Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Cardinalate's 80-Year Rule—A Critique

[July 15, 2023] Most Catholics are familiar with the rule that cardinals lose their right to vote in papal conclaves if they turn 80 before the papal throne falls vacant. [1] This rule comes from Paul VI's 1970 motu proprio Ingravascentem Aetatemwhich stated that cardinals "lose the right to elect the Roman Pontiff and therefore also the right to enter the Conclave" upon the completion of their eightieth year. [2] According to the motu proprio, this rule was instituted because—

the greater good of the Church demands that we consider the problem of advanced age also in relation to the eminent office of Cardinal, for which we have shown special concern several times in the past. Indeed, it is an office with particularly serious and delicate tasks. [3]
Such a rule has no precedent anywhere in Catholic tradition. Of course clerics throughout history have ceased from active ministry if age or illness prevented them from carrying out their duties, but this had ever remained a prudential decision to be made on a case by case basis. The effects of age upon bodily health and mental acuity are highly individualized—one man retains physical vigor into his eighties while another is crippled with infirmity in his sixties; one starts to exhibit signs of mental deterioration at middle age while another is sharp as a tack at age ninety. This variation makes it difficult to establish a single age at which a man is incapable of carrying out clerical duties. This is, presumably, why the Church had never historically enforced any such limit.

Why, then, did Paul VI think this innovation was necessary? In this article, we will review the legislative background and rationale for the decree of Ingravascentem Aetatem and then offer some critiques of the current discipline.

I. Precedents: Christus Dominus & Ecclesiae Sanctae

Ingravascentem Aetatem cites two documents for its precedential authority and a third by way of comparison. The first is the Second Vatican Council's 1965 decree Christus Dominus, and the other is Paul VI's 1966 motu proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae. It also mentions the 1968 General Regulation of the Roman Curia. We shall consider each in turn.

Christus Dominus is cited in two places, Sections 21 and 31. These paragraphs say:
21. Since the pastoral office of bishops is so important and weighty, diocesan bishops and others regarded in law as their equals, who have become less capable of fulfilling their duties properly because of the increasing burden of age or some other serious reason, are earnestly requested to offer their resignation from office either at their own initiative or upon the invitation of the competent authority. If the competent authority should accept the resignation, it will make provision both for the suitable support of those who have resigned and for special rights to be accorded them.

31. Pastors who are unable to fulfill their office properly and fruitfully because of the increasing burden of old age or some other serious reason are urgently requested to tender their resignation voluntarily upon the invitation of the bishop. The bishop should provide suitable support for those who have resigned.
Section 21 pertains to bishops and Section 31 to parish priests, but both say the same thing: a minister who, "because of the increasing burden of age or some other serious reason," is unable to fulfill the duties of his office is encouraged to resign or may be "invited" to by the competent authority. No age is stipulated; the criteria for resignation is based upon the prudential judgment that a cleric can no longer fulfill his duties properly.

Ingravescentem Aetatem also cites the 1966 motu proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae of Paul VI, which was issued as a tool for the implementation of four conciliar derees, including Christus Dominus. Ecclesiae Sanctae is cited twice, from Section 11 and Section 20. These paragraph, which reference Christus Dominus, say:
11. That the prescription of No. 21 of the Decree Christus Dominus may be put into effect, all bishops of dioceses and others who are juridically their equals are earnestly requested of their own free will to tender their resignation from office not later than at the completion of their 75th year of age to the competent authority which will make provision after examining all circumstances of individual cases.
20:3 So that the prescription of No. 31 of the Decree Christus Dominus may be carried out all pastors are asked of their own free will to submit their resignation from office to their own bishop not later than at the completion of their 75th year. The bishop will make the decision whether to accept or defer the resignation after considering all circumstances regarding the person and the place. The bishop is to provide suitable support and housing for those who resign.
Here we see that Paul VI has decided that the implementation of Christus Dominus requires a specific age to be mandated for tending resignation, despite the fact that the Council called for no such thing. The limit Paul VI decided upon is the completion of the 75th year for bishops and pastors. 

