Vatican City (AP) - A top Vatican cardinal said in a magazine interview released Wednesday that Pope John Paul II's health has recently improved and that talk of term limits is not relevant to the current papacy.

But Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said he would not rule out term limits in the future. With people living longer "one also would consider new norms," he said. Asked by Famiglia Cristiana (Christian Family), a leading Italian religious affairs magazine, how the pope was feeling, Ratzinger replied, "Well. Since Christmas his physical condition has been improving."

The pope looked alert during his general audience Wednesday, as he has during recent public appearances, and he spoke in a clear voice. The 83-year-old pontiff has Parkinson's disease and knee and hip ailments that make it difficult to walk or stand.

He has clearly improved since he looked tired and weak during celebrations in October marking the 25th anniversary of his papacy.

The Vatican has never provided an explanation of the pope's changed condition, and Ratzinger didn't offer one.

The article was set for publication later in the week. Asked whether future popes may be elected to a fixed term, he said: "The pope is selected for life because he is a father and his paternity goes before his function. Perhaps in the future, with life being prolonged, one also would consider new norms but it doesn't seem to me to be a current issue."

John Paul has repeatedly said he has no intention of stepping down. There is a precedent: Pope Celestine V abdicated in 1294, then spent the last two years of his life in confinement because his successor feared he could become the rallying point for a schism.

The German-born Ratzinger, considered the watchdog of Church orthodoxy as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has himself been the subject of resignation rumors. In April he turns 77, two years beyond the normal retirement age for Vatican office heads.

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