The pope is the head of the Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome. He has supreme authority over the Church and serves until his death or resignation. This raises an interesting question – can a pope be removed from office against his will by the Catholic Church?
The short answer is no. There are no provisions in canon law for the involuntary removal of a pope. The pope cannot be impeached or recalled. However, there are some limited ways a pope’s reign can end prematurely:
A pope may choose to resign, as Pope Benedict XVI did in 2013. This is an entirely voluntary act on the part of the pope.
A pope’s reign ends upon his death. There have been 264 popes since St. Peter, and all vacated their office by death except for the few who resigned.
Declaring the Pope Mentally Incapacitated
If a pope became mentally incapacitated, the College of Cardinals could declare the pope’s see “impeded,” effectively ending his reign. However, this has never been invoked in the history of the papacy.
If a pope were to commit heresy, defined as “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith,” he would automatically lose his office. But this has never happened.
Overall, the pope has enormous protections from being involuntarily removed. As the Vicar of Christ, he occupies an unparalleled position of power and authority in the Catholic Church. Barring resignation, death, incapacitation, or apostasy, a pope cannot be forcibly stripped of his status once elevated to the papacy. This provides stability for the Church but also means a pope must act with wisdom and restraint, as there are limited options for his early removal if he strays from his mandate.
† PRAYER FOR THE POPE †
O God, who in your providential design willed that your Church be built upon blessed Peter, whom you set over the other Apostles, look with favor, we pray, on (name) our Pope and grant that he, whom you have made Peter’s successor,
may be for your people a visible source and foundation of unity in faith and of communion. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.