updated 2/9/2005 7:15:47 PM ET 2005-02-10T00:15:47

A remark by the Vatican’s No. 2 official about the possibility of a papal resignation has touched a raw nerve, setting off an emotional debate among some of Pope John Paul II’s closest advisers.

With the pope in the hospital recovering from severe breathing difficulties following the flu, the issue has become the talk of the Vatican despite efforts by his inner circle to dampen speculation.

No pope has resigned for centuries, and the archbishop of Paris said Wednesday that for John Paul, 84, showing “his weakness can also be a sign of strength.”

Emphasizing that the rules of the church allowed the pontiff to step down, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger said: “He can resign, and it’s a question of his conscience.”

“The pope must do what he thinks to be the will of God to accomplish his mission,” Lustiger told a French radio station.

Pope leaves no doubt of his views
John Paul repeatedly has said he intends to stay on, even asserting that he continues to serve the church from his hospital room.

His forehead smeared with the traditional mark of mortality, John Paul celebrated Ash Wednesday in his room, missing public prayers opening the Lenten season of fasting and reflection for the first time in 26 years.

He received ashes he had blessed earlier during a ceremony at the hospital, where he was rushed Feb. 1 with throat spasms. The pope invited his personal doctor, Renato Buzzonetti, and others to join him, said his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

Talk that John Paul might eventually step down has been in the air for almost a decade, as the pope has visibly weakened from Parkinson’s disease and from hip and knee ailments. His speech has been slurred for some years, and because of difficulties to even stand, he now uses a wheeled throne pushed by aides.

John Paul, however, has consistently brushed aside any speculation, often declaring that he would carry out his mission until the end.

So Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Holy See’s No. 2 official, surprised observers when he responded to a reporter this week who asked whether the ailing pope would ever consider stepping down.

“Let’s leave that hypothesis up to the pope’s conscience,” Sodano responded Monday. “We must have great faith in the pope. He knows what to do.”

Since then, several other cardinals have made similar comments, including Jorge Mejia of Argentina, a former classmate in Rome of John Paul.

Mejia said the pope “must decide when his physical conditions will be so serious that he won’t be able to go on anymore.”

Weakness, or symbol of courage?
On the other hand, Lustiger said, the pope’s forbearance in the face of his ailments was an important symbol for Roman Catholics.

“The pope doesn’t have to be like [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, to give the example of the superman who runs the church,” Lustiger said.

Still, any talk of resignation has angered some.

“It is bad taste to talk about it, and it’s even worse because the starting point of this debate is the pope’s flu,” said Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation of Bishops.

Another key Vatican cardinal, Dario Castrillon Hoyos of the Congregation for the Clergy, said a resignation “is not the order of the day because he has the helm of the church firmly in his hands.”

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a U.S. Jesuit and Vatican expert, said that as many as 10 popes were estimated to have resigned but that the historical evidence was not clear.

The most famous was Pope Celestine V, who assumed the papacy in 1294 at age 85 and resigned five months later, saying he was not up to the task. He was later put under guard for fear that he would become the rallying point for a schism.

The church’s Code of Canon Law has provisions for a resignation, but Reese and experts at the Vatican said the wording posed potential problems.

The resignation must be “freely made and properly manifested,” according to church law, but it is not clear what would be done if the pope became incapacitated.

The Vatican has declined to comment officially on whether John Paul has left written instructions. Other recent popes are said to have done so.

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