Analysis: Speculation starts to mount over Pope taking early retirement

Pope Benedict marks two milestones this week and while his health appears stable, signs of frailty have again prompted speculation over whether he will be the first pontiff in seven centuries to resign.

Benedict, one of the oldest popes in history, turns 85 today, and on Thursday he marks the seventh anniversary of his election as successor to the immensely popular John Paul II.

Benedict is already older than John Paul, who died aged 84 in 2005 and he is now the oldest reigning pope since Leo XIII, who died aged 93 in 1903 after reigning for 25 years.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

“His health at 85 is better than John Paul’s was at 75,” said one high-ranking Vatican official who reports to the pope regularly.

“He is a very methodical man. He looks after himself and feels that he still has much to do.” The Vatican has announced that he will visit Lebanon in September and he may go to Brazil in 2013.

“I’m old but I can still carry out my duties,” the pope told Fidel Castro during his trip to Cuba last month.

Still, Benedict is increasingly showing signs of frailty and fatigue, signs that are being watched carefully for their possible effect on the future of the 1.2 billion member Roman Catholic Church.

Last year, to conserve his strength, he began using a mobile platform instead of walking up the aisle of St Peter’s Basilica.

The Vatican says it is to spare him fatigue and there is no concern about his overall health. His brother has said Benedict suffered two mild strokes before his election in 2005 and he reportedly suffers from high blood pressure and arthritis.

Where Benedict differs from his predecessors is that he is the only pope in living memory to discuss publicly the possibility of resignation, though others have done so privately.

In a book in 2010, Benedict said he would not hesitate to become the first pontiff to resign willingly in more than 700 years if he felt no longer able, “physically, psychologically and spiritually” to run the Catholic Church.

Since his election on 19 April, 2005, succeeding one of history’s most popular pontiffs, Benedict has been hailed as a hero by conservative Catholics but viewed with suspicion by liberals.

While conservatives have cheered him for trying to reaffirm traditional Catholic identity, his critics accuse him of turning back the clock on reforms by nearly half a century.

His papacy has been clouded mostly by the child sex abuse scandals.

He has apologised to the victims several times for the criminal behaviour of priests years before his election, but victims’ groups say he has still not done enough to make bishops accountable.