MECHELEN, Belgium, Oct. 23 (AP)--One of Europe's most influential cardinals called Monday for a debate on limiting the term of the papacy but denied he was suggesting Pope John Paul II should resign.
Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium is the highest-ranking churchman to go public with calls for a discussion on possible term limits for the papacy.
But Danneels insisted he never meant to suggest in a new book that John Paul should end his 22-year tenure as head of the Roman Catholic Church.
"If you see how much work...leaders do, I don't see how, with a person 80, 90 or 100 years old, that person can maintain a tradition...that a pope never resigns," Danneels said.
But, he added, "What I didn't want to say is that this pope should resign, that he should leave or that I should want him to leave or that he isn't doing a good job."
In his book, "Frankly: Six Discussions with the Cardinal," Danneels suggested John Paul might consider stepping aside next year, now that he has achieved his dream of leading the church into the new millennium.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the pope also retired after 2000. He absolutely wanted to reach the Jubilee year, but I believe he would retire afterward," wrote Danneels, who has been mentioned as possible successor for John Paul.
Danneels' book prompted a quick response from the Vatican, which said the cardinal's comments were his personal opinion only.
Monday, Danneels urged opening a debate on limiting the term of the papacy.
"People find it unthinkable that a pope should resign," he said, adding that the time will come soon when a term limit will be expanded from other Catholic clergy levels to the papacy itself.
"This will likely become a thinkable reality," he said.
While church law provides for a papal resignation, there is no procedure to declare incapacity.
John Paul, who will be 81 in May, has grown increasingly frail. His speech is slurred and his hands tremble, both symptoms associated with Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurological disorder. Since hip surgery following a fall in his bathroom in 1994, he has had difficulty walking and climbing stairs.
Still, he has never signaled any intention of stepping down, often speaking of his duty and how he has come to terms with his advancing years. Navarro-Valls, his spokesman, said recently the pope plans to keep up his travels, mentioning such locations as Syria, Malta, Ukraine and Australia.
Several other clergy have raised the issue of the pope stepping aside. A top German bishop, Karl Lehmann, said in February he thought the pope would step down if he thought he could no longer lead the church.