What Happens if the Pope Goes Senile? (And Doesn’t Retire?)

(In case this shows up on Twitter or Facebook: this post is from 2005. I’m just publishing old posts that went unpublished, but should have been published…)


“The Pope’s health is not good.” Again, or is it still?

What would happen if the Pope was completely batty from Alzheimer’s Syndrome or something? Not to wish it upon him, but the article I linked to said it’s impossible for the Pope to be asked to resign, though he may step down if he so chooses. (No pope has done so, however, according to the article, since the 13th Century.)

Well, what if he did go completely batty from Alzheimer’s Syndrome? Sure, many Catholics will smile and just claim it could never happen, because he’d a wise enough man to step down before it got to that stage. But you know, Alzheimer’s a tricky thing, and people often don’t know when they’re going. They develop strategies for coping with it and people often go into denial until the conclusion is inescapable that someone is actually suiffering from Alzheimer’s, and anyway, it’s common enough:

The cumulative incidence of Alzheimer’s disease has been estimated to be as high as 4.7 percent by age 70, 18.2 percent by age 80 and 49.6 percent by age 90.

[Though, as the article goes on to note, people with lower educational levels, people with a history of head trauma, and women are all more likely to get it than the Pope.]

What happens when a senile pope rules the Vatican? Do those in his confidence simply take over? Does he “die” in some kind of “accident”? Is it declared that he stated a wish to retire, but has since forgotten it? In fact, what about the Pope who states a wish to retire, forgets it, claims he never did so, and the only person he declared it to sat on it for a few days? And what if, in the interim, the Pope starts suddenly changing positions, declaring all kinds of things that he’d never have said ten years before? What happens to Papal Infallibility, if nobody knows that the Pope has retired? Does the statement of the intention to retire translate into actual retirement? Does Infallibility go out the window? What the hell happens? That, I imagine, would be an incredibly interesting—though not comfortable—time to be a member of the Vatican.

Actually, this is such a funny idea I’m actually considering not posting it, but turning it into fiction. Hmm. Well, I could always do both. But I wonder if any Catholics have any idea whether there is in fact a contingency for this situation? After all, it’s not the 13th century anymore, and people are routinely living long enough to be highly likely to develop some kind of condition affecting their mind, by that age.

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