Vatican rumors: Three Popes walk into a bar ...

AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

Color me skeptical about these rumors, but they do seem to be persistent. The Catholic Church hasn’t seen three popes in the flesh for centuries, and that precedent seems much more cautionary than encouraging. Still, the health issues that have become obvious in Pope Francis — as well as his travel schedule this summer — have stoked speculation that we may see a conclave in the near future:

Speculation that the 85-year-old might follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Benedict XVI and step down from his post was prompted in early May when he appeared in public using a wheelchair for the first time, after undergoing a minor operation to treat knee pain.

It gained momentum when he made the unusual decision to host a consistory on 27 August to create new cardinals, some of whom will be eligible to elect the pontiff’s successor at the next conclave.

The next day, Francis will travel to L’Aquila, the Abruzzo town ravaged by an earthquake in 2009, for the Perdonanza Celestiniana festival, during which he will visit the cathedral that hosts of the tomb of Celestine V, a hermit pope who resigned in 1294 after just five months in the job. Benedict also visited the tomb in 2009, leaving behind his pallium stole in what some commentators at the time said was a symbolic gesture ahead of his own resignation, which came in 2013.

“It’s very odd to have a consistory in August, there’s no reason that he needs to call this [event] three months in advance and then go to L’Aquila in the middle of it,” said Robert Mickens, the Rome-based editor of the English-language edition of La Croix, a Catholic daily newspaper.

NBC News also reports that the rumors have been “rife” on Italian and Catholic media, and are only now breaking into the mainstream media. They also focus on the pontiff’s recent additions to the consistory, which will be official at roughly the same time as his visit to L’Aquila:

Those rumors gained steam last week when Francis announced a consistory to create 21 new cardinals scheduled for Aug. 27. Sixteen of those cardinals are under age 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave to elect Francis’ successor.

Once they are added to the ranks of princes of the church, Francis will have stacked the College of Cardinals with 83 of the 132 voting-age cardinals. While there is no guarantee how the cardinals might vote, the chances that they will tap a successor who shares Francis’ pastoral priorities become ever greater.

In announcing the Aug. 27 consistory, Francis also announced he would host two days of talks the following week to brief the cardinals about his recent apostolic constitution reforming the Vatican bureaucracy. That document, which goes into effect Sunday, allows women to head Vatican offices, imposes term limits on priestly Vatican employees and positions the Holy See as an institution at the service of local churches, rather than vice versa.

Francis was elected pope in 2013 on a mandate to reform the Roman Curia. Now that the nine-year project has been rolled out and at least partially implemented, Francis’ main task as pope has in some ways been accomplished.

“In some ways” may be doing more work here than it suggests. It’s taken quite a while for Francis’ reforms to take shape, and “in some ways” they have yet to be fully implemented. His overall plan only got unveiled in March in “Praedicate Evangelium,” and the actions have barely gotten underway. Fr. Thomas Reese noted three months ago that it looks more like a good start rather than mission accomplished:

It consolidates several offices, opens major roles to laity and urges greater decentralization. “The Roman Curia,” the document states, “does not stand between the pope and the bishops, but rather places itself at the service of both in ways that are proper to the nature of each.”

The Vatican bureaucracy has always had a reputation for moving at a glacial pace because of bureaucratic inertia and a general opposition to change. Every Vatican bureaucrat has traditionally opposed reform, or any reduction in his responsibilities and power, citing his familiarity with the issues and the likelihood that change will cause catastrophic problems.

Curial reform is also slow because the Vatican still foolishly thinks that its organizational plan should be permanent, written in stone for the ages, rather than written in pencil so that it can be modified whenever necessary. …

“Praedicate Evangelium” is a step forward, then, but much remains to be done. The Vatican needs a department of justice to investigate financial crimes and crimes against persons. It needs a clearer separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers. It needs clearer procedures for consultation and transparency.

Francis has tried to reform the culture and organization of the Vatican, but like the church, it should be “semper reformanda” — always reforming.

Even if Pope Francis sees this as a final reform plan, though, he’s hardly had time to ensure its complete implementation. In secular governments, reorganizations take time and can easily be reversed if leadership changes. In a two-millennia-old institution like the Catholic Church, we’re talking decades at a minimum. (We’re still working through Vatican II, for instance, let alone St. John Paul II’s 1988 curia reform.) If the pontiff left by way of retirement so soon after issuing this document, he would essentially leave this to the mercy of a successor — and there’s no guarantee that a successor would follow this plan, even if the retiring pope has appointed a significant number of voting cardinals to select his successor.

Furthermore, do not underestimate the impact that the novelty of two popes has had on the Catholic Church. It took years to work through some of the confusion and protocols involved in Benedict XVI’s retirement, and there is still some debate about whether such retirements should be legitimized while the current pope is still competent enough to do the job. Francis has mobility issues due to pain, but his infirmity is not cognitive or mental. Indeed, as his Praedicate Evangelium appears to attest, Pope Francis appears vital in terms of his cognitive abilities as well as his passion for reforming the Vatican curia.

If nothing else, the bureaucratic and protocol snarls of having three popes living at the same time rather than two would complicate and likely delay Francis’ efforts at reform, if not derail them altogether. It could result in the creation of de facto multiple curiae that would exist with three popes, even on a smaller scale. If Francis continued to publish as Benedict XVI has in retirement, it would create yet another level of potential conflict of voices as well.

Pope Francis no doubt sees this, and if not his advisers will recognize the potential pitfalls — having had to live through the stresses of the two-pope era. That’s why I’d treat these rumors with a great deal of skepticism, not to mention that the current pontiff’s main project is only now getting under way.