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Tough question for cardinals: When should a pope resign?

The last testament of John Paul II, made public last week, suggests he considered stepping down in 2000.

By Sophie ArieCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 2005


Somewhere among his private documents, Italian media say there is a piece of paper that had the power to end John Paul II's papacy in a matter of moments.

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The resignation letter - which Karol Wojtyla allegedly wrote as he struggled with diagnosed Parkinson's disease in recent years - was to be read only if he became mentally unfit to rule. It would have declared the Holy See vacant, ordering a conclave to elect a new pope.

In the end, such a letter was never needed. But as cardinals look ahead to next week's conclave to elect a new pope, a look back at the fragile condition of John Paul II's last years has persuaded more and more "red hats" that the Roman Catholic church must find an acceptable way for future ailing pontiffs to resign.

"There is a sense among the cardinals that they got lucky that John Paul II did not sink into a coma for a protracted period," says Vatican expert John Allen.

As one of the world's most vociferous pro-life voices, the Vatican supports the concept of using all available medical resources to keep people alive. John Paul II, nevertheless, chose not to be hospitalized in his final days.

Canon law

Canon law makes no clear provision for the papacy to be vacated if a pope became mentally impaired.

"The general consensus now is that once his creative capacity has gone, in the future a pope will resign," Mr. Allen adds.

But it is far from clear how that can be technically done. Canon law is brief on the question of a papal resignation. Canon 332 states that a pope "makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone." And Canon 187 asserts that "any person of sound mind can resign an ecclesiastical office for a just cause," suggesting a mentally impaired pope cannot make this decision.

"The real problem for the next papacy is that canon law just doesn't say much about what to do if a pope becomes mentally impeded," says the Rev. John Beal, a professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America, in Washington.

Resignation taboo

For centuries, resignation has been taboo. Popes are expected to remain in office until their death. Hence the adage: "A pope is never sick until he's dead."

Canon law does allow for resignation, but only a handful of popes have used the option, all because of power struggles - none because of failing health. The last to resign voluntarily was Celestine V in 1296, who was elected at 84 and resigned within a year, overwhelmed by the job. His decision was seen as so unsuitable that in the epic poem "Divine Comedy," Dante Alighieri placed him in hell.

But Vatican insiders say John Paul II's long struggle with illness has made the prospect no longer unthinkable.

In his last years he was unable to walk or speak clearly. Biographers say he worked only for a few hours each day, leaving all but essential Vatican decisions to a handful of his closest aides.

Some argue a pope does not need to be in charge of day-to-day affairs as long as he is a visible figurehead. Others say once he is reduced to cameo appearances, wheeled out for public events, it is time for him to go.

Already several key cardinals - from Godfried Danneels of Belgium to Mario Francesco Pompedda of Italy and Germany's Karl Lemann - have hinted that resignation should be considered.

Cardinal Jorge Mejia, the pope's longtime associate, said it would be "desirable and prudent" if the pope had drafted a resignation letter in case he became incapacitated.