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'Potential Frailty'

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 31, 2009

 When the Pope sneezes, the professional Vatican-watchers in Rome jump to attention. They ask themselves: Does the Holy Father have a cold? Is his health slipping? Should we dust off those speculative stories about the prelates most likely to be his successor?

When an 82-year-old man slips and falls, it's not unreasonable to pay attention. Maybe it was an ordinary accident. Then again, it could be something more serious. So when Pope Benedict fell and broke his wrist during his vacation stay in Les Combes, it made sense for reporters to ask probing questions.

Fortunately the Vatican had reassuring answers. The Pope was groping for the light switch. In the dark, in an unfamiliar bedroom, he bumped into the corner of his bed and lost his balance. The account rings true. It describes the sort of accident that could happen to anyone. No reason to get excited.

Nevertheless Newsweek weighed in with a piece listing some of the cardinals who might be considered leading papabili if a new conclave took place in the near future. To his credit, writer Edward Pentin pointed out that there isn't a conclave planned for the near future, and attempts to name the next Roman Pontiff are somewhat futile because (to quote the closing words of his article) "it's just too early to say."

Still the Newsweek column illustrates the absurdity of this speculative enterprise. Pentin lists several cardinals who might be key figures in the next conclave, mentioning that each of the leading contenders has been a close ally of Pope Benedict. But whenever the next conclave takes place, Pope Benedict won't be a participant, so his backing may not be an important consideration. For that matter, if the current Pontiff has put one prelate in a strong position to emerge as his successor, it's the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, whose name is inexplicably missing from Pentin's list.

But the point here is not the Newsweek has done a bad job in handicapping the leading contenders. In fact Pentin knows his field well, and his article is as plausible as any other piece in the genre. The point is that it's silly to try this sort of handicapping in the first place.

Actually, the silliness comes through clearly in the opening sentence, in which the author tries to justify the speculation that will follow:

When Pope Benedict XVI broke his wrist in the middle of the night last week, the world was reminded rather suddenly of his age (82), his potential frailty, and the possibility that, some time in the not too distant future, the Roman Catholic Church could be looking once again to choose a new Successor of Peter.

So what is it, then that the Pope's accident drew to our attention? His age, yes; the Holy Father is no longer a young man. But his "potential frailty?" We're all potentially frail, my friends. It's called mortality.

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