It should be noted that both Christus Dominus and Ecclesiae Sanctae deal with ordained ministers and their competence to carry out fulfillment of the duties proper to their office. Neither document mentions cardinals.

II. The General Regulation of the Roman Curia

Ingravescentem Aetatem
also refers to the General Regulation of the Roman Curia, an administrative document promulgated by Pope Paul VI in general audience on February 22, 1968. This legislation fixes the retirement age for curial officials at 65 for subalterns, 70 for major and minor officials, and 75 for "superior prelates." [4]

It is important to note that, unlike the two documents referenced above, Ingravescentem Aetatem does not actually cite the General Regulation for precedential authority; it merely refers to it as an example of another place where the age of the clergy had been discussed.

III. The Decree of Ingravescentem Aetatem

Having cited these three documents, Ingravescentem Aetatem goes on to decree that
II. With the completion of the eightieth year of age the Cardinals:
1) cease to be Members of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia and of the other Organisms mentioned in the previous article;
2) they lose the right to elect the Roman Pontiff and therefore also the right to enter the Conclave. However, should it happen that some Cardinal turns eighty during the Conclave, he will continue to enjoy, for that Conclave, the right to elect the Roman Pontiff.
This rule (with minor modifications made by John Paul II in 1996) has been the norm governing who is eligible to sit in a Conclave since its promulgation in 1970.

IV. Critiques

We will now offer five critiques of the legislation of Ingravescentem Aetatem. The purpose of these critiques is not to suggest the current legilsation is "invalid" or any such nonense, but rather to highlight some weaknesses of the current policy in hopes of stimulating further discussion on the issue.

1. Grasping Straws: The Cited Documents Do Not Refer to Cardinals

It is interesting that none of the three documents Ingravescentem Aetatem cites pertain to cardinals. Both Christus Dominus and Ecclesiae Sanctae refer to bishops and parish priests; neither document mentions cardinals or the Sacred College at all. Of course, most cardinals are bishops, but the episcopal office and the cardinalate are distinct. Bishops and priests are degrees of Holy Orders; a cardinal is not a degree of Holy Orders. It is an honorific office conferred by the pope, traditionally designating a certain prelate as an especially important member of the hierarchy by virtue of the importance of the see or the cardinal's personal renown. The aforementioned documents pertain to those exercising pastoral ministry; there is no cardinalate "ministry," as a cardinal is not a type of minister. 

This is not to say the comparison has no relevance; Paul VI is addressing how age affects the duties of office, and even if there is no cardinalate "ministry," cardinals still enjoy specific preogatives distinct from other prelates that could be affected by age. Still, citing documents that pertain specifically to pastoral ministry and extrapolating them to the cardinalate is a bit of a leap.

Even the General Regulation of the Roman Curia does not apply directly to cardinals. Obviously there is more overlap here, since most heads of curial dicasteries are also cardinals, but obviously the cardinalate is distinct from the Roman Curia. Not every cardinal has a curial appointment, and the General Regulation only applies to those curial officials who happen to be cardinals, not to cardinals as such.

There is thus a sense in which Paul VI is grasping for straws in his explanations for the legilsative justification of this rule. Nothing he cites as precedent applies to cardinals save by way of analogy.

2. Dissonant Approach Between Bishops and Cardinals

Bishops are mandated to submit their resignation at age 75, at which point the pope may choose to accept their retirement or retain them in office, a prudential decision made (ideally) based on each bishop's mental and physical vigor. The legislation pertaining to bishops demonstrates flexibility in its acknowledgement that a bishop may still be capable of fulfilling his duties past 75, in which case he may be retained. 

