Can the pope be fired?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 17 2010 5:41 PM

You're Defrocked!

Can the pope be fired?

Pope Benedict XVI. Click image to expand.
Pope Benedict XVI

The Vatican is fending off accusations that Pope Benedict XVI helped cover up sexual child abuse in the Catholic Church when he was archbishop of Munich and Freising in the 1970s and '80s. If more evidence turns up against Pope Benedict, can the church fire him?

No. The Code of Canon Law has no provision that allows a pope's removal from office— for any reason, even poor health or psychological trauma. That's because, according to church law, there is no higher authority than the pope: He "possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely." A pope may resign, but his resignation must be "made freely," and he doesn't have to tender his resignation to any particular authority. (The last pope to resign was Gregory XII, who did so in 1415 to end the battle for the papacy known as the Western schism.)

As for other Catholic authorities: Bishops can be removed by the Congregation of Bishops, although there's no formal process. And pastors can be removed by bishops for just about any reason, including "infirmity of mind or body," "loss of a good reputation," or "grave neglect" of parochial duties.

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Can the pope face prosecution under secular law? No. The pope is immune from prosecution under the local laws of the Vatican. It's also a principle of customary international law that heads of state enjoy immunity from prosecution. That includes the pope, who is both the head of the church and the head of Vatican City. When three plaintiffs sued the pope in Texas court in 2005 for allegedly helping cover up their molestation by a priest in Houston, the U.S. Justice Department urged the court to dismiss the suit on grounds that the pope enjoys immunity as head of state of the Holy See and that such a lawsuit would be "incompatible with the United States' foreign policy interests." It's possible that once a head of state leaves office, he can become liable for crimes committed before he took office, since sovereign immunity applies to leaders only while they're head of state or to acts performed as a head of state. However, the pope almost never retires, so he's unlikely ever to face prosecution.

There have, of course, been a few exceptions to the sovereign-immunity rule—namely, the trial of Manuel Noriega in the United States, the arrest of Augusto Pinochet in the United Kingdom (he was never prosecuted), and the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes at The Hague. But these cases were extreme—Milosevic, for example, was indicted on charges of genocide—and unlikely to serve as precedent for a papal prosecution.

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Explainer thanks Robert John Araujo of Loyola University, Thomas Green of Catholic University, Ladislas Orsy of Georgetown University, and Edward Peters of Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.