He's 80, but the Pope Is Staying on the Job

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Pope John Paul II marked his birthday Thursday celebrating mass, eating lobster with senior clergy and singing songs with Polish compatriots. But the chorus of their chosen birthday song, "May you live to 100 years," may have caused a little disquiet among Catholic liberals — they'd prefer to hear the octogenarian pontiff, who is stricken with Parkinson's disease, talking about retirement. It's not so much that they're antagonistic toward John Paul II as it is that they fear a lame-duck pontiff would be forced to cede control over the church to some of the theological conservatives the Polish prelate has appointed to the curia. "Many liberals in the church fear that as the pope becomes more incapacitated by age and illness, power in the Vatican will devolve to some of the cardinals who share John Paul II's conservatism but not some of his more progressive attitudes," says TIME religion correspondent David Van Biema. "That scenario may be alarming to those on the left of the Catholic theological spectrum, but speculation that he may be planning to retire may be little more than wishful thinking on their part."

If there is wishful thinking, it arose in part when John Paul II instituted a ruling four years ago that excluded cardinals over the age of 80, on grounds of the burdens of age, from participating in the process of picking a new pontiff. Speculation that he may be planning to abdicate has also been fueled by Vatican insiders' remarks suggesting that the pope had established mechanisms for a smooth transition should he become physically incapacitated, and by intimations from the writer who collaborated with the pope on his 1994 book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" that John Paul II would like to retreat into seclusion at a monastery in Poland. "But they may be missing the fact that John Paul II has said explicitly that a pontiff cannot resign," says Van Biema. "Obviously many of the faithful are concerned over what an ailing pope will mean for the church in the years to come, and his 80th birthday may have been an occasion for those who think about his retirement to think even harder. But the pope is showing no signs that he's planning to relinquish the papacy." And, of course, according to Catholic doctrine, the pope knows best.