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.

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