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The Pope Got It Wrong

In a long, thoughtful, and–this is the writer’s perpetual habit–gorgeously written piece, Jody Bottum argues over at the Weekly Standard that Benedict XVI has just made a terrible mistake.  

An excerpt:

After this, how will any of his successors feel able to do what John Paul II did, failing physically in the full view of the public—preaching one last homily with his death? Benedict speaks of the unique pressures of “today’s world,” which he insists require a younger man’s strength of mind and body. But today’s world is unique only because we say it is. Human life remains as it was, our aging and our deaths what they always were. 

In other words, the modern world doesn’t really need to see in the pope a model of competent administration, nice as that would be. It does need, however, a public reminder that we are not incapacitated as human beings when we age and prepare to die. We are not to be tucked away or compelled by moral pressure to remove our lives and deaths from public view. The older vision of life is the more complete one, and in today’s world, perhaps uniquely, we are in special need of remembering that.

The doctrine of papal infallibility, be it noted, holds that the Holy Spirit prevents a pope from error only when he pronounces, very formally, and in compliance with a long series of strict conditions, on matters of faith and morals, and not–very emphatically not–that no pope will ever make a mistake.  Even the most devout Catholic (and Jody is plenty devout) thus remains entirely at liberty to consider Benedict’s decision last week, and…wonder.

As, I confess, do I.

  1. Steve C.

    I think I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to him. This man clearly knows his limitations.

  2. Sisyphus

    Does it occur to no one else that the Pope, like some other public and private figures, may have been privately discovered to suffer from any of a number of elder’s conditions that will render him vulnerable in public life? 

    I concur with the objections that age does not necessarily require a shuttering from public life, and have admittedly not followed closely enough to determine the Pope’s intent in this area. We can point to many counterexamples, but when Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher were faced with very different conditions that limited their effectiveness as public spokespeople, they curtailed their public activities according to their new circumstances. 

    And I am in no hurry to discover any hidden reasons the Pope would prefer to keep to himself. I respect John Paul II’s decision, and Benedict XVI’s. I believe each has bequeathed us a homily in accordance with their own circumstance.

  3. katievs

    I can’t understand why a Catholic would waste any time or energy wondering whether or not the Pope has  made a wise decision.  

    If the office were canonically an office “till death”, Jody’s point would make sense.  As it is, it doesn’t.  At least not to me.  The Pope isn’t going to cease being a highly valued person just because he’s no longer Pope.  He’s only going to cease exercising an extremely demanding office, which he himself is confident would be better exercised by someone else.

    The next Pope may very well choose differently.  He may follow the precedent set by John Paul, if he judges that better for the Church.  Why should he feel bound by Benedict’s example, any more than Benedict has felt bound by John Paul’s?

    And since the grace to exercise the office well and rightly is a charism of the office itself, why would anyone standing outside imagine he’s in a better position to judge than the man who holds it—especially when that man is a man of such deep wisdom and manifest holiness?

  4. Nick Stuart
    Jody Bottum quoted by Peter Robinson

    “It does need, however, a public reminder that we are not incapacitated as human beings when we age and prepare to die. We are not to be tucked away or compelled by moral pressure to remove our lives and deaths from public view. ”

    No we are not.

    However, somewhere between 70 and 80 we all, yes all, lose more than a step. Some of us lose a lot more than others. We owe it to the people who depend on us to hang it up before we are incapacitated.

    Benedict sets a valuable example that politicians and judges in the US would do well to follow. Whether Kennedy or Thurmond, Blackmun or Rhenquist, way too many people hang on long after they should have stepped aside. The more important the position, the more important it is if someone realizes they can’t do it, they need to move on.

  5. katievs

    Now that I’ve read the item, I like it even less.

    We are not to be tucked away or compelled by moral pressure to remove our lives and deaths from public view. 

    I don’t care for the suggestion—belied by what we know of the man’s character, as well as his mode and manner of resigning—that he is doing it under pressure.

    Besides, there remains the problem of political theory that the aftermath of San Celestino’s abdication taught us. If popes can resign, then popes can be forced to resign, notwithstanding the fact that the church believes they are chosen with guidance from the Holy Spirit. And after they resign, what then? What are we to do with them? The sheer presence of a retired pope in a Vatican monastery may prove a burden and distraction for his successor.

    This too seems to me stuff and nonsense.  That popes can resign is given in Canon Law.  In other words, it is a valid exercise of the authority of the office.  After the conclave, no one will be confused about who is Pope, any more than Englishmen were confused about who was King after Edward abdicated.

  6. Aaron Miller
    In other words, the modern world doesn’t really need to see in the pope a model of competent administration, nice as that would be. It does need, however, a public reminder that we are not incapacitated as human beings when we age and prepare to die.  ….

    The world of today, like the world of yesterday, could use many lessons. Dignity in weakness needn’t be every Pope’s focus.

    A man who tries to say everything at once will utter only noise.

  7. Mollie Hemingway
    C

    I am not a Roman Catholic but, hey, I’ll weigh in here, too.

    I was utterly shocked by the decision (though I should not have been, in hindsight, since he’s been telegraphing this for years).

