Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Vatican City

Vatican Official Says Pope Alone Weighs Health, Papacy

Published February 10, 2005

When a top Vatican official said papal resignation should be left to the “conscience” of Pope John Paul II, it reignited a debate that has been smoldering for many years. Inside and outside the Vatican, prelates and lay experts have fallen into two camps: those who think the pope would resign if he felt he could not lead the church, and those who say it will never happen—that the pontiff has clearly decided to stay at the church’s helm until God takes him.

With a weakened pope in the hospital for flu-related breathing problems, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, was asked Feb. 7 by reporters if he thought the pope would consider resigning.

The interesting thing was that Cardinal Sodano didn’t duck or dismiss the question. Instead, he gave an answer that appeared to recognize resignation as an eventual possibility.

After praising the pope’s love for the church and his wisdom, the cardinal said simply: “We have to have enormous trust in him. He knows what he should do.” For the media and papal commentators, that was enough to start the wheels turning. No one questions whether a pope can resign: It’s happened before, the last time in 1294 when Pope Celestine V abdicated. The papal resignation option is explicitly written into the Code of Canon Law. It says a pope may step down but stipulates that the decision must be made freely and “duly manifested.”

Those are two crucial conditions and would be problematic if a pope becomes so sick that he cannot express his wishes unequivocally.

Some have suggested that Pope John Paul, who suffers from a debilitating neurological disease, may have already prepared a letter of resignation in case that happens. Pope Pius VI prepared a similar letter in his old age. But church law experts say even that kind of letter might leave some doubt, because papal aides will ultimately determine when it should be implemented.

A number of cardinals over the years—including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal congregation, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa and Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Mechelen-Brussels—have said they believed the pope would resign for the good of the church if he were unable to physically bear the burden of the papacy.

No one has said in public that the time for resignation has come, however. On the contrary, Vatican officials and others have marveled at the ability of the pope to somehow carry on, year after year, even as he has lost the ability to walk, to speak clearly and to endure long audiences.

Indeed, the pope’s perseverance has convinced some that he will stay in the papacy to the end.

“He has a providential sense of his own papacy, and I think he’s very plugged in to what God intends for his life,” said Father Thomas Williams, a priest of the Legionaries of Christ who has taught in Rome for many years.

“I don’t think he believes that God intends for him to resign. I think he believes that he’s totally in God’s hands, that he has a particular witness to give in his infirmity, and that he’s going to be able to do what he has to do until his death,” Father Williams said.

Even more categorical was Vittorio Messori, an Italian Catholic writer close to the pope, who wrote in Italy’s Corriere della Sera Feb. 8 that the pope made up his mind three years ago not to resign.

“Today, relying on the same indisputable sources, we can say that the decision of Pope John Paul II has not changed. He has no intention of giving up his office, even if the disease progresses,” Messori wrote.

Messori and others have insisted that the pope’s management abilities may be of secondary importance compared to the spiritual witness he is giving.

“The church is not a multinational corporation, and the person who leads it is not a CEO who needs a manager’s youth, good health and appearance to do the job,” he said.

Most Vatican officials would agree. But some of them say the pope—never much of a hands-on manager—in his present frail condition has delegated even more responsibility to selected aides.

The pope’s public presence has been reduced, too. Even before his hospitalization, many of the pope’s public events featured stand-ins who read the pope’s talk or celebrated the liturgies for him. Many Vatican officials expect those substitutions to increase in coming months.

For the Catholic faithful, resignation is also a sensitive issue. When asked, many of those who see the pope in action express mixed sentiments: admiration for his courage and deep concern about his ability to keep going.

That was evident Feb. 6 when the pope appeared at his hospital window. He looked his normal self, which reassured well-wishers. But when he spoke, his voice was faint and hoarse. What bothered some observers most of all was that an aide held up a sheet of paper so the pope could read the words of the Latin-language blessing—something the pontiff pronounces hundreds of times a year.