(RNS) A reported suggestion by an influential German bishop that
Pope John Paul II resign if ill health prevents him from doing
his job has stirred controversy among Roman Catholic leaders.
"The church is neither Fiat nor General Motors," Bishop Alessandro
Maggiolini of Como said. "Its criterion cannot be efficiency. And (as)
in a family, even an aged father can be the conscience of the church and
continue 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 radio
interview Sunday (Jan. 9) "in no way called for the pope to resign." She
said his words were "totally falsified" in translation.
Lehmann, who is considered a progressive churchman, was involved
recently 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 in
failing health in recent years. He has had trouble walking since he
broke his thigh in a fall in his bathroom in 1994, and the Vatican has
acknowledged he also suffers from a debilitating neurological ailment
believed 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 Roman
"I must say that we have a holy father who is excellent and
exceptional, and there is absolutely no need (for him to retire)," said
Cardinal Pio Laghi, who himself retired last month at age 77 as prefect
of the Congregation for Catholic Education.
"I, who know him, can say that the pope has full awareness of the
affairs of the world. And such is his responsibility that he feels it
opportune to go forward as long as his forces support him," Cardinal
Ersilio Tonini of Ravenna said.
Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops conference,
told the Catholic newspaper Avvenire that the pope "shows himself fully
capable, now as in the past, of carrying out his office of pastor of the
universal church with full personal responsibility."
Referring to John Paul's decision to personally open the Holy Doors
of the three major basilicas in Rome, a job usually left to cardinals,
Ruini noted that the pope "at the price of undoubted fatigue and
sacrifice" takes on tasks that he doesn't have to carry out in person."
Lehmann, asked to comment in his interview with Deutschlandfunk
radio on whether it might be time for the pope to step down, was quoted
"I have confidence that when he feels he is no longer capable of
leading the church with responsibility, the pope will have the strength
and 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 very
strong 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 bishop
said. "Nonetheless with Celestine V we have someone who has done that."
Pope Paul VI instituted a rule that on reaching the age of 75, a
prelate must submit his resignation to the pope, but the rule does not
apply to the pope who would have no one to whom he could present his
Canon 332 of the church's Canon Laws states: "If it should happen
that the Roman pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity
that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but
not that it be accepted by anyone."