Pope’s Health Reopens Talk of Retirement

Times Staff Writer

After returning from the hospital last week, Pope John Paul II is resting comfortably and eager to return to work, Vatican officials say. But the sudden illness that landed him in the hospital for nine days has reopened the debate over whether the 84-year-old pontiff can or should retire.

The pope appeared at his window Sunday and blessed the crowds below in St. Peter’s Square. He could speak only a few words, and an aide read his message of thanks and encouragement.

The pope had been hospitalized after a bad bout with the flu brought on throat spasms, which made breathing difficult.

John Paul’s papacy is the third-longest, and during his hospitalization, reservations about his continued capacity to serve were expressed, unusually, by several cardinals and in a surge of European and Catholic editorials.


More than 700 years have passed since a pope willingly resigned. And for this once-vigorous Roman Catholic leader, a former actor and athlete whose frailties are ever more painfully visible, the idea of retirement has been especially unthinkable.

It has long been an article of faith that John Paul, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and acute arthritis, would die while serving in office. He has frequently argued that as pope, he is God’s representative on Earth and cannot simply resign from such a calling. And the presence of a former pontiff might create schisms in the church.

Yet, as he spent nine nights in a hospital on the northern edge of Rome, the unthinkable was spoken and a taboo shattered.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the second-ranking prelate in the Vatican, stunned observers with his answer when asked last week if the pope was considering retirement. Rather than dismiss the idea out of hand, a standard response from a high-level church leader, Sodano seemed to leave open the possibility.


“We leave this to the conscience of the pope,” he replied.

“If there is a man of the church who is guided by the Holy Spirit, if there is a man who loves the church more than anyone else, if there is a man who has marvelous wisdom, it is the pope,” Sodano added. “We must have enormous faith in him. He knows what he must do.”

Two days later, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of France, a Jewish-born prelate who, like the pope, grew up in Europe during World War II, echoed Sodano’s sentiment.

“The pope must do what he thinks to be the will of God to accomplish his mission,” Lustiger said.

Although a number of cardinals spoke in a similar vein, others put down such speculation. Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops, said talk of retirement was “in very poor taste.” The Vatican said John Paul was still in charge.

Marco Politi, the Holy See correspondent for Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, said that with the pope’s decline in health, the highest echelon of the Vatican’s Curia, or leadership, “has been thrown for a loop” and is divided.

“There are the champions of the status quo, tradition and preserving the structures that would allow the pontiff to reach the end of his Calvary,” Politi wrote in La Repubblica. “And there are the loyal pragmatists who are not closing their eyes to the reality.”

The church’s Code of Canon Law allows a pope to retire, but its wording is complicated. The pontiff must make the decision “freely” with a sound mind and with a proper witness.


What if he is not of sound mind? The law does not establish procedures for the mental or sudden physical incapacitation of the pope.

It has long been rumored -- and denied officially by the Vatican -- that the pontiff wrote a secret letter, a kind of living will, that provides for his abdication in case of severe mental incapacitation. Pope Paul IV, who died in 1978, made similar provisions, though his letter never had to be consulted.

If John Paul has written such a letter, its secrecy will call into question its validity: When was it written? Who witnessed it? What was the pope’s state of mind at the time of the writing?

The last pope to willingly step aside was Celestine V in 1294. He decided he wasn’t up to the job after five months in office. His controversial decision is said to have earned him a place in Dante’s Inferno.

In 1415, Gregory XII was forced to step down to end a schism created by the existence of a rival pope. John Paul worries that a living, retired pope would similarly trigger divided loyalties among the faithful.

The current debate has surfaced in the European media, in unusually stark terms.

“The fiction that this exhausted man is capable of governing the church has to stop,” the French daily Le Monde said. The Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly, urged John Paul to retire “for the pope’s own sake and also for the sake of the church.”

For many months, the number of activities carried out by the pope has been steadily declining while his inner circle of top prelates is handling more tasks. He signs fewer documents, Vatican sources say, and he rarely completes the reading of a homily or major address. He no longer can walk or stand without assistance. He has all but discontinued the globe-trotting that so indelibly marked his papacy; only one trip is scheduled this year.


Although it cannot be said the church is drifting, a number of important decisions have not been made because of the pope’s limitations. Additionally, contradictions have arisen in church statements, such as opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, because of differences among the pontiff’s top aides.

John Paul views his public suffering as an integral part of his mission on Earth: Like Christ on the cross, his suffering is redemption. It represents the consummate sanctification of the value of human life, he says.

“The sick pope is the icon of the suffering of humanity,” Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone told the Italian news agency Ansa last week.

The pope also addresses the matter frequently.

“If growing old, with its inevitable conditions, is accepted serenely in the light of faith, it can become an invaluable opportunity for better comprehending the Mystery of the Cross, which gives full sense to human existence,” John Paul said in a message for Lent.

“The elderly need to be understood and helped,” he said. “Human life is a precious gift to be loved and defended in each of its stages.”

Some experts argue that the steady deterioration of the pope’s health is having a destructive and demoralizing effect. The question becomes: When does the pope cease to become a life-affirming symbol?

In the 21st century, when the world’s 1 billion Catholics look to strong, decisive leadership to invigorate a church that is losing membership and has been buffeted by sex-abuse scandals, a weak pope can be a liability, experts argue. Modern medicine has in some cases allowed the human body to live well beyond the sharpness of the mind, a fact previous Curias did not have to consider.

“The pope is a figure to whom the faithful look, a figure with a strong magnetism, and to a great extent, that would be weakened,” said historian Thomas H. O’Connor of the Jesuit-run Boston College. “And outside the church, the pope is a very powerful figure. When the pope speaks, the world listens. What effect would it have if he becomes known as the sick old man of Europe? We’re moving close to that.”

Whether the pope dies or retires, the process of selecting a successor will remain the same. The College of Cardinals, which currently has 119 voting members, would meet secretly in the Sistine Chapel to choose a successor to St. Peter’s throne.

The selection will largely depend on whether the cardinals decide to reach out to Third World regions such as Latin America or Africa, where Catholicism as well as Protestant evangelism are strong, or to stick with tradition and select a European pontiff.

If the cardinals stay with tradition, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a German, could become a transitional pope. But Ratzinger, a conservative watchdog over church doctrine, is seen by some as too dogmatic for the politically charged post.

John Paul’s longevity also has led to suggestions that future popes may face term limits. Bishops are required to retire at age 75, cardinals at 80.

The Rev. Peter Gumpel, a leading church historian, said that for some, the pope’s illness has created the impression that he cannot run the church. Though this is mistaken, Gumpel argues, the pope would step down if he was convinced it was in the best interest of the church.

“No one can force the pope to resign if he does not want to,” Gumpel said. “It is entirely a matter of his conscience. And he responds to God for that, not to us.”