes permanently incapacitated, there is currently no mechanism for removing him from office. After a pope does die and before a successor is chosen, a cardinal is designated to oversee the day-to-day administration of the Vatican, but he is not considered to have papal authority.
Explainer thanks Bruce Miller of the Catholic University of America and Dr. Lawrence Cunningham of the University of Notre Dame.