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Vatican Optimistic About Pope

Health Crisis Prompts Speculation on Future

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 4, 2005; Page A14

ROME, Feb. 3 -- Vatican officials said Thursday that Pope John Paul II was steadily recovering from breathing problems brought on by a bout of flu, but their statements did little to discourage the speculation that often surrounds the pontiff's health crises: What will happen if he becomes incapacitated?

Many governments have clearly defined procedures that take effect if such misfortune strikes a president or prime minister. But the Vatican does not. There is no formally designated second-in-command who can step in. Popes generally serve until death, with no formal transfer of authority taking place no matter how infirm they become.

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Vatican statements were uniformly optimistic Thursday, two days after John Paul, 84, entered a Rome hospital with complications from flu. "The Holy Father's general condition and his respiratory condition are evolving positively," said a statement from the Vatican press office. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters that medical tests yielded "satisfactory results."

He predicted that the pope would remain in the Gemelli Polyclinic hospital for a total of about seven days. The pope is staying in a large suite set aside for him. "He rested well at night," Navarro-Valls said.

Nonetheless, the danger to the leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics became evident as details of his problems seeped into public view. Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, head of the Vatican health care office, told reporters Thursday that the pope's hunched posture, aggravated by constant use of a wheelchair, cramps his diaphragm and makes it difficult for him to breathe even on the best of days.

A buildup of phlegm or other fluids in his throat because of infection can aggravate the breathing difficulties. Hospitalization is wise because "many means are available to stay ready for complications," Lozano said. The pope came down with flu Sunday.

The pope's appointments were canceled at least through next Tuesday, when the pontiff had planned to meet with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She will be greeted instead by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, Vatican officials said. Despite sharing a title with Rice, Sodano is effectively the Holy See's prime minister.

The pope is scheduled to speak publicly from the hospital on Sunday, the day he usually blesses crowds in St. Peter's Square, Vatican officials said. Officials were still deciding whether his words would be recorded for television or delivered live and whether he would speak from within Gemelli Polyclinic or at the window of his 10th-floor room.

As during other papal health crises in the past decade, talk bubbled up in Rome over John Paul's possible resignation. Many observers assume that the pope, who has been frail for several years, has put a letter on file, probably with Sodano, that would announce he was stepping down if he became incapacitated. But even that scenario, if true, presumes there is someone in authority who would open the letter.

In any case, resignation would be dramatic and, some believe, unthinkable for John Paul. He has said he wants to carry on his "mission" to the end. A bishop in his native Poland once said that the pope would resign "when hen grew teeth."

John Paul probably wants to avoid going down in history as one who voluntarily gave up the papacy, said Catholic historian Alberto Melloni. Melloni recalled that Pope Celestine V, a 13th-century pontiff, resigned and received damnation in the form of a place in the Inferno of Dante's literary classic "The Divine Comedy."

"Resignation is called 'renunciation of the chair.' Renunciation is not popular and therefore not practiced," Melloni said.

Celestine was the last pope to step down. That was in 1294.

More worrisome for church observers is the possibility that the pope could become what church law defines as "impeded" -- that is, having suffered some mishap or malady so severe that he could not communicate. Although church law calls for the creation of special rules to handle the case of an impeded pope, the rules have yet to be spelled out.

There are methods in place for removing impeded bishops from their posts and, in theory, they would be applicable to John Paul, who is bishop of Rome. But church officials would have to accept that the pope was incapacitated and agree that a new one should be elected. Because of historic sensitivities -- the Catholic Church on occasion in past centuries has battled internally over multiple, rival popes -- removing a pope is considered dangerous territory.

"The problem is, there is a lot of emotion surrounding the holy father," Melloni said. "And there's a great problem of church governance."

"What if the pope became unconscious? Who would even make the medical decisions?" asked the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and editor of America magazine, a Catholic weekly. "Other people have wives, parents, sons and daughters. The pope has none of that."

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