(RNS) A reported suggestion by an influential German bishop thatPope John Paul II resign if ill health prevents him from doinghis job has stirred controversy among Roman Catholic leaders."The church is neither Fiat nor General Motors," Bishop AlessandroMaggiolini of Como said. "Its criterion cannot be efficiency. And (as)in a family, even an aged father can be the conscience of the church andcontinue to govern it." Maggiolini's comment came in response to remarks by Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, who holds the important post of president of the German bishops conference. However, Lehmann denied he had called for the 79-year-old pontiff to take the almost unprecedented step of retiring. A spokeswoman for the bishop said his comments in a German radiointerview Sunday (Jan. 9) "in no way called for the pope to resign." Shesaid his words were "totally falsified" in translation. Lehmann, who is considered a progressive churchman, was involvedrecently in a dispute between German bishops and Vatican officials over abortion counseling. The bishops bowed to pressure to stop the counseling. The once vigorous John Paul, who will be 80 on May 18, has been infailing health in recent years. He has had trouble walking since hebroke his thigh in a fall in his bathroom in 1994, and the Vatican hasacknowledged he also suffers from a debilitating neurological ailmentbelieved to be Parkinson's Disease. But he shows no sign of any intellectual impairment.
The Vatican issued a statement by Ambassador Giovanni Galassi of San Marino, dean of the Vatican diplomatic corps, at the diplomats' annual New Year's audience with the pope today in which he expressed admiration for the pope's "strength and courage." Galassi said he hoped John Paul would continue for"many years as successor to Peter." Close associates testified to the pope's fitness to lead the RomanCatholic Church. "I must say that we have a holy father who is excellent andexceptional, and there is absolutely no need (for him to retire)," saidCardinal Pio Laghi, who himself retired last month at age 77 as prefectof the Congregation for Catholic Education. "I, who know him, can say that the pope has full awareness of theaffairs of the world. And such is his responsibility that he feels itopportune to go forward as long as his forces support him," CardinalErsilio Tonini of Ravenna said. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops conference,told the Catholic newspaper Avvenire that the pope "shows himself fullycapable, now as in the past, of carrying out his office of pastor of theuniversal church with full personal responsibility." Referring to John Paul's decision to personally open the Holy Doorsof the three major basilicas in Rome, a job usually left to cardinals,Ruini noted that the pope "at the price of undoubted fatigue andsacrifice" takes on tasks that he doesn't have to carry out in person." Lehmann, asked to comment in his interview with Deutschlandfunkradio on whether it might be time for the pope to step down, was quotedas replying: "I have confidence that when he feels he is no longer capable ofleading the church with responsibility, the pope will have the strengthand the courage to say: `I cannot fulfill this as is required.'" The church, Lehmann reportedly said, "needs a strong man to lead it.(Otherwise) a worldwide church of 1 billion people with so many verystrong differences cannot hold together." Lehmann cited the example of Pope Celestine V, who resigned in 1294. "It is naturally difficult to imagine such a situation," the bishopsaid. "Nonetheless with Celestine V we have someone who has done that." Pope Paul VI instituted a rule that on reaching the age of 75, aprelate must submit his resignation to the pope, but the rule does notapply to the pope who would have no one to whom he could present hisresignation. Canon 332 of the church's Canon Laws states: "If it should happenthat the Roman pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validitythat he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, butnot that it be accepted by anyone."