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Retirement hints stir Europe’s media


In a world as mass-mediated as ours, an unsubstantiated rumor can go all the way around the world while the truth is still trying to put its pants on.

The recent “Pope Resignation” story is a case in point. Bishop Karl Lehman, president of the German bishops’ conference, gave an entirely innocuous interview to Deutschlandfunk Radio in mid-January. I will give you the complete text of his statement right here.

He was asked: “The pope is clearly ill. Is it possible that a ‘round date’ such as the year 2000 could be a suitable moment for the pope to resign? There has already been some speculation on this matter.” Lehman replied:

“In the last few weeks and months I have had more occasions than ever before to meet the pope. ... I have been impressed by his spiritual presence, both in personal and group meetings. However, I do not have the (medical) competence to judge whether his evident Parkinson’s disease has any repercussions on his ability to guide the church and make decisions. In fact, these activities require a special energy. Furthermore, for some years I have had the impression that the pope has concentrated all his energy on the Holy Year, on the Great Jubilee 2000. It’s incredible, the number of commitments and public engagements the pope has taken on. ...

“I personally believe that the Holy Father is capable of bravely confessing: ‘I can no longer adequately carry out my role as is necessary.’ I believe the pope would do so if he felt that he were no longer capable of authoritatively guiding the church. ... Yet, if the pope intended to take such a step, I do not know if those close to him or his advisers would agree with his decision. ...

“It is always a sensitive moment when popes, after lengthy pontificates, suffer physical weakness, this is quite understandable. Nonetheless, for the church and perhaps also for society, this may constitute a positive lesson: the fact that there can be ailing popes. ... In fact, in our daily lives only people in good health and the young count. Everything must ‘work.’ ... I was also greatly impressed by the constancy and punctuality with which the pope followed all the meetings of the recent synod. ... Consequently, I must say that after this experience my respect and appreciation of the pope are stronger than ever.”

To the question: “Would the pope’s eventual successor have to come from a continent other than ours, perhaps Africa or Latin America?” Lehmann replied:

“I do not wish to talk about a successor (to the Holy Father), because I feel only respect for the present pope. It is true that one looks also to the church in the Third World. ... Yet, a weak pope for such a church would prove a catastrophe. Consequently, in my opinion, we must leave the question open for the moment.”

This was definitely not a call for the pope to resign.

But the Italian press made it appear in the next day’s newspapers that Lehman was calling for just that, and they played the all-too-common press game of “Let’s You and Him Fight” by asking for comments from a variety of prelates and politicians.

Those interviewed took the opportunity to get some exposure of their own (and demonstrate their loyalty) by huffing and puffing their protest over such an insane idea.

Cardinal Pio Laghi, recently retired as the Vatican’s Education chief, said, “I must say that we have a Holy Father who is excellent and exceptional and there is absolutely no need for him to step down.”

Alessandro Maggiolini, bishop of Como, Italy, said, “The church is not Fiat or General Motors. Even an elderly father can be the conscience of the church and continue to govern it.”

“No one has the right to say that the pope should step down for any reason,” said Cardinal Alfons Stickler, a Viennese now retired as an archivist in the Vatican Library. He was quoted in La Repubblica.

Even Italy’s Foreign Minister weighed in. “I was very surprised by these opinions of the German bishop,” Lamberto Dini told Italian TV. “This is not acceptable. In my long years in diplomacy I have learned that the figure of the pope is to be respected to the end. It would be a great loss if this pope were to abdicate his pontificate.”

There is a good deal of hypocrisy in all this. For some odd reason, probably connected to the pope-worship of super-Catholics over the past century, it is considered disloyal to even think that this pope will die, ignoring the obvious fact that 262 popes have, setting an undeniable precedent.

In fact, some people at the Vatican have been talking very privately about this possibility for some time now, which is why Marco Politi has no problem doing the speculative story he did in La Repubblica.

(The British press, by the way, doesn’t much interview people; it re-writes the Italian press, period.)

I had an interview with a ranking Vatican prelate on Jan. 4 in which he said calmly that yes the pope could and probably would resign if he couldn’t do the job any longer. My diary note says he said, “It’s all provided for in Canon Law, the law that the pope signed in 1983. If he can’t speak any more, can’t do the job, he should move on.” (Personally, I think he is right, and I think the pope will resign when he cannot do his work any longer.)

Despite the fact that Lehmann had come nowhere near to calling on John Paul to step down, the world’s press kept the pot boiling. Why piss on the parade?

CRITICS JOIN CHORUS FOR POPE TO QUIT, howled The Times of London. Phil Pullella of Reuters made more of the non-story, quoting paragraph 332 in the Code of Canon Law, and phoning Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese at America magazine in New York for his reaction.

Editors of The Times of London carried on with a Day 2 story headlined: “Vatican tries to scotch ‘sick pope’ rumor” over a byline by Richard Owen, its Rome correspondent, reporting on the Vatican’s release on Wednesday of the pope’s projected (and very ambitious) schedule in the Holy Land in March. Owen added that the Vatican had even “penciled in” another papal visit, to Mount Sinai on Feb. 25 and 26.

(In fact, the timing of this announcement was the Vatican Press Office’s straight-faced answer to all this talk of the pope’s “ill health.” In effect, the Press Office was saying, “How could he plan this killer schedule, a culmination of all his many trips, if he was dying?”)

At an audience with a youth group from Turin, the pope himself milked the press brouhaha for a laugh. The group’s director, Ernesto Olivero, led off by thanking him for his old age: Santo Padre, grazie per la sua vecchia. He meant it as a compliment. John Paul interrupted him.

“But I am not an old man,” he said. Ma io non sono vecchio! (If he hadn’t been smiling when he said it, it would have been a recap for me of Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook.” But Italian newspapers made the most of it by featuring the quote on Page 1.)

Olivero tried a good-natured (if somewhat toadying) recovery: “Your Holiness is very, very young, younger than all these kids here.”

It was a proper response from a courtier to his king. No one believes this, of course, not even the pope. But he’s a long way from resigning, despite this campaign from the likes of the London Times.

These Vatican reporters, in their eagerness to get into the story of their lives, are jumping into it prematurely. That’s my most benign interpretation. The least benign: that they are like stockbrokers “churning their accounts.” That is, their stories are intended to do one thing: get them the exposure they crave, not to help readers understand what is going on.

Robert Blair Kaiser, who covered Vatican II for Time magazine, lives in Rome where he is writing a book on the future of the church. You can reach him on e-mail at rkaiser@ibm.net

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000