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Orla Guerin reports from Rome
"Even discussing who might succeed Pope John Paul is viewed by as treachery"
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Monday, 10 January, 2000, 15:22 GMT
Bishop in Pope health row

Pope John Paul The pontiff is still carrying out his duties despite ill health


By Orla Guerin in Rome

The head of Germany's Roman Catholic bishops has raised the possibility that Pope John Paul II could decide to step down from the papacy for health reasons.

Bishop Carl Lehmann's remarks to German radio have caused controversy in Italy, but so far there has been no comment from the Vatican.

The Vatican does not like to dwell on the Pope's failing health and increasing frailty, though both are painfully obvious.

Among members of the hierarchy, these crucial issues are usually not spoken of out loud. Even discussing who might succeed Pope John Paul, who is 79, is viewed by some within the Vatican as treachery.

One Italian bishop has already condemned his German colleague for making what he called "an attack in poor taste".

There is some dispute over what Bishop Carl Lehmann has actually said.

Tension

According to one news agency, he said the Pope should decide whether to retire for health reasons, adding that he had the strength and the courage to do it.

But the Italian media have gone further, claiming the bishop has actually called for the Pope to step down.

Bishop Lehmann's interview has already grabbed headlines here with Italian television describing it as "sensational".

One way or the other, the Vatican will be deeply displeased that such a senior figure in the Church has even mentioned the word "retirement".

But the Church hierarchy in Germany does not always toe the Vatican line.

There has already been tension between Rome and some German bishops in the wake of a battle over abortion counselling, and in the last group of cardinals appointed by the Pope there were no Germans, leading to some speculation that he wanted to discipline the German Church.

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