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Pope John Paul II, Parkinson’s Disease, and Paranoia

What Happens if the Pope Becomes Psychotic?


Everyone knows that Pope John Paul II suffered from Parkinson’s Disease. It not only caused him to shake uncontrollably, but it also caused him to come close to death more than once. Among the many symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, however, are paranoia and depression. Most people are unaware of these, but their impact on a pope cannot go overlooked.


What is Parkinson’s Disease?

First described in 1817 by British physician James Parkinson, the cause of Parkinson's disease was not discovered until the 1960s: the loss of cells in the “substantia nigra” region of the brain which produce dopamine. The loss of dopamine causes the nerve cells responsible for movement to begin firing out of control.

The cause of the death of these cells is not yet known. People already in good health don’t typically experience any noticeable problems until as many as 80% of the cells have died, by which point there isn’t much that can be done. In addition to the more visible symptoms of uncontrollable shaking and difficulty walking, those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease also experience difficulty swallowing or breathing — a serious issue if someone also get the flu, as was the case with Pope John Paul II.

There can be periods of remission, but the course of the disease tends to be consistently downhill. There is a drug called levadopa that can replace naturally produced dopamine and reduce the severity of symptoms for a while, but the effectiveness declines over time as even the neural connections needed to transmit the drug begin to fail. Eventually, the patient is left where they would have been otherwise.


Depression & Paranoia

Because Parkinson’s Disease affects the production of brain chemicals, it shouldn’t be surprising that it can also influence a person’s moods and ability to think clearly, yet most people still don’t associate symptoms like depression, hallucination, delusions, or paranoia with the condition. All or any of these could occur with Pope John Paul II.

If the pope is depressed he may become unusually tired, find it difficult to concentrate, and have exceptionally negative thoughts about his church. If the pope is hallucinating he may start seeing people who aren’t there and hearing voices that aren’t there — perhaps attributing them to God, Mary, or angels. A delusional pope will be utterly convinced of the truth of complete falsehoods. A paranoid pope will think that people are out to get him and do him harm.

There are evidently signs that some of these symptoms had begun to affect Pope John Paul II. A close aide to the pope informed John Cornwell that John Paul “gets depressed if he does not have something to look forward to.” There were also many reports of his having developed quite a temper when he didn't get his way.

What can be done about a psychotic pope? Nothing, unfortunately. There is no one in the Catholic Church who has the authority to say that the pope should be happier, isn’t really seeing what he claims, hasn’t really being talking to God or Mary, and doesn’t really know about genuine plots to get him. There are medications that can relieve some of these symptoms — Prozac for depression and quetiapine for psychosis — but any drugs that might be used can make the motor-control problems of Parkinson’s even worse.

There is no precedent for dealing with a psychotic pope. Given the fact that people are living longer lives and neurological conditions are becoming more common in older people, even if serious problems don’t occur during the papacy of John Paul II, they are likely to occur at some point in the future. The Vatican will have to deal with this, one way or another.

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