Paul Vallely: The Pope cannot, should not and will not stand down

'He has privately said that he has to carry on "because Christ did not descend from the Cross"'
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Is the Pope about to retire? In the run-up to Easter, reports from Rome had suggested that he was increasingly frail. For the first time in his 23-year pontificate he had delegated the celebration of mass to one of his cardinals on both Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday. Then on Good Friday, instead of moving round the Stations of the Cross, he followed the service from a chair. Arthritis, the Vatican told us.

Yet none of that prepared me for the shock of seeing him deliver his traditional televised Easter address. The man whose sporting prowess once earned him the epithet of "God's athlete" looked terrible. He sat in a chair, head lolling to one side, mouth seemingly paralysed at one corner, and slurred his words to the point of indecipherability.

All at once it became apparent why the gossip in Rome is that the Pope, who will be 82 next month, might be about to go.

The prospect was made public by Vittorio Messori, who collaborated with the Pope on his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Senior cardinals, he said, had begun to talk about the possibility that John Paul II might retire to a monastery in his native Poland.

And manoeuvring had begun, not among liberals long disenchanted with the pope's reactionary authoritarianism, but among conservatives increasingly concerned by the prophetic mode he has adopted since the millennium: consorting with other faiths, visiting synagogues and mosques, and issuing a stream of apologies. These were for the Crusades, the persecution of Galileo, and the Church's treatment of women, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and now the victims of paedophile priests.

There may be an element of wishful thinking, from both sides, in all this. Certainly there are precedents for papal resignations, but most of the half-dozen cases were in medieval times when popes frequently clashed with emperors. There is also the case of Pope John XII, who was deposed by a Roman synod for gross moral behaviour (and even he got the job back a year later). No pontiff has ever retired on the grounds of ill health.

For a while many people thought John Paul II, an innovator in so many ways – at least in style if not in content – might become the first exception to this rule. Perhaps the travelling pope would quit, one biographer, Michael Walsh, suggested when he was unable to travel any more. It was even once reported that the Pope had already signed an abdication document which would come into force if he became physically or mentally incapable of fulfilling his duties. Certainly it is true that when John Paul II was revising the church's canon law in the 1980s, he personally inserted, into the regulations on the resignation of bishops, a new provision for a unilateral announcement by the Pope that he could resign – and that no official church body needed to accept that resignation before it took effect.

There are those who assume that he had in mind mental rather than physical infirmity. Rome is not short of loyal cardinals opining that, in the words of Jean-Marie Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris, "Pope John Paul II's neurological disease is making him more and more a prisoner in his body, but the Pope's mind and spiritual gifts remain intact." Few would doubt that. Yet the Pope's observations in the Easter message that today in the Middle East "it is as if war has been declared on peace" also included the line, "no political or religious leader can remain silent or inactive." Already in Rome heavy spin is being applied here. "Suppose the pope were to lose his ability to speak," one church politician posited, "that would raise a very delicate problem." Especially if the uncontrollable body and voice are constantly to be exposed to the pitiless gaze of the TV camera.

Yet the signs are that the Pope is resistant to such arguments. Most recently he has privately said that he has to carry on "because Christ did not descend from the Cross". There is something heroic about this, but also theologically apt.

The Church has long argued that our utilitarian secular world places too much value on people for what they do, inherit, own, or produce. True humanity, it suggests, respects someone simply for "being" – an insight which is at the heart of its defence of the poor, weak and vulnerable which extends to the sick, the comatose, the elderly and the unborn.

A Pope who so visibly shares the sufferings of Christ in his own flesh would be a potent symbol of that. And if the Church went ungoverned while such a pope continued to reign, it would not be any the worse for that. "The Church cannot live with all this uncertainty," nameless cardinals are saying. The truth is it not only can, but it ought. Ecclesiologically, just as politically, less government is often better government.

As the current fin de régime politicking of conspiratorial cardinals reveals, in matters of faith, perhaps more than anywhere else, symbols are sometimes more important than practicalities.