Signs of the Times

Vatican Official’s Comment Reopens Debate Over Possibility That Pope Will Resign

When a high Vatican official said papal resignation should be left to the conscience of Pope John Paul II, it reignited a debate that has been smoldering for many years. Inside and outside the Vatican, prelates and lay experts have fallen into two camps: those who think the pope would resign if he felt he could not lead the church, and those who say it will never happenthat the pontiff has clearly decided to stay at the church’s helm until God takes him.

With a weakened pope in the hospital for flu-related breathing problems, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, was asked on Feb. 7 by reporters if he thought the pope would consider resigning. He gave an answer that appeared to recognize resignation as an eventual possibility. After praising the pope’s love for the church and his wisdom, the cardinal said simply: We have to have enormous trust in him. He knows what he should do.


For the media and papal commentators, that was enough to start the wheels turning. No one questions whether a pope can resign. It has happened before, the last time in 1417 when Pope Gregory XII resigned. The papal resignation option is explicitly written into the Code of Canon Law. It says a pope may step down, but stipulates that the decision must be made freely and duly manifested. Those are two crucial conditions and would be problematic if a pope becomes so sick that he cannot express his wishes unequivocally.

Some have suggested that Pope John Paul, who suffers from a debilitating neurological disease, may have already prepared a letter of resignation in case that happens. Pope Paul VI prepared such a letter in his old age. But experts in church law say that even a letter like that might leave some doubt, because it would be papal aides who ultimately determine when it should be implemented.

A number of cardinals over the yearsincluding Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal congregation, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Mechelen-Brusselshave said they believed the pope would resign for the good of the church if he were physically unable to bear the burden of the papacy.

No one has said in public, however, that the time for resignation has come. On the contrary, Vatican officials and others have marveled at the ability of the pope to carry on, year after year, even as he has lost the ability to walk, to speak clearly and to endure long audiences. Indeed, the pope’s perseverance has convinced some that he will stay in the papacy to the end. Some Vatican officials say the popenever much of a hands-on managerin his present frail condition has delegated even more responsibility to selected aides.

The pope’s public presence has been reduced, too. Even before his hospitalization, many of the pope’s public events featured stand-ins who read the pope’s talk or celebrated the liturgies for him. Many Vatican officials expect those substitutions to increase in coming months.

For the Catholic faithful, resignation is also a sensitive issue. When asked, many of those who see the pope in action express mixed sentiments: admiration for his courage and deep concern about his ability to keep going.

That was evident on Feb. 6, when the pope appeared at his hospital window. He looked his normal self, which reassured well-wishers. But when he spoke, his voice was faint and hoarse. What bothered some observers most of all was that an aide held up a sheet of paper so the pope could read the words of the Latin-language blessinga text the pontiff has pronounced hundreds of times every year for decades.

Holy Land, Religious Freedom on U.S. Agenda

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured top Vatican officials that the Holy See’s concerns over the Holy Land and religious freedom in the Middle East and China would be on the U.S. agenda. Rice, on her first visit to the Vatican as newly appointed secretary of state, was to have met with Pope John Paul II, but his hospitalization prevented this. She made the visit as part of her seven-day tour of Europe and Israel.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, and other Vatican officials welcomed Rice and her entourage on Feb. 8 in the Vatican for an exchange of opinions, Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls said in a written statement released a few hours after the meeting. The 45-minute encounter was cordial, the Vatican text said.

Cardinal Sodano and Archbishop Lajolo outlined the Vatican’s concerns in the Holy Land, especially about finding a resolution to territorial issues, the status of Palestinian refugees and the final status of Jerusalem, a senior U.S. official in Rome told Catholic News Service. The archbishop specified that the Vatican wished that the sacred character of Jerusalem be recognized and that priests and other religious have access to the city without hindrance or difficulty.

Rice said the United States agreed with those principles, but she cautioned there was much work to be done before discussions on Jerusalem’s final status could be approached.

The U.S. official said the time spent on talks about Iraq was fairly short; Rice emphasized she was aware of the difficulties Iraqi Christians were facing. Many Christian churches have been the targets of bombings and attacks by insurgents. Rice promised that the United States was working to encourage the eventual formation of a government that protected religious minorities in Iraq.

Concerning the harsh restrictions against Christians in Saudi Arabia, Rice said the issue was very much on the U.S. agenda, the U.S. official said. For the first time, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom designated Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Eritrea as countries of particular concern for their severe and systematic religious freedom violations.

The U.S. official in Rome said Cardinal Sodano told Rice the Vatican would like to see more progress made on the Saudi religion restrictions. Concerning restrictions against Catholics in China, Cardinal Sodano said he could see no reason for the Chinese government to view such a relatively small community as a threat, said the U.S. official. Rice said the United States would continue to raise these concerns.

The U.S. official said Cardinal Sodano told Rice he appreciated President George W. Bush’s strong spiritual and moral approach to his leadership; Rice said she appreciated the Holy See’s longstanding efforts promoting interreligious dialogue and the fight against H.I.V./AIDS. But she urged the Vatican to be more open to and embrace the idea of using genetically modified foods in alleviating hunger and famine in the world, the official told CNS.

Vatican Restricts Teaching by U.S. Jesuit Theologian

After a five-year investigation, the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation said it had found serious doctrinal errors in the work of Roger Haight, S.J., an American, and forbade him to teach as a Catholic theologian. The Vatican’s critique focused on Father Haight’s book, Jesus Symbol of God (1999), which explored the themes of Christ’s divinity, the resurrection, the Trinity and salvation for non-Christians.

Father Haight said, I’m not going to comment at all on the Vatican document.

The notification said Father Haight’s assertion that Catholic theology must be in dialogue with the modern world leads him to downplay or deny central teachings of the church, including that the Word of God was made flesh in Jesus Christ, that Jesus was divine and that salvation is offered to all humanity through Jesus.

Father Haight recently resigned as a professor of theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. He had been barred from teaching there since 2000, pending the outcome of the Vatican’s investigation.

In 2000, Jesus Symbol of God, published by Orbis Books, won an award from the Catholic Press Association as the year’s best book on theology. It was a selection of the Catholic Book Club, operated by America Press.

In the book, Father Haight says the religious pluralism of the world is a given, and theologically, from a Christian standpoint, this pluralism should be interpreted positively. The normative revelation of Jesus posits that God’s grace is operative in other religions. He argues that affirming the validity of other religions does not undermine the normativity of Jesus Christ. And affirming the normativity of Jesus Christ, not simply for Christians but for all human beings, does not undermine the validity and truth contained in other religions.

News Briefs

In response to a question from Catholic News Service in early February, Cardinal Francis Arinze, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, said that Rainbow Sash wearers disqualify themselves from receiving Holy Communion because they are demonstrating their opposition to church teaching on homosexuality.

A Lithuanian-born Polish cardinal acknowledged he was five years older than indicated in Vatican records and thus will not be eligible to vote in a conclave to elect the next pope. Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz, retired archbishop of Wroclaw, Poland, said his identification papers were changed in 1942 to save him from deportation as a forced laborer to Nazi Germany. There are currently 119 cardinals who are under 80 years of age and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave.

A Massachusetts jury found the laicized priest Paul R. Shanley guilty on four counts of child sex abuse, including rape.

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