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Pontifical canon lawyers working on draft of new norms for handling hypothetical vacancy of Apostolic See

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Retired Pope Benedict XVI talks with Pope Francis during a meeting at the Vatican in this June 30, 2015, file photo. While papal resignation is provided for in canon law, it's not specifically regulated. An effort has been launched by some canon lawyers to hash out proposals to regulate it. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — During a lengthy radio interview aired Sept. 1, Pope Francis denied reporters’ rumors of a presumed retirement, saying the idea of resigning “didn’t even cross my mind” after his surgery in July.

“I don’t know where they got it from … that I was going to resign,” said the pope, who also listed a slate of trips he is planning for the rest of the year.

So while that brief summer saga got put to bed, there’s much that is still keeping canonists up at night: the many lingering doctrinal, juridical and theological questions concerning a pope’s resignation as well as what to do when the Apostolic See is impeded — due to a severely disabling illness or other conditions.

“A group of canonists has noted these normative gaps and, fearing that they could cause such sensitive contingencies, giving rise to uncertainties or disagreements, the group has been working together for several months on drafting two plans” of suggested norms, said Geraldina Boni.

These legislative proposals will be published on a new interactive online platform — set to go live sometime in September — “to invite all scholars around the world to offer their contribution with the aim of improving” their ideas, she told Catholic News Service Sept. 1 in an email response to questions.

Pope Francis meets retired Pope Benedict XVI after opening the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in this Dec. 8, 2015, file photo. While papal resignation is provided for in canon law, it’s not specifically regulated. An effort has been launched by some canon lawyers to hash out proposals to regulate it. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

“At the end of this common effort of juridical science, but also theological etc., the plans will be presented to the supreme legislator (the pope), so that it may be of some benefit, if he sees fit,” said Boni — a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and professor of canon law at the University of Bologna‘s “Alma Mater Studiorum.”

The Studium’s School of Canon Law was founded in the mid-12th century by the Camaldolese monk and jurist Gratian — the so-called father of canon law who created the foundation for the future “Corpus Juris Canonici” (Body of Canon Law) —¬† which gathered 1,000 years of ecclesiastical legal texts that had never been rigorously analyzed before; it was used by the church until the 1917 Code of Canon Law went into effect.

Just as Gratian helped develop a way for law to keep up with the changing times, today’s scholars can come together with this “virtual” project to provide meticulous study and careful discernment “to support the soundness of a well-developed juridical response” that meets with a “broad based and heartfelt reception, which is something every canonical norm should aspire to,” Boni said in a recent essay.

She authored the 60-page “A proposal for a law — crafted from the collaboration of canonical scholarship — on the entirely impeded Roman See and the resignation of a pope,” which was published in the online journal, www.statoechiese.it, in mid-July. In it, she appealed for an “urgent and unpostponable” development of needed legislation and outlined detailed suggestions.

Currently, there are rules for dealing with the vacancy of the Apostolic See, but there are still no special laws governing what to do if the see becomes impeded, which is a serious gap.

Renouncing the papacy is canonically provided for:

— “If it happens that the Roman pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone” (Canon 332, Paragraph 2).

— The Roman pontiff, as the supreme pastor of the church, “is always joined in communion with the other bishops and with the universal church. He nevertheless has the right, according to the needs of the church, to determine the manner, whether personal or collegial, of exercising this office” (Canon 333, Paragraph 3).

However, there are no norms regarding the canonical status, powers, rights, title and insignia of a retired pope, said Carlo Fantappi√®, professor of canon law at Rome’s Roma Tre University.

In response to questions from CNS, Fantappi√® referred to his still relevant study, “Historical-juridical reflections on papal resignation and its consequences,” published in the journal “Storia e Chiesa” in 2014.

[Code of Canon Law]

“Since there is no legislation, canonists and theologians are forced to search for possible precedents in history and in Catholic doctrine” or to elaborate other forms of reflection in order to “frame and settle the different hypotheses” that experts have come up with, he wrote.

What’s needed is “a synthesis that harmonizes the achievements of the past with a deepening of the meaning of the petrine primacy and its future forms of exercise,” he wrote.

The new online “open forum” may be one way to work toward that.

Boni said, “The canonists who launched the initiative wish to draw attention to the content of the plans (on the online platform) so that, once they have been definitively elaborated through extensive dialogue and discussion, they represent the shared fruit of the active cooperation of all scholars.”

Insisting on getting norms and laws formulated and established is not about trying to create a “functionalistic, bureaucratic and efficient conception of the church or one that despises the sacred value of human life” that has become aged or infirm, she said.

Like all jurists, this group of experts is trying to show how the law “can prevent conflicts and settle disagreements, but even just manage the messiness of any controversies or simple impasses,” Boni said.

“Times have changed rapidly, and norms must take account of these changes,” she said.

“Even canon law — which traditionally evolves very slowly — must readily conform to the reality of human life in order to guide the solution of the problems that inevitably arise toward justice,” she said.