Who would lead the world's 1 billion Catholics if the pope no longer could? Though Pope John Paul II's condition has been improving since...

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Who would lead the world’s 1 billion Catholics if the pope no longer could?

Though Pope John Paul II’s condition has been improving since he was hospitalized with the flu earlier this week, concerns over the 84-year-old pontiff’s health have highlighted a void in church — or canon — law: While there are provisions for popes to retire or resign, and a process for electing a new pope, there’s no clear policy on who should lead if a pope becomes incapacitated — too sick to communicate, yet technically still in charge of the church.

“This may be hard for Americans to believe, but there aren’t really rules or procedures for this,” said William Portier, who teaches Catholic theology at the University of Dayton, a Catholic university.

The central piece of canon law on the issue, known as Canon 335, says that when the Holy See is “entirely impeded,” “nothing is to be altered in the governance of the universal church” unless special laws are passed allowing such actions.

“The Code of Canon Law is expecting somewhere that special laws will be written to say what do we do if this happens,” Portier said. But no such special laws have been adopted.

If John Paul II became unable to lead, his most highly trusted cardinals and archbishops — among them Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state; and Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s personal secretary — likely would increase their management of the Vatican’s day-to-day operations.

Cardinal James Francis Stafford, the former archbishop of Denver who now heads a Vatican tribunal that grants absolutions and dispensations, said in an interview with the newspaper La Repubblica that the Vatican is still functioning as the pope recuperates.

Stafford said that Sodano, No. 2 in the Vatican hierarchy, is standing in for the pope on a day-to-day business. “If I had a problem I would go to Cardinal Sodano,” Stafford said. “I have always found him open and available.”

The 77-year-old Sodano, a seasoned diplomat whom the pope appointed Vatican secretary of state in 1991, is from the province of Asti in Italy’s Piedmont, a northern region whose people pride themselves on their practical, down-to-business ways.

His name also figures among the “papabili,” as the possible top contenders to be the next pontiff are called in Italian. And while he is the prelate who steps in at the Holy See in John Paul’s temporary absence while hospitalized, only the pope can exercise supreme authority in pastoral matters.

Assistants cannot implement initiatives, settlements to disagreements or changes to church doctrine unless the pope recovered and they could consult him, canon law experts say.

“The problem comes when there’s a need to change policy or do new things in new circumstances. Then you’ve got to go to the top man,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican” and editor of America, a Jesuit magazine.

“In the U.S., we have the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which deals with that exact problem in the presidency. The Catholic Church doesn’t have that.”

This lack of clear rules could be paralyzing, said the Rev. Kenneth Lasch, a canon lawyer and retired priest.

“Everybody knows the pope doesn’t run the church on his own,” Lasch said, “but … he sets the tone like any other state leader. He’s an initiator and innovator of policy … that may lead to changes in church teachings.”

Unless John Paul or a successor makes new church law to deal with incapacitated popes, the situation could occur repeatedly in the future, Reese said.

“Modern medicine can keep the body alive a lot longer than the mind is capable of functioning,” Reese said. “What do you do? This could go on for a year or more.”

Reese has publicly suggested a solution: If a pope becomes unable to communicate for more than one month, the church’s cardinals would come to Rome and could decide, by a two-thirds vote, that he was incapable of governing. Then bishops around the world also would have a say.

“The problem is, something like that has to be set up by the pope before it can happen,” he said.

It has been rare in church history for popes to step down when unable to run the church. The most famous example was Celestine V, born Pietro di Murrone, a monk and hermit who historians say was woefully unprepared to assume St. Peter’s throne. Cardinals elected him in 1294 after he was said to have warned them to quickly elect a pope.

The most recent resignations came in the early 15th century, when the church’s Council of Constance persuaded at least two of three competing popes — including Gregory XII, the only one of the three recognized by the modern Vatican as official — to step down to end a major church schism.

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.