The rule about cardinals losing the right to vote at age 80 contains no such flexibility, however, despite the fact that the situation is the same; an 80 year old man can certainly still be capable of making a rational judgment. A bishop past retirement age may be kept; a cardinal past retirement age may not vote no natter what; he immediately ceases to be a member in all dicasteries and immediatelyloses his right to vote in a Conclave. There is thus a dissonance in the rationale offered between these two cases. 

The burdens of the episcopate are weighty: administering hundreds of parishes with their pastors, budgeting and fundraising to the tune of millions of dollars, planning for the maintenance of the diocese's material resources, performing the pastoral duties of a bishop, etc. If the Church agrees that a man past the standard retirement age can be capable of shouldering this mass of responsibilities, why can it not admit that a man over 80 may be capable of doing something as simple as casting a ballot? If the entire administrative workload of a bishop can be permitted a man past retirement age on a case by case basis, why can't the same be done for something of much lesser burden—merely showing up and casting a vote? And if Ingravescentem Aetatem equivocates on the roles of bishops and cardinals, why does it deviate on this one point? 

3. No Necessary Connection Between Increased Age and Impaired Mental Acuity

It obviously happens that most people's mental acuity slips as they age. As discussed above, this can happen at varying times, or not at all. Some people begin to mentally slip in their seventies, others in their nineties, others not at all. This also happens by varying degrees: a man may be mentally slower in his old age, but not to the degree that it impairs his judgment. He could still be perfectly capable of rendering sound decisions and carrying out the tasks of his office, only he may need a bit more time to do so. 

There is no necessary reason why a cardinal becomes unsuitable as an elector at age 80. It is an arbitrary number compelling all men of this age—regardless of their condition—to simply abdicate their responsibilities on the premise that they are no longer suited to them. I cannot help recall the famous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the Enterprise crew encounters an alien race whose people are expected to all commit suicide at age 60, regardless of their health or competency. The 80-year rule is the forced professional suicide of men based on age alone, many of whom would otherwise still be intellectually suited to vote in conclaves or even hold dicastery positions.

It may be argued that the current discipline is necessary because modern life expectancy has extended beyond what people could expect in the old days. "There may have been no age limits upon prelates in the past," you say, "but that's because people of the past did not regularly live into their nineties." The cardinalate's age restriction is thus a "modern problems call for modern solutions" issue. 

To this we respond that while life expectancy over all has certainly crept up over the centuries, it's not as if mental health declining in old age is new. Way back in the 2nd century B.C., Jesus ben Sirach wrote,
"My son, be steadfast in honoring your father;cdo not grieve him as long as he lives. Even if his mind fails, be considerate of him" (Sir. 3:12-13).
Clearly, people losing their wits with age is not a modern problem. Men may not have lived as long in prior generations, but that's because the ravages of age came upon them all the sooner. A 90 year old man today was comparable in mind and body to a 75 year old man a few centuries ago. Diseases we typically associate with octogenarians once struck sextegenarians. Even though men live longer today, the problem of deteriorating mental and physical vigor in old age is nothing new.

4. Why No Papal Age Limits?

Is it not odd to suggest that a man who has turned 80 is no longer trustworthy to vote for the pope, but the pope himself has no age limits upon his office? We thus have a peculiar situation where becoming the pope is subject to less restrictions than voting for one. I am not suggesting the pope be subject to age restrictions; the Roman Pontiff possesses plenitudo potestatis in the Church and nobody can impose an age limit upon him. I am arguing the opposite: if the supreme power of the pope is not subject to an age limit, the lesser power to vote for the pope ought not be either. Otherwise it seems to suggest that voting for the pope is a weightier responsibility and greater power than being the pope, which would be non-sensical.

