Sede Vacante in History and Canon Law

Author: Manuel Jesus Arroba Conde

Sede Vacante in History and Canon Law

Manuel Jesus Arroba Conde

For an analysis of the norms that discipline ecclesiastical offices

The following are translated excerpts from an intervention given in Italian by the President of the 'Institum Utriusque Iuris' of the Pontifical Lateran University, during a round table on Benedict XVI's renunciation of the papacy, held at the said University on 26 February [2013].

The concept of sede vacante expresses the condition of an ecclesiastical office that is vacant when the person to whom it belongs is lacking. "Office" is the juridical term that describes permanent institutional duties predisposed for the service of the life and mission of the Church. These include the functions of authority at the various levels. The use of the term "office" in relation to the personal — and not collegial — authority of the incumbents is important. It is described as a "personal" power because it structures the ecclesial community: the episcopal see, for the office of a diocesan bishop, and the Roman Apostolic See for the office of Roman Pontiff. The juridical condition of the vacancy of the see affects the ecclesial service that goes with it, whose essential tasks must continue, with marks that make sense of this extraordinary situation and describe the type of power of those in charge in the "interim" period.

These marks may be understood better if they are compared with another two situations: sede plena and sede impedita. Sede plena is the condition characterized by the exercise of ordinary and immediate power by the person to whom it belongs; in the case of the Roman Pontiff this ordinary, immediate and proper power, in the sede plena, also has the marks of supreme and universal power (with immediacy not only for Rome).

Sede impedita — described only for the episcopal see — is the condition of the total impossibility of exercising the function when, by reason of captivity, banishment, exile, or incapacity a diocesan bishop is clearly prevented from fulfilling his pastoral function in the diocese, so that he is not able to communicate with those in his diocese even by letter. In this circumstance the Holy See or ecclesial law may then provide ad casum personal figures predesignated for the succession, or others, foreseen by the bishop himself and to be renewed at least every three years.

For the Roman See, however, it is called a see entirely (prorsus) impeded and for juridical purposes is identified with the vacant see regulated by special laws. In doctrine the principle nihil innovetur [let there be no innovations] is usually explained in direct relation to the irreplaceable figure of the person to whom the office belongs. Thus, in our case, concerning what is subject to stricter protection — the norms of the successor's election — the basis is fidelity to what was established by his predecessors. With regard to the other things, the aim is to avoid jeopardizing the new pope's freedom.

This situation is explained in the context of an ecclesiology such as that of Trent, where a diocese's condition as a vacant see was compared to the condition of a minor entrusted to a guardian who acts in the minor's name without being able to prejudice his rights; he is only standing in the stead of the person who holds the office, meant in turn as the holder of the rights of the episcopal see. I think it is a weak formulation, not only in the context of the ecclesiology of communion of the Second Vatican Council, but also in the light of history, which offered the first traces of the principle from the third century, on the death of Pope Fabian in 250, frequently recurring for every episcopal see, although with a normative value that was only formulated in the compilation ordered by Innocent in and introduced later in the Decretals of Gregory IX (1234).

For the Roman See it is expressed only in the Codex iuris canonici of 1983, but in fact was already implicit de facto in specific deliberations. If we look at the special object of the prohibition of renewing the electoral norms, I believe that the lesson of history — which underwent continuous modifications on this point, including those of the recent pontiffs, almost always diametrically opposed to those of their immediate predecessor — goes in a different direction. I would dare to relate the good of the Church to three values which went through different stages.

The first value is freedom, especially in relation to interference by civil authorities, obviously with changes according to the circumstances of each century, which range from the imperial confirmations after Justinian's Pragmatic Sanction to the protected autonomy of the Carolingian epoch, passing through the Investiture Controversy.

Then there was the unity of the Church, put to the test by the election of two Popes. Initially unanimity was prescribed, then the Lateran Council III established the two thirds rule. However, in the 13th century election by popular acclaim was likewise foreseen, despite the decline in the participation of the Roman people. None of this occurred without conflicts between factions, both national and of families, each with their own interests.

The third point is the authenticity of the ministerial nature of the papal office. In this regard the Dictatus papae with the Gregorian reform was particularly relevant. That is, the spiritual quality of the Pontiff was sought, for which the reduction of his temporal power and of the Papal States was a very important event. The measures of the vow of secrecy and the nullity of the vote for oneself correspond to the preservation of authenticity and the fight against ambition.

The fact that the vacant see is the result of a renunciation has no normative value. There is no normative vacuum nor can rarity be understood as in opposition to normality, even the specific normality of every vacant see.

The rarity consists solely of the infrequency of renunciations of the Petrine ministry. Certain cases of renunciation were the result of pressure, even though it was exerted for the good of the Church. The renunciation of Celestine V is the closest to the renunciation of Benedict XVI but is not identical. Celestine V referred to the good of the Church but also to his personal desire for a more perfect contemplative life. In a hierarchizing ecclesiological context he had to request enlightenment and to make express arrangements concerning the legitimacy of the renunciation. Lastly there was a conflict between those who considered it impossible, since there was no superior to whom to present it for acceptance, and those who considered it consistent with the unlimited nature of papal power, which would also include the power to renounce.

Only a few 13th century decretists hypothesized the possibility of renunciation for reasons of old age or illness. Boniface VIII, the Successor of Celestine V, introduced this clarification in the body of his norms (the Liber Sextus).

Moreover, in a context of ecclesiology of communion, among the ways in which the vacancy of an office occurs renunciation itself affords the clearest opportunity to express the nature of the ministry and service of offices of authority — in a special way in the case of the pontiff, since the renunciation is linked exclusively to his freely-made decision.

Instead, in the case of bishops, renunciation is linked to age and to a norm of law which is only seemingly established in terms that are not strictly binding. This free decision is in fact for the good of the Church, after an examination before God of their conscience and their strength, with regard to their ability to carry out their service adequately.

The canonical aspects are not exhausted in a literal reading of normative measures; they are integrated into contexts which make the most of their meaning. Thus, in this precise circumstance of a vacant see, in addition to the values of freedom, unity and ministerial authenticity which justify the principle of non-innovation and other regulations — starting with the prohibition of secret negotiations and so forth — I think special mention should also be made of the need to guarantee — in the Petrine ministry as well — the centrality of the norma missionis [the precept of mission].

This norm does not nullify the person of the one called to this service which is indeed strengthened through the consistence of his own conscience. Yet the mission demands the humility to shun personifications of the ministry and at the same time the readiness for renewal.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 March 2013, page 5

For subscriptions:
Online: L'Osservatore Romano

Or write to:
Weekly Edition in English
00120 Vatican City State