Do we have a pope? Do we even have a movie?
The premise for Nanni Moretti’s lightweight comedy/drama Habemus Papam or We Have a Pope is an intriguing one: What if a newly elected pope had a panic attack after accepting his election, feeling overwhelmed and unable to lead, or even to appear at the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and give his first Urbi et Orbi blessing, and retreated into the depths of the Apostolic Palace?
I’m not talking about a momentary emotional breakdown. The election process provides for that: Adjacent to the Sistine Chapel is the Room of Tears, to which the the newly elected pope retreats after accepting his election in order to don the white papal robes for the first time, be alone with God, collect his thoughts, and freak out as necessary before composing himself and preparing for his first public appearance as pope.
I’m talking about an emotional paralysis lasting days, weeks or even longer. In the film, the newly elected pope, a surprise choice named Cardinal Melville, accepts his election in a momentary daze while his fellow cardinals regale him with spontaneous Gregorian chant, but then loses it completely just after the cardinal protodeacon (who introduces the new pope) has made the “Habemus papam” (“We have a pope”) proclamation, but before the new pope’s name has been announced.
What then? What indeed? The new pope says he needs “more time.” How much more? Hours become days become weeks. Clearly, the conclave chose the wrong man … but what happens as a result? How should fallout from the mistake be handled?
In my review I discuss some of the complications that follow in the film, as well as some of the things that ought to follow. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t explore the consequences of its premise with much imagination. As a result, I’m left feeling that the original question is more interesting than any of the movie’s half-baked riffing.
What ought to happen in a situation like this? A few obvious considerations from my review:
Obviously, the pope should pray — and his colleagues should pray, and urge him to pray — that God give him grace and guidance to do what he ought. If he believes he is called to the papacy, he should disregard his feelings and, well, pope up. Or, if he’s convinced beyond question that he can’t do it, he should resign — immediately and quietly — and let the conclave elect a new successor.
There are other potential considerations. First, was the pope’s acceptance of his election deliberate and free? Was he too stunned to know what he was saying? Or might he perhaps have felt somehow coerced by his fellow cardinals unexpectedly breaking out into Gregorian chant? If his acceptance was not deliberate and free, then he isn’t the pope.
On the other hand, the determination that the pope’s acceptance was not free cannot be made on the pope’s behalf by someone else. Either he must come to that conclusion himself, or he must be presumed to be the pope.
Likewise, the decision to resign would have to be the pope’s own decision. The Church has no mechanism for deposing a living pope unless such arrangements have been made in advance by that very pope himself. For example, Pope Pius XII provided that if he were ever unable to exercise his papal office -- for example, if he were captured by Nazis, as the Third Reich was later revealed to have actively considered, or if he descended into dementia -- he would be considered to have resigned, and a new pope could be elected.
However, popes cannot be bound by their predecessors in this regard, so any such arrangements must be made by each pope for his own reign. As long as a legitimately elected pope has made no such provision, he cannot be deposed. And if he also refuses to lead, as Melville does, then the Church would be in a painful situation.
The Church could continue to function in spite of the pope’s self-imposed inaction, more or less as it does in an interregnum period between papacies. Even in his impaired state, the bishop of Rome would continue to function as a visible sign of the Church’s unity, and Catholic churches around the world would include the pope in the prayers at Mass, especially the last part of the Te Igitur, as a crucial expression of their Catholic unity. (How crucial? Omission of this prayer is prima facie evidence of schism.)
Happily, the situation in the film doesn’t come to that extreme, though the resolution is very badly handled in a way guaranteed to cause maximum consternation and confusion to the faithful. As a result, the film ultimately feels like a waste of time.