Pope's health subject of much speculation

June 23, 1994|By Andrew M. Greeley

Rome -- IT'S NO secret in this city that the pope is ill.

How ill he is and what is the nature of his illness is debated everywhere. One rumor is as good as another, and there's no point in paying any attention to most of them.

Clearly, however, the church is in a "fin du regime" situation, but no one is sure how long that could last.

It's a grisly business, this speculation on the pope's health, made no less grisly by the fact that no one ever believes the Vatican is telling the truth about any pope's health.

The Catholic Church is the last monarchy in Europe where real power is transferred only at the death of the man who holds the power.

Until the middle of the last century, the average papal reign was less than five years. No one worried about any pope holding power for too long a period of time -- or about a lengthy "fin du regime."

But with the changes in human longevity made possible by medical advances, the issue of limited terms for the papacy is discussed with increasing frequency.

Might the Catholic Church not be better off if popes ruled for limited periods of time -- five or six or even 10 years or until an acceptable retirement age like 75 years, which is when all other bishops must retire?

Would not more frequent change provide an influx of new people and new ideas into the church's administration?

One of the questions discussed everywhere in Italy is whether the next pope (whenever) ought to be a "stranieri" (a foreigner) or an Italian.

Everyone seems to think that one characteristic will be essential -- mastery of both Italian and English.

The suggestion one hears often, that Chicago's Cardinal Bernardin -- conceived, as he was, in Italy and born in the United States -- will be the first American Pope, is a wild fantasy.

America is far too powerful a country, too much envied and too much feared, for the church to risk the controversy that an American pope would generate, wherever he might have been conceived. The cardinal would, of course, be an excellent pope.

One rumor floating around Rome these days is especially troubling. It is said (by whom one never knows) that the pope is under pressure from the right-wing Catholic organization Opus Dei, which has considerable power in the Vatican these days, to retire and then influence the next election. In gratitude for his years of service, according to the rumor, the College of Cardinals could be expected to let John Paul choose his own successor.

In effect, the papacy would become like the Mexican presidency -- every successor chosen by his predecessor.

In this case, goes the rumor, the pope would probably support Cardinal Ruini, the Vicar of Rome, to head off the scholarly and popular (with the Italian priests and people) Cardinal Martini of Milan, a man with whom Opus Dei is not pleased.

Whether the College of Cardinals would accede to such a strategy and whether the pope would be a party to it are open questions. My hunch is that many, if not most, of the cardinals would go along, but that the pope would not.

Yet his recent letter on the ordination of women certainly looks like an attempt to put restraints on the pope who comes after him.

The present method of selecting a pope is great theater but singularly bad governance, not because it is too political but because it is not political enough -- that is to say, it is not a free and open election. It was free in the past and can be again.

The present deep secrecy of the conclave dates only to the beginning of this century and exists only to keep the Austrian emperor from intervening. You may have noticed that there isn't an Austrian emperor any more.

An expanded electorate, an open election and a fixed term for the pope are all reforms which might bring the Catholic Church into the 20th century.

Unfortunately, as you may have also noticed, we are about to enter the 21st century.

Andrew M. Greeley, a Catholic priest, is professor of social science at the University of Chicago and professor of sociology at the University of Arizona.

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