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October 4, 2003
Column #1,153

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 church."

     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 he resign."

     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 immediately.

     John Paul could even have a voice in choosing his successor.

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