Pope’s season cut short by knee injury

The Daily Mail has a story out that speculates the pope may resign due to ill health.

One can read this article in two ways. Either it is the silly season in the British press for articles on Pope Benedict XVI. His appearance on a rolling platform and use of a cane may have led to some recent heavy-breathing from Fleet Street. Or, this may be a continuation of the meme that began with a 25 Sept 2011 story in the Italian newspaper Libero which said the pope was thinking about retiring on his 85th birthday next April. While the Vatican press office denied the Libero story, could a painful degenerative joint condition precipitate an early exodus by Josef Ratzinger?

There may well be something in the later thesis, but the tone and style of the 11 Nov 2011 story in the Daily Mail entitled “Pope crippled by arthrosis leg pains which makes walking difficult” suggests it may be the former.

Now it isn’t quite the thing to criticize a story based on its headline as the power of naming a story is withheld from reporters. Those slack-jawed troglodytes of the newspaper industry known as sub-editors often come up with headlines that bear no relation to the story. So its not on to beat up the Daily Mail over the verb in the headline — “crippled”. But I’m afraid the rest of the story is weak. Reading this story, one would assume the pope was a professional athlete with a knee injury that threatens to end his career in mid-stride. Is this silly reporting? Take a look and tell me what you think:

The Pope is suffering from a degenerative condition in the joints of his legs which makes it painful for him to walk, according to Vatican insiders.

The onset of arthrosis means 84-year-old Benedict XVI can move only short distances before it becomes agonising to carry on.

His condition, which is related to his age, last month prompted him to request the use of a wheeled platform devised for predecessor Pope John Paul II.dence of Castel Gandolfo

Pilgrims were surprised to see the current pontiff clinging to the bar of the platform while ushers rolled it slowly down the main aisle, making it impossible for him to stop and greet well-wishers as he usually does.

At the time, the Vatican played down concerns about the Pope’s health, saying the platform was ‘solely to lighten the burden’ of processions.

The article then turns to a discussion of arthrosis before it enters the twilight zone.

The fact that it was the Pope – and not his doctors – who requested the mobile platform sparked renewed fears about the health of a man who has suffered two mild strokes and is also known to have a weak heart.

It also prompted speculation that the Bavarian-born Pope, who was elected in April 2005, might eventually resign rather than die in office.

The Daily Mail covers its bets with a closing quote from an Oxford don who says it is highly unlikely the pope would resign due to the aches and pains of age.

However, it is the bit just above the close that is problematic. Someone (we know not who) has fears about the pope using a platform — it being a sign the end is near. And someone else thinks joint pains may force the “crippled” pope to resign.

Using unnamed sources is always tricky. There are times when one must not reveal a source. When I write about the church in Zimbabwe I don’t identify some sources due to fears of retribution. At other times I withhold a name because the source is not authorized to speak on behalf of the organization or doesn’t want to lose his job. And then there is making it up as you go along.

In this case, we don’t have enough information to decide how much credence to give to these assertions. A reporter who covers the Vatican is named earlier in the story as a source for the news the pope uses a cane when moving about his private apartments, but there is no link between this insider and the allegations pushed at the close.

Yet this insider, La Stampa‘s Andrea Torneilli who writes the “Vatican Insider” column, has made some cogent arguments about the pope stepping down. In his 25 Sept 2011 column, Torneilli commented with approval on the Libero article.

[T]he assumption he will resign, without any hitches, was the same thing Ratzinger talked about in an interview in the book “Luce del mondo” (Light of the World), when, in response to a question by interviewer Peter Seewald, he said: “When a Pope arrives at a clear awareness that he no longer has the physical, mental, or psychological capacity to carry out the task that has been entrusted to him, then he has the right, and in some cases, even the duty to resign.” Furthermore, in another passage, Benedict XVI wondered if he would be able to “withstand it all, just from the physical point of view.”

Torneilli also reported the Libero story  said the pope was not willing to run away from a fight. In response to a question about the pedophile priests’ scandal Benedict said:

When there is a great menace, one cannot simply run away from it. That is why, right now, it is definitely not the time to resign …  It is actually at moments like these that one needs to resist and overcome difficult situations. One can only resign at a time when things are calm, or simply, when nothing more can be done about it. But one cannot run away right when the threat is alive and say, “Let somebody else take care of it.”

Torneilli concluded “nothing of what Benedict XVI himself said in answer  to his alleged plans to resign, seems to be materialising.”

The bottom line: There is informed speculation that the pope may step down when he believes his physical or mental capabilities have deteriorated to the point that he is not able to carry out his duties. Or, the sands of time have run out for that plucky Bavarian, Josef Ratzinger. Nobbled by a knee injury that will end his career.

My take is the Daily Mail‘s focus on the illness rather than upon the pope’s published comments about the relationship between illness and his duties as Bishop of Rome means the story falls short.

Silly season … or a foundational story that will see its completion in the coming year? I’ve had my say .. what about you GetReligion readers.

Images courtesy of Natursports / Shutterstock.com

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About geoconger
  • Will

    “The wish, Harry, was father to the thought.”

  • Bern

    It’s official–the death watch has begun!

  • Martha

    Just another filling-up-the-pages story. The man is eighty-four years of age, of course his joints are going to be playing up!

    But since his knees are not – so far as anyone knows – affecting his mind, if he is still in possession of all his faculties, why on earth would he resign?

    Also, popes don’t resign. The last one to do so – Gregory XII – did so because of the Avignon papacy (he was one of two claimants to the Papacy, so he agreed to resign to clarify matters). I’m more worried about the fading memories of the “Daily Mail” writers, since they seem to have forgotten the papacy of John Paul II, who did not resign even though his state of health was much more parlous, a papacy which only ended five years ago! Perhaps this failing mental capacity is a sign that the writer is going to resign his job?

  • Chris M

    There’s no such thing as a ‘silly season’ in the British press. It’s just 12 straight months of complete lunacy.

  • http://www.redeemchristianity.org Scott Jensen

    Wow that’s crazy! I haven’t heard about this yet…I hope the pope gets back to action soon!

  • geoconger

    Will … is your quote from William Pitt … in response to hearing the Prince Regent worry about his father’s health … or is it a Harry Potter quote?

  • Karl

    It’s just speculation. A lot of older people use canes and still work. There’s no indication that he’s not sharp anymore.

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    Paul VI also suffered with arthrosis for some years, according to the bios that I’ve read. Lots of speculation about his retirement, but he didn’t do it, and died on the job. It wouldn’t hurt reporters to recall a little recent history.

    I hope the Pope’s mind remains sharp for a good long time yet. After all, he hasn’t finished vol. 3 of Jesus of Nazareth yet!

  • TACit

    If so, the Vatican press office would have a damage control task on its hands after this:

    so I rather suspect silliness as usual on the part of the British press.

  • Will

    It is Henry IV Part II. (The Prince Regent was not “Henry”.)