Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, who’s now 83 and who’s held just about every Vatican position there is at one point or another over his long career, revealed last week that Pope St. John Paul II once showed him two letters of resignation Pope Paul VI had left behind in case he was struck by a disabling condition, and was incapable of acting to spare the Church the paralysis that would otherwise ensue.

“Paul VI was worried about a possible future disability, a grave impediment that wouldn’t allow him to carry out his ministry,” Cardinal Re said, “and he wanted to be ready.”

That’s not just idle speculation coming from Cardinal Re, since he’s one of the legendary “widows of Benelli,” meaning an aide to Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who was Pope Paul’s right-hand man as his sostituto, or “substitute,” in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

In truth, Cardinal Re’s “revelation” is more akin to a confirmation, because we’ve known for 16 years that Pope Paul kept such a resignation letter in his desk, after Bishop Pasquale Macchi, the pope’s former priest-secretary, published his 2001 book “Paolo VI Nella Sua Parola” (“Paul VI in His Own Words”).

On page 129, Bishop Macchi wrote: “Paul VI, after having written his testament, also prepared a letter of resignation to be delivered in case conditions occurred that would make it impossible to continue to govern the church in an adequate way.”

Pope Paul wrote his testament on June 30, 1965, meaning that the resignation letter was written sometime afterward. It was never invoked, since Pope Paul remained lucid until his death in 1978.

Note that this is an entirely different case from the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in February 2013, because Pope Benedict was perfectly in control of his faculties when he stepped down. What Pope Paul was thinking about was a situation in which a pope might have a stroke, for instance, and slip into a coma, and thus would still be alive but incapable of acting on his own.

Presumably, Bishop Macchi was under instructions from Pope Paul, should that happen, to produce the letter and give it to the dean of the College of Cardinals, who could then pronounce the office vacant and summon the other cardinals to Rome to elect a successor. (Apparently, Pope Paul’s second letter was addressed to his Secretary of State instructing him to urge the College of Cardinals to accept the resignation.)

It should be said that Pope Paul was not the first pope to anticipate circumstances in which his own resignation would take effect, even if he couldn’t announce it himself. Famously, Pope Pius XII left instructions for his resignation if the Nazis were to kidnap him during World War II, saying, “All they’ll get is Cardinal Pacelli, not the pope.”

All of this, of course, reflects a noble sense that the Church is bigger than any one individual, and a desire to put its interests over one’s own. It also reflects an increasingly real possibility in the 21st century, which is that, given all the various medical technologies and treatments available today, people can be kept alive despite debilitating conditions that leave them incapable of making important decisions for themselves.

As Pope John Paul’s Parkinson’s disease played out before the eyes of the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were periodic bouts of speculation that he had also written such a letter, although Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, his closest aide and, in many ways, the son he never had, denied it.

The problem is, back then canon lawyers went around and around about whether such a preemptive resignation letter would even be valid under the terms of the Code of Canon Law, and that debate was never really resolved.

The principal article of Church law governing papal resignation is canon 332: “If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity only that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.”

The key word, according to many canon lawyers, is “freely.” In the eyes of some, that means not just in the moment in which a resignation letter is written, but when it takes effect. If a pope is in a coma, how do we know that it remains his free choice to resign then?

That view would appear to be strengthened by canon 187, which states: “Any person of sound mind can resign an ecclesiastical office for a just cause.” The face-value reading would seem to be that the person resigning must be of “sound mind” at the time, not just a decade before when a letter was written.

That was the view, for instance, of the famed canon lawyer Father James Provost, who shortly before his own death in 2000 wrote in America: “He [the pope] would have to be of sound mind on the date when the letter is eventually dated for it to be canonically valid.”

No one would want to begin a new papacy under a cloud of doubt about its legitimacy, which means that preemptive resignation might not actually turn out to be an exit strategy from paralysis after all.

For that reason, some experts have suggested that canon law ought to include a mechanism for declaring the papacy vacant if a pope is incapable of doing it for himself — perhaps a consensus of the College of Cardinals, for instance.

However, the idea of declaring a papacy ended while he’s still alive, and without his clear consent, would face enormous canonical, theological and political problems. As a result, some say the more practical idea is a provision for a “regency,” in which powers of government covering things that absolutely must get done — appointing bishops, for instance — pass to someone else.

Some observers would say that de facto, the Church has had such periods of regency before, most recently during the final months under Pope John Paul — although in that case, it was sometimes hard to say who, exactly, was calling the shots. All this would do, therefore, is render such provisions explicit.

Fortunately, we haven’t had to face an incapacitated pope, but over time the odds are good that the situation could arise. Yet hashing out a satisfactory way to deal with it is always tough, because if you talk too much or too publicly about such things, somebody’s going to construe it as disrespectful to the current pope, even as a political effort to weaken his hand by making it seem the end is near.

When I was writing about this back in the early 2000s, one cardinal told me that we shouldn’t give in to a “state of fear” about worst-case scenarios. I replied that it’s exactly for that reason people buy insurance — so they don’t have to live in fear of the worst, knowing they’re covered just in case.

Maybe what we need is a blue-ribbon commission of canon lawyers and other experts, impaneled by the pope himself, to find a way out of the conundrum. In the absence of such a step, it seems, we’re sort of like people driving around without collision coverage — gambling that something awful won’t happen, but in the back of our minds, always knowing that it could.

This article originally appeared at the Catholic news site