5. The Timing of the Document

Paul VI promulgated Ingravescentem Aetatem on November 21, 1970. If you are familiar with the history of the liturgical reform, this should pique your attention, as this date is only nine days before the Novus Ordo Missae was adopted on November 30, 1970 [5]. Is there a correlation between these two dates? Is there a reason Paul VI wanted to restrict who could vote in a papal conclave ahead of the promulgation of what he himself called a "many-side inconvenience" and a "nuisance" that was likely to provoke pushback? [6] It's hard to say; the Novus Ordo had already been promulgated a year prior, but Paul VI may have used the 80-year rule to soldify his new direction against pushback from skeptics.

Consider: In 1970, the Roman Curia still contained cardinals who could have studied for the priesthood under St. Pius X and who were likely ordained under Benedict XV, Pius XI, or Pius XII. It is entirely possible that Paul VI feared that if a sufficient number of these cardinals attempted to roll back post-Conciliar reforms, his agenda could have been derailed by their electing a pope who embodied the spirit of the pre-Conciliar Church. Instituting the 80-year rule with Ingravescentem Aetatem roughly contemperaneous with the implementation of the Novus Ordo would make it impossible for these elder cardinals to have a say in the next Conclave—as well as remove them from the Congregations and Dicasteries chraged with implementing Paul VI's vision. Though admittedly speculative, this critique would make sense of the issues we raised above, simply because the problem of aging was not the "real" reason for the legislation to begin with. Rather, Ingravescentem Aetatem was about neutralizing the electoral power of the old guard. Again, I posit this as theory only, but I think it is not without merit.

V. Conclusion

This article has critiqued the legislation of Ingravescentem Aetatem on a variety of grounds: it has no precdent in Church tradition; it is justified neither by the realities of nodern aging nor by the directives of Vatican II; it demonstrates a canonical incoherence compared to how the ages of bishops, priests, and even the pope are considered; finally, it may be that Ingravescentem Aetatem was not an act of legislation "for the greater good of the Church," but a calculated exercise of Realpolitik by Paul VI for the purpose of neutralizing his curial opponents from electing a restorationist successor. It is also an ironically ageist approach for the Church of accompaniment—nothing says inclusivity like categorically excluding an entire class of people based on their age alone.

Of all the reforms of the post-Conciliar period, the 80-year rule was one of the least necessary and, in my opinion, should be abolished. But what would replace it? 

The episcopal model of a voluntary resignation that is either acepted or rejected by the pope is not ideal, as it would allow the pope to cherry pick which cardinals he wishes to retain as electors and which he wishes to remove. A better option would be to simply go back to the status quo ante: any cardinal capable of physically appearing in Rome for a Conclave is presumed to be of sound mind and body to vote in said Conclave (the question of cardinals' work with the curial dicasteries could be considered separately).

From a practical perspective, however, it might be good to let the provision gradually sunset—for example, if the pontiff after Francis changed the discipline so that the 80 year rule remained in place and expired twenty years dated from the end of Francis's pontificate.

"Even unto your old age I am He, and to your gray hairs will I carry you" (Is. 46:4).


[1] Paul VI originally mandated that Cardinals were disqualified from voting if they turned 80 before the Conclave; in 1996 John Paul II's Universi Dominic Gregis modified this to specify that the Cardinal is only disqualified if he turns 80 before the sede vacante, not the beginning of the Conclave.
[2] Ingravescentem Aetatem, II§2
[3] Ibid, Introduction
[4] General Regulation of the Roman Curia, Title X, Art. 101§1
[5] While Paul VI ordered the Novus Ordo to be implemented on Nov. 30, 1969 per "Missale Romanum" (April 3, 1969), in most places its adoption was delayed until 1970 due to lack of books, the unsuitability of the initial Missale, lack of organization on the part of the episcopal conferences, and other logistical reasons.
[6] See Paul VI, "Changes in Mass for Greater Apostolate," Sec. 4-5, Dec. 4, 1969. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another bad ruling by Paul the 6th. This effectively banished a perspective from the 1800’s vested in the elderly cardinals with a remembrance of past historical horrors. The old adage, history is bound to repeat if the past is forgotten.