October 4, 2003
Pope John Paul II Should Resign
Sadly, it is time to say publicly what has whispered privately: The time has
come for the valiant and remarkably effective Pope John Paul II, now aged
83, to resign.
This past year, the decline in his health has forced him to use a mobile
throne since he cannot walk or stand due to hip ailments and Parkinson's
disease. When he spoke from the window of his apartment on Sunday to
announce the names of new cardinals, his voice was slurred and halting. The
Pope frequently gasped for breath. His left hand was shaking. After 15
minutes he rested his head on his right hand.
In a visit last month to Slovakia, his 102nd foreign visit, he was often
unable to read brief comments or a sermon. He was visibly exhausted. John
Paul canceled a public audience last week due to an intestinal ailment.
He is "in a bad way," confessed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The leader of
French Catholic bishops added, "Things shouldn't be hidden. This pope is
very ill. But I assure you the Church is governed."
For how long? And how well can he lead the world's one billion Catholics?
"The biggest danger is if he goes into a coma, or is incapable of
communicating. As long as he can communicate, he can resign," said Father
Tom Reese, editor of "America" magazine. "However, we have nothing like the
25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, providing for what happens if the
President becomes incapacitated." (If the Vice President and a majority of
the Cabinet agree, the Vice President serves as acting President.)
However, there's not been a papal resignation since Celestine V fled the
responsibility in 1294, months after his election. That threw such a cloud
over his successor, Boniface VIII, the French king refused to recognize him.
Worse, Boniface was accused of murdering Celestine.
Each recent pope was enfeebled before death, but remained behind closed
doors. John Paul bravely refuses to cancel events. He meets with the new
Archbishop of Canterbury Saturday, will celebrate a Sunday Mass and flies
next week to visit a Pompeii shrine near Naples.
Father Richard McBrien, Notre Dame Professor of Theology, candidly
concludes: "If the pope were to retire, it would make an extraordinarily
important spiritual statement that would have a global impact. He would show
by his action that no one is indispensable, not even a pope, and that we
must always be ready to relinquish power for a greater good.
"I only wish he had retired five years ago and allowed a younger, more
vigorous man to take the helm. The sexual-abuse crisis would not have
careened out of control had there been a pope in office not weighted down
with such poor health."
Peter Steinfels, Catholic author of a new landmark book: "A People Adrift:
The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America," disagrees that a
resignation five years ago would have averted the sexual scandal. But he
believes that if the pope resigns, "it would further nail his reputation in
Catholic history because it would give a new model of transferring papal
responsibility. Today extended periods of decline and incapacity are made
much more likely by modern medicine. Resignation would be a real gift to the
Russell Shaw, past press spokesman for America's bishops, is moved by John
Paul's continuation of his public role. "He's demonstrating great heart. The
pope has to make a prayerful decision, whether he is in a long slow decline
or whether it will be quick and soon. If the answer is a long slow decline,
going steadily downhill, it might be in the best interest of the church that
Unquestionably, John Paul's greatest achievement - for which he should have
been given a Nobel Peace Prize - was his decisive leadership in bringing
down the Iron Curtain. For a decade he brilliantly encouraged Poles to form
Solidarity to stand up to Communism. Similarly, he nudged Catholic leaders
to undermine Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, who broke free in only ten
months. East Germany needed only ten days to smash the Berlin Wall..
It is possible that the Pope plans a final dramatic gesture - to resign at
the 25th anniversary of his elevation to the papacy in October. One clue:
Vatican insiders were surprised he announced selection of 31 cardinals
months earlier than expected. They will be given their red hats and the
power to select a successor Oct. 21.
All other cardinals will be present, and could begin deliberations
John Paul could even have a voice in choosing his successor.