Can Someone Refuse to Be Elected Pope?

18 Feb
St. Philip Benizi

St. Philip Benizi

It is possible to decline the responsibility of becoming the next Pope. There are many instances of prominent cardinals who have made it clear during the conclave that they would not accept if elected.

One famous case is that of St. Philip Benizi. When he learned that he was being considered for the papacy in 1271, he ran away and hid until the cardinals elected somebody else! Usually, though, the newly elected Pope accepts this office as God’s will for him.

In his 1996 apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis, Pope John Paul II made the following heartfelt plea to those elected after him:

“I . . . ask the one who is elected not to refuse, for fear of its weight, the office to which he has been called, but to submit humbly to the design of the divine will. God who imposes the burden will sustain him with his hand, so that he will be able to bear it. In conferring the heavy task upon him, God will also help him to accomplish it and, in giving him the dignity, he will grant him the strength not to be overwhelmed by the weight of his office” (no. 86).

Once a papal candidate has been elected according to the procedure provided by Church law, the dean of the college of cardinals asks for his consent in the following words: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” And, as soon as he has received the consent, he asks him: “By what name do you wish to be called?” (Universi Dominici Gregis, nos. 87-88).

So the process itself makes clear that even after his election, the papal nominee is free to withhold his consent and refuse this office. Only upon giving his consent does he become the new Pope, assuming (as is usually the case) that he has already received ordination as a bishop.

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