VATICAN CITY — Since well before New Year's Eve, when John Paul II was first wheeled into St. Peter's Basilica on a chariot-like cart, his ability to push ahead with his papacy has been a subject of increasingly grave discussion here.
Stooped, trembling and apparently no longer able to walk the length of the vast shrine, the 79-year-old pope has shown signs of quickening physical decline in recent months. Yet until now, owing to Vatican taboo, debate over whether he might or should resign had remained rather quiet.
Sunday, however, a leading German bishop broached the subject publicly and at length, focusing attention on what he called "a sensitive moment" for the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.
Responding to a German radio interviewer, Bishop Karl Lehmann said he had been impressed in recent meetings by John Paul's "spiritual presence" but felt incompetent to judge "whether his evident Parkinson's disease has any repercussions on his ability to guide the church and make decisions."
Lehmann, who is bishop of Mainz and head of the German bishops conference, added: "I personally believe that the pope, if he were to feel that he was simply not in a condition to lead the church responsibly, would have the strength and the courage to say, 'I can no longer fulfill that which needs to be done.' It is, of course, not easy to think about. No one is used to having a pope resign."
His words caused a stir because German and Italian media misread them as a call for the pope to abdicate--an interpretation the bishop later rejected. To set the record straight, the Vatican on Monday published lengthy portions of the interview--an unusual step that, in effect, brought the issue of John Paul's leadership capacity officially into the open.
Popes usually reign for life. The last to resign willingly was Celestine V, a simple hermit who discovered he was not up to the job and gave it up after five months in 1294. Gregory XII abdicated reluctantly in 1415, ending a feud with a rival who was claiming the papacy at the same time.
Once vigorous and athletic, John Paul has suffered symptoms of Parkinson's, a progressive neurological disorder, for nearly a decade. Tremors, first limited to his left hand, now affect much of his body; his speech is often slurred. He has relied on a cane since hip-replacement surgery in 1994 but in recent weeks has rarely walked in public without an aide at his elbow.
Speculation over John Paul's tenure has heightened because of the current Holy Year celebrations, which are aimed at revitalizing the church. They run until Jan. 6 of next year and are viewed as a crowning achievement of his 21-year-old papacy. The German radio interviewer asked the bishop, "Is it possible that such a 'round date' could be a suitable moment for the pope to resign?"
The Polish-born pontiff has often said that God alone will decide how long he remains on the throne.
"He never asks what is beyond our abilities; he himself gives us the strength to accomplish what he expects of us," John Paul said Monday in a clear voice in his annual address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See.
In response, the dean of the diplomatic corps, Giovanni Galassi of San Marino, wished the pope "many more years as the successor of St. Peter."
Several bishops and cardinals said they saw no need for John Paul to step down.
"The church is not Fiat or General Motors," said Alessandro Maggiolini, the bishop of Como, Italy. "Its criteria cannot be efficiency. Even an elderly father can be the conscience of the church and continue to govern it."
But longtime Vatican-watchers say the church hierarchy is divided. Some who favor John Paul's resignation are said to worry that his frailty has caused him to postpone important papal decisions and appointments. Others are said to be alarmed by the Vatican's lack of a constitutionally mandated succession scenario if a pope becomes too ill to make decisions.
"The grave concern is that there is no legal machinery for removing a pope from office," said Wilton Wynn, a Rome-based American biographer of John Paul and two other popes. "Should John Paul be incapacitated to the point that he's not capable of resigning, then the church would be without a head. You can't have a substitute pope."
"It must have come to his mind that he's got to protect the church against that kind of a problem," Wynn added.
The Vatican is an absolute monarchy whose canon law gives popes the power to abdicate. No one can fire a pope or reject his resignation, although advisors have dissuaded past popes from stepping down.
In his radio interview, Lehmann said it was not clear whether others in the Vatican would support a decision by John Paul to step down.
"It is always a sensitive moment when popes, after lengthy pontificates, suffer physical weakness," the bishop said. He added that perhaps an elderly, ailing pope might offer "a positive lesson" for today's youth-oriented society by carrying on with his duties.
Vittorio Messori, Italian collaborator on John Paul's best-selling 1994 book, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," said he believes that the pope is torn between reigning until death and retiring to a monastery in his native Poland.
"This man is living a drama because he is so radically alone," the writer told the Italian newspaper La Stampa. "For some time, he has been asking [God] which is better, to keep bearing his cross or--for his own good and the good of the church--to lay it down."