(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 Catholic Church. "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 as replying: "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 resignation. 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."
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