The Catholic Church's cardinals may ask the Pope to resign from his post when they meet in Rome next week.
The idea that the Pope should exercise his right to resign is expected to be raised on 21 October at the consistory - a gathering at the Vatican in which new cardinals are appointed. The plan, which was disclosed by a very senior church official who declined to be named, aims to establish the consensus among cardinals about putting forward a resignation proposal. It centres on the fact Popes are entitled to resign, although it is a right exercised only once before.
Today, the Pope marks 25 years in office, longer than all but two of his 263 predecessors, and the signs he is approaching the end of his life are growing.
The consistory has been brought forward four months, so the Pope can put in place all the cardinals who will elect his successor. He has been battling for years against Parkinson's disease and arthritis, and was described by a medical expert yesterday as being in "end-stage Parkinson's".
He is no longer able to walk, and, during his last foreign tour to Slovakia in September, was unable to complete the reading of any of his speeches.
No more travelling engagements have been made: his last trip was a brief helicopter hop to Pompeii 10 days ago. During an audience with the President of Uruguay on Monday he appeared to have lost the power of speech altogether.
The fact that John Paul II's reign is drawing to a close has long been a taboo subject in Vatican circles but, in recent weeks, several cardinals have broken ranks to say in public that the Pope is "dying" and his death is a matter of only "days or months". At Pompeii last week he asked the crowd to "pray for me now and always", taken as a reference to his death.
Yet many Vatican-watchers are highly sceptical about the chances of the Pope stepping down. "It would be completely against everything he stands for," said one. "He's wedded to the idea that the Church stands for the culture of life as opposed to what he calls 'the culture of death' of Western materialism." Gerard O'Connell, a veteran Catholic journalist based in Rome, said: "He has made it clear he will be a witness to the Catholic notion that old people are still of value. I think it's highly unlikely that such a proposal would be made at the consistory. At best it's a rumour. A request for his resignation would only be made if he could no longer carry out his duties because he was incapacitated, for example, by a stroke."
Popes have the right to resign, but it has only been exercised once: by Celestine IV, a reluctant pontiff elected in 1294.
His only significant act as Pope was to decree that he had the right to quit and, after five months in the job, he duly did so, returning to his hermitage. In his Inferno, Dante consigned Celestine IV to hell for his "great refusal". Yet the stubborn insistence by all Popes for the past seven centuries to struggle on to the bitter end masks the reality that, for many of them, the physical fact of death was probably preceded by a shorter or longer period of incompetence.
One Vatican expert pointed out that, in the case of Pope John XXIII, "there was a six-week period between his last appearance in public and his death." The idea that the Pope remains hands-on chief executive of the Church until he dies and the conclave of cardinals takes over is, it appears, a myth.
According to an observer, there are ample signs that senior Vatican officials who are very close to the Pope, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, both conservative hardliners, are already asserting their power more nakedly than they would have dared if John Paul were fully well and able.Reuse content