Skip to comments.As pope becomes more frail, talk of resignation no longer taboo
Posted on 06/02/2002 1:18:09 PM PDT by Siobhan
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When Pope John Paul II was healthy, talk of papal resignation was taboo.
Now, as the 82-year-old pontiff struggles with his physical frailty, even top aides like Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal congregation, are discussing the possibility that the pope may one day choose to step down.
Cardinal Ratzinger's comments in mid-May and those of other church leaders have given rise to a rash of resignation scenarios. The most-discussed theory hinges on the pope's planned visit to Poland in August.
Some people think the pope has in mind a one-way trip to his homeland. Under this scenario, he would announce his resignation in his former diocese of Krakow and retire to a Polish monastery to pray. In August, the number of voting members of the College of Cardinals coincidentally falls to 120 -- the upper limit set by conclave rules.
There's not much on the announced papal calendar after August, with the exception of a possible trip to Croatia in September. Vatican officials, aware of the resignation talk, recently emphasized that the Croatia trip was indeed in preparation.
Others believe the pope, who suffers from a debilitating neurological disease believed to be Parkinson's, has accepted the idea of eventual resignation but has not set a date. He will keep going until he cannot go any further, they say.
Because Parkinson's normally leads to physical incapacity, some sources have said it is likely the pope has prepared a resignation letter in case that happens. Pope Paul VI wrote a similar letter, according to a recent book by his secretary, Archbishop Pasquale Macchi.
The purpose of such a letter would be to avoid administrative paralysis of the church if a pontiff were debilitated -- perhaps suddenly -- and could not express his decision to resign.
But this kind of letter also would raise ambiguities, because any resignation by the pope must be his own decision. He cannot be "resigned" by others.
"Who is going to say to him: 'Holy Father, you are now incapacitated?' That's the problem," said Msgr. Charles Burns, a church historian who spent more than 25 years as an official of the Vatican Archives.
Church law explicitly allows for a pope to resign, but says the decision must be made freely and "duly manifested." Experts say this means in writing or with witnesses; ideally, it would be communicated to the College of Cardinals -- although no one needs to formally accept a pope's resignation for it to be valid.
Most Vatican officials agree that Pope John Paul has made his physical suffering an integral part of his papal ministry, giving his pontificate an added poignancy and a different kind of impact in recent years.
"The pope is operating under limitations that are visible to all. But he notes the big show of affection wherever he goes, and this encourages him," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said during a May trip to Bulgaria, where the pope moved and spoke with great difficulty during his public events.
But although many agree on the pope's courage in the face of physical trials, people at the Vatican and throughout the church appear divided on the resignation issue.
Cardinal Ratzinger said the pope has an "iron will" and is still able to manage church affairs. But "if he were to see that he absolutely could not (continue), then he certainly would resign," he said.
Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa also said he was sure the pope would have the courage to resign if he believed that, for the good of the church, a healthier man were needed in the papacy.
Because the remarks by both cardinals were reported the same day, it came across in the media almost as a lobbying campaign. But like many things at the Vatican, it was less planned than it appeared; the cardinals were simply asked the question by reporters in separate interviews.
Others have voiced the opposite view.
"The pope is not some kind of manager who, when he grows weak or sick, is set aside because he can't manage the interests of the company," said Krysztof Zanussi, an award-winning Polish film director who currently is making a documentary on the pope.
The last and perhaps the only pope who voluntarily resigned was St. Celestine V, who abdicated in 1294 after only four months in office. His "great refusal" earned him a place in the vestibule of Dante's "Inferno," but history has viewed him as a truly holy man who rejected the political machinations of the medieval papacy.
In more recent times, Msgr. Burns said, there was evidence to suggest that Pope Pius XII had left instructions that if the Nazis arrested him during World War II, the College of Cardinals was to consider him resigned and elect a new pope. The idea was that, if the Nazis marched him off to Berlin, it would be as Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli and not as Pope Pius XII.
Health questions are trickier, but have been overcome by previous pontiffs. Pope Clement XII became totally blind in the second year of his pontificate, in 1732, and in later years conducted audiences and ran the church's affairs from his bed.
"They had to put his hand on the documents, and then he scrawled his signature," Msgr. Burns said.
Church historians have sometimes marveled that modern popes have escaped the kind of serious mental deterioration often endured by the elderly.
"We've been spared that. We've been spared an awful lot," said Msgr. Burns. He and several other Vatican officials emphasized that Pope John Paul's problems are physical, not mental.
"He seems to be sharp as a tack. Maybe the day will come when he gives a big sigh and says, 'I just can't do it any longer.' But at the moment he's still determined to continue," he said.
Please freepermail me if you would like off of my bump/ping list.
(Not suggesting or encouraging that here, of course.)
Wasn't Martin a little nutty?
Ratzinger hardly sounds like someone who would welcome JPII's resignation, unless, of course, JPII can't function.
If he can't function, someone else will be running the show anyway.
Must some of us wear tin-foil on Catholic threads as well?
Often, the worst judges of Popes are those that are alive during their Papacy, but I think he will be remembered as "The Great." I have been one of his freq. critics because he doesn't excommuncate these Bishops but I am willling to admit that perhaps, just perhaps, he knows a bit more than do I....
It is not like he doesn't know what is going on, so, one has to asume he knows that excommunicating a bevy of Bishops would not improve the situation. While it certainly would make ME feel better if he did defrock a bunch of Bishops , I am positive the Pope knows what is best for the Faith worldwide
Only 2 popes in the past millennium have made it past the 25-year mark: Piux IX (1846-1878) and Leo XIII (1878-1903), the latter with just a few months to spare. Two other popes fell just short: Pius VI (24 years, 6 months and 14 days) and Pius VII (23 years, 5 months and 16 days). John Paul II is now at 23 years and 7 months.
He's in no condition to celebrate.
Dante called the action of a medieval pope who resigned and was replaced by a wicked successor, "il gran refuto," and he gave him a place in hell in the Divine Comedy for resigning. No, I think this pope will patiently accept whatever God sends him.