In the last few weeks we’ve learned all about the ins and outs of papal resignation, and the Catholic Church’s process for choosing a new pope. But what about firing the guy? Reader Gabrielle wrote in to ask: “Can a pope be ousted? And has it happened before?”
While you do have to wear the funny hat, being pope has its benefits. There’s the popemobile, the fancy throne, and pretty good job security. The pope can’t be fired like any old schlep down at the widget factory. The Code of Canon Law, the collected laws and regulations of the Church, doesn’t provide any avenues for, or even hint at the possibility of, removing a pope from power.
Which kind of makes sense. The position was, after all, created by Jesus (“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”), a guy who the Church takes pretty seriously. Plus, there’s no separation of powers in the Church, and the pope doesn’t have a boss—at least, according to the Catholics, not an earthly one. The Code of Canon Law says that “by virtue of his office he [the pope] possesses supreme, full, immediate and universally ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.” The College of Cardinals elects new popes, but they don’t have hiring and firing powers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the “body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, as its head” and that their “power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff.” So, unless the pope agrees that he has to go, it seems that the cardinals' hands are tied.
While you can’t fire the pope from his job, there have been a handful of pontiffs throughout history that have been removed by means that cross regular papal succession with Game of Thrones and The Sopranos. Otto the Great, one of the Holy Roman Emperors, deposed both John XII and Benedict V after using his army to blockade Rome. Benedict VI, installed by Otto, was deposed by Crescentius the Elder and other Roman politicians who were tired of the Empire interfering in papal elections; Crescentius was later murdered in prison. After papal candidates Benedict IX, Sylvester III, and Gregory VI all attempted to claim the office at the same time, German King Henry III intervened, formed the Council of Sutri, and deposed or encouraged all three of them to resign. Centuries later, the Council of Constance also ended a power struggle between multiple popes, known as the Western Schism, by deposing or urging resignation from the various claimants. Still other popes were removed by competing claimants, or died in office under mysterious circumstances and suspected foul play.