As more and more people wonder about PF's mental health, I have decided to reprint a piece I published about six months ago.
I think PF will soon be 82 years old. Since more and more voices world-wide seem to be talking about the possibility of this pontificate coming to a conclusion, I have been looking through the age-at-death of recent Roman Pontiffs. According to the rough notes I have made on the back of an old envelope next to my computer, the following ages, since Pius XI inclusively, seem at least roughly right [I excluded Pope John Paul I, the one-month pontiff]:
Pius XI, 82; Pius XII, 82; John XXIII, 82; Paul VI, 82; John Paul II, 85. [Benedict XVI was elected at the age of 78 and five years later is still 'making his pilgrimage home'.]
It would be interesting to know how long popes from before this period lived. A priori, it might be expected to be less long, because they had less advantage from modern medical advances. But I don't have enough backs-of-envelopes ...
I do not intend to suggest that an actuary would consider PF's death to be imminent ... although his own words after election, that he expected his pontificate to be only four or five years long, might suggest that he had himself used the backs of his own envelopes! No; my object is totally different.
(1) Conclaves seem very willing to elect quite old prelates to be pope. Curious, when the retirement age for bishops is 75; and, curiouser, one might have thought that bishops had less work and less strain than popes ... but, well, there you go.
(2) We seem to be in the middle of increases in the numbers of the elderly suffering from senile dementia. A quick foray into the Internet suggested to the back of my very humble envelope that perhaps one in six of those beyond the age of 80 has dementia. That really is quite a lot.
So it looks as if we have been distinctly fortunate in the excellent mental health of those elected pope from 1922 right down to the present. Long may our good luck hold!
But can we afford to be complacent? Given statistics like these, and if Conclaves keep electing old men, sooner or later we are going to have a pope with dementia.
If a bishop starts to have worrying symptoms, the Nuncio ... his Metropolitan ... the Congregation for Bishops ... the Pope himself ... all have the opportunity to intervene. But what if the Pope himself ...
Is there canonical provision for such a situation? If not, I think there should be. And, as Fr Aidan Nichols has hinted, there might also be provisions for the situation where the man who was the previous pope promoted heresy; so why not for a pope who, prima facie, is spreading heresy?.
In fact, it seems to me that there should be a whole new section in the CIC called de Romano Pontifice semovendo. The Times recently quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr as remarking that a constitution should be framed with "the bad man" in mind, because a state or an institution needs structures enabling it not merely to potter comfortably along in normal times, but also to survive a despot, or a sociopath, or a dunce ...
The Church Militant needs to take such advice on board. Her survival is indeed divinely guaranteed, but the whole economy of Faith rests on the assumption of a God who works with and through human synergy.