The frenzy of speculation was touched off by German Bishop Karl Lehman, who suggested in an interview that the pope could step down if he felt too ill to fullfill his duties.
The rumor that the pontiff, in failing health, was planning to resign his post and retreat to a monastery in his native Poland, "is a controversial subject within the Church," said Father Thomas Reese, author of Inside the Vatican and editor of the Catholic weekly America.
"I don't think anyone wants to talk about resignation because it might look like you are suggesting the pope should retire," he said.
However, others in the church, like Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, are happy to finally be able to publicly voice opinions long kept private.
"It is important to simply highlight the fact that there's no reason why the pope could not resign," said Gumbleton. "The fact that people think the pope can't resign is something quite recent, within the last 100 years."
However, the last pope to resign his post, Celestine V, reigned for only five months in 1294 before stepping down. The popes decision gnited controversy.
"It so upset Dante that when he wrote his Divine Comedy, he placed Celestine in hell," said Reese.
While Vatican officials insist that there is no plan in place for the pope's exit, it is clear the 79-year-old pontiff is in failing health.
Once an avid outdoorsman, John Paul II charmed the world by allowing himself to be photographed skiing and hiking. He also kept the most extensive travel schedule of any Pope, journeying to every corner of the globe to spread the message of the church.
But the effects of a failed assassination attempt in 1981 and reported Parkinsons disease have clearly taken their toll on the Pontiff.
However, while the pope uses a trully to get around the Vatican, his physical condition does not seem to be affecting the Pope's ability to govern the Church.
In March, John Paulwho turns 80 on May 18completed an exhausting journey to the Holy Land.
"A pope can govern from a wheelchair. That's not a problem. Any man who can go off to the Middle East and do all of the things he did there, and continue to meet with heads of state and people from all over the world, is clearly capable of governing," said Reese. "The question is, what about next year, the year after that? I mean, he could live another 10 years."
"It's just unreal to think that people in their 80s and 90s can function effectively in a job that has such responsibility to it," said Gumbleton. "The church doesn't depend on any one person."
The possibility of a papal resignation has already had an effect on Vatican politics.
According to John Cornwell, a writer on Vatican affairs, a power vacuum has been created in which factions both on the right and on the left are in very tough competition to make their voices and their influence felt.