A Report on the Medical Condition of Pope John Paul II
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JEFFREY BROWN: John Allen, welcome. With the latest reports that the pope’s health has stabilized, can you put this event into some larger context for us so we can understand his overall health?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, Jeff, in the last several years the pope has been in a process of gradual decline, and of course much of that has been in full public view. In itself, this episode probably is not terribly significant. I mean, it’s not analogous to the assassination attempt in 1981, or to the tumor that he had removed in the mid-’90s.
The pope never lost consciousness, he was not subjected to extraordinary measures, and as you’ve indicated is resting comfortably today, and apparently making steady improvement. But I think it does mark a new stage in that decline, in the sense that in recent months the Vatican has significantly curtailed the pope’s travel schedule, they’ve cut back his public appearances, and they’ve protected him from a lot of the day-to-day work that popes normally are involved in.
And despite all of that, his breathing difficulties were still significant enough to require emergency intervention. I think what that suggests is, the pope is now at a stage where despite the very best care and despite a relatively lax schedule, he is almost always at risk. And that means the monitoring and the concern levels are going to be, you know, at a heightened level from here on in.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit more about his activities of late. He was last seen publicly Sunday. How active has he been these last weeks and months?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think what has happened is that really since 2003, there has been a steady effort to pare back his schedule to the real minimum essentials. You know, normally, the pope’s schedule would put him on the road on a trip three or four times a year.
This year, so far, the only trip that has even come close to being confirmed by the Vatican is for World Youth Day in Germany in the summer and his public appearances, both in number and in duration and in how much the pope does, have all been reduced. Over the Christmas holidays this year, for example, we saw him observing many ceremonies, where before he would have officiated. He was called upon to speak less. His messages have all been reduced in content, and therefore he has less to say.
And all of that, of course, is to try to preserve his energy levels so when he really does need to be on stage, he’s able to do it. And by and large, that strategy has worked in recent months. So when the pope has been in public we have seen a figure with a clearer and stronger voice, greater energy levels, better complexion, more body language. That is part of what made this week’s news so surprising, in many ways, because the health story prior to that point had been how much better the pope had looked in recent months.
JEFFREY BROWN: You said that the pope never lost consciousness. But are there any mechanisms in place, any rules that would govern should the pope lose consciousness or become incapacitated?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, I presume you mean by that permanently incapacitated. It’s a terrific question, to which unfortunately there is no equally compelling response. The code of canon law for the Catholic Church, which is the official body of law for the Church, does make provision for a papal resignation — it’s Canon 332– but that presumes the pope is acting freely and of his own will.
It does not cover a situation in which the pope is simply unable to communicate his wishes. And in fact, when you talk to senior church officials they will tell you that there really is no mechanism to cover that situation, and therefore there is great confusion and some degree of debate about what might actually happen if the Church found itself in that situation. So the truth is, Jeff, we just don’t know.
JEFFREY BROWN: And John, last year, you and I talked in Rome for the NewsHour about a very sensitive question about what happens, what kind of preparation there is, talking, even jockeying, for that day that will come one day the passing of the pope and the succession to another pope. Bring that up to date. What’s happening now?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, you know, as you say, papal politics are always a very delicate matter, I mean, in part out of respect for the present holy father, and in a sense not to, you know, want to undercut his pontificate while it’s still in place, in part because there actually is a prohibition in Church law against any kind of explicit maneuvering about the succession while the pope is still alive.
But certainly informally, and in discreet ways, the conversation about what kind of pope the Church is going to need has been going on. It has been going on out in the open, obviously, in the press for some time. But even among the cardinals themselves, those are the some 120 men who will elect the next pope, certainly behind closed doors, and among themselves, they’ve been talking about it. And I do think that the events of this week certainly will induce even more reflection about it.
I think at this stage they’re really not so much talking about specific candidates; that is, about which men they might want to elect, so much as they’re talking about what kind of profile of a man the Church is going to need to carry it forward into the future. And at that level, Jeff, I would say the debate is quite wide open.
I would add that I think one of the things that makes this papal race, so to speak, so difficult to handicap is that… of course Karol Wojtyla was the first non-Italian pope in 450 years, and I think his election, to a certain extent, shattered the Italian monopoly on the papacy, which means that the cardinals are no longer looking just for the best Italian. They’re looking just for the best cardinal, wherever in the world he might come from. And therefore, it’s a much more wide-open process.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay, John Allen with the National Catholic Reporter in Rome. Thanks again.
JOHN ALLEN: A pleasure, Jeff.