    But if anything, I have come to respect the decision more and more with each passing day.

    One can show dignity in aging, dying and death in many ways. Being a dying pope is just one of them. I have no doubt that Benedict will show us some more.

  8. katievs

    I love this short video of Cardinal Arinze’s response.

    I wish I could embed it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06UP2qHCxWg&feature=player_embedded

  9. Kierkegaard7

    That panic that seizes the Roman Church during such transitional times is especially problematic with a mediatorial priesthood. It is also typical of all cults of personality.

    When Archbishop Rowan Williams announced he would step down this past autumn, it was generally acknowledged by faithful Anglicans across the globe that, although a kindhearted man, he had failed in his duty to provide leadership to a Communion whose growing edge is evangelical and in the southern hemisphere but whose money and power resides in small, leftist strongholds across England and New England. Let him go back to his books in Oxbridge or wherever.  Now, as GAFCON will meet again in the fall, there are open discussions of a more federal structure within Anglicanism.

    The point is simply this: the episcopacy exist to serve the Christ and His Church. If it no longer does so, no one need be beholden to it. But Romanists are wedded to the Bishop of Rome in an incomprehensible way, and they understand instinctively that if this thread is tugged, much more unravels. I pray the next pope is as evangelical in his faith and message as the last two, but the fuss is unseemly.

  10. Sabrdance

    I was unpersuaded.  Bennedict came into office with the desire to reconvert Europe, not elevate the dignity of man against the oppressive Communist state.

    Dieing slowly and painfully does not achieve his purpose.

    Though I suppose he might be able to go get himself martyred if hereallywanted to.

  11. katievs
    Kierkegaard7: But Romanists are wedded to the Bishop of Rome in an incomprehensible way, and they understand instinctively that if this thread is tugged, much more unravels. I pray the next pope is as evangelical in his faith and message as the last two, but the fuss is unseemly. 

    I can’t help thinking you must not know many Catholics.  I’m one and I’m constantly surrounded by countless others.  I have yet to encounter anyone “panicking” over this.

    Most of us are just a little amazed at how unexpected it was and how unusual it is.  We’re also sad, because we love Benedict so much.

    And we’re eagerly looking forward to meeting the next Pope.  Who will he be, and where will he take us?  

    Watch that Cardinal Arinze clip I linked above and you’ll get a good picture of how most Catholics view this.

  12. KC Mulville

    I have no qualms at all.

    The pope is, ultimately, a bishop. The sacrament of orders is at the core of his life. The sacrament of orders is based on the words of Jesus – “I send you.” You don’t become a priest, bishop, pope, or apostle to sit around. You accept the grace of orders, which is to be sent, and to do the work of God.

    Benedict has done that work, very well, for many years. It isn’t as if he became a bishop to wear a funky hat. He’s been a great and wonderful servant of God.

    Remember the parable of the talents (Matthew 25, for those keeping score), where the master gives one talent, two talents, and then five talents? The creep with one talent does nothing, and gets his butt kicked. The middle guy takes his two talents and makes something of it. But the guy who got five talents goes out and makes a bundle, and gets rewarded.

    I say that Benedict is a five-talent guy. He did a lot with what God gave him. It’s not for me (at best, a two talent guy) to cast aspersions.

  13. Kierkegaard7
    katievs

    Kierkegaard7: But Romanists are wedded to the Bishop of Rome in an incomprehensible way, and they understand instinctively that if this thread is tugged, much more unravels. I pray the next pope is as evangelical in his faith and message as the last two, but the fuss is unseemly. 

    I can’t help thinking you must not know many Catholics.  I’m one and I’m constantly surrounded by countless others.  I have yet to encounter anyone “panicking” over this.

    Most of us are just a little amazed at how unexpected it was and how unusual it is.  We’re also sad, because we love Benedict so much.

    I know, love, argue, and discuss with many Roman Catholics and my best friend is one. Here in Pittsburgh, I can’t escape them.  ; )

    I actually want to reassure you! The pope is just a man and the Church often grows in spite of bumbling and incompetent bishops. ++Williams was just that, and may have permanently damaged the office of Archbishop of Canterbury. But Anglicanism grew in spite of him. Fortunately, Benedict knew that the Church grows where sola Christe is preached, and the Roman Church seems to be pivoting thusly.

  14. Western Chauvinist

    I don’t mean to be an “unseemly” alarmists here, but has anyone considered that this request for release came from the top-down, and not the bottom-up? I don’t think anyone living is more in touch with the will of God than Pope Benedict. Maybe God knows something about what’s coming and knows the Church needs a younger, more vigorous steward in the coming years? Maybe

    I know Benedict has signaled his reluctance to hold the position right from the start, but maybe the timing of this resignation is God’s and not his.

    The Church is the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless the whole world through Christ. That the world is in immediate need of vigorous moral leadership should be of no surprise to anyone paying attention, although I admit, I didn’t see this coming. 

  15. katievs
    Kierkegaard7

    I actually want to reassure you! 

    But that would be to assume I want reassurance.  In fact, I am full of confidence and praising God for the greatness of this