Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The headlines say we should be worried about the Pope's health. Why?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 19, 2011

This past weekend, dozens of stories appeared in the English-speaking media, reporting that the health of Pope Benedict XVI is slipping. Most of the headlines referred to the same AP report, and the few “independent” accounts seemed obviously prompted by the AP story. Here’s just a quick sampling:

Just a few weeks ago, on October 24, I asked whether it was Time to start worrying about the Pope's health. I concluded that although the Holy Father is now obviously aging, there is no particular reason for immediate concern. Has anything changed? The short answer: No.

The AP story observed that Pope Benedict has begun using a rolling platform to spare himself the long walk down the aisle of St. Peter’s basilica. That’s true, but it’s not hot news; he began using that platform in October. Informed sources report that the Pontiff has arthritic knees, which ache when he walks long distances. That’s a shame, and the suffering is reason enough to offer a quick prayer for the Pope. But it’s not a cause for panic. You can be a very good Pontiff with very bad knees.

Next AP noted that the Pope has begun scheduling group meetings with the bishops who are in Rome for their ad limina visits, rather than speaking with each prelate individually. Again, that’s old news, which first came out in October.

It’s true that Pope Benedict had a mild stroke some years ago, and it’s true that his older brother has voiced his opinion that Pope Benedict would resign if he became incapacitated. But those facts qualify merely as background information. There’s no evidence of any alarming new medical condition.

Yes, there is evidence that Pope Benedict tires easily. He is now 84 years old—will be 85 in April—and at that age few men can maintain the schedule they once set for themselves. In fact, few men that age can maintain the schedule that the Pope maintains today!

So why the sudden spate of stories about the Pope’s health? The reason, I suspect, is simple. Realizing that millions of people will be turning their attention toward Rome on Christmas Eve, AP provided a “perspective piece,” alerting readers to the likelihood that Pope Benedict will look tired. Then dozens of editors oversold the report—perhaps innocently, in most cases, since they haven’t been following the story until now--with headlines that exaggerated the urgency of the story.

There’s always some reason for concern about the health of a man approaching his 85th birthday. We don’t know how long his strength will hold up. It’s never a bad idea to offer a prayer for the continued health of Pope Benedict. But at the moment, from all the available indications, there’s still no cause for alarm.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Dec. 21, 2011 2:30 AM ET USA

    It is always good to say a prayer for the Pope. May God help him.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 20, 2011 1:29 PM ET USA

    When a lede begins "Fears grow..." you can bet your bottom dollar it's a report on other reports subsuming their authoritativeness. Rediculous.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Dec. 20, 2011 12:07 PM ET USA

    For how many years did the press try to kill off Pope John Paul II? It was laughable. Cent'anni, Santo Padre!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 20, 2011 6:50 AM ET USA

    There is too much discussion about worrying about the health of an 85 year-old man. No time is a good time to die, and we ought not be "worrying" ourselves as Christians, particularly at this time of year. There is no cause for alarm. Our Lord tells us there is nothing to be gained from worry, and the Holy Father desires plenty of prayers but not worrying. The life expectancy in the late 1920s was 59. He reached that milestone a quarter of a century ago. God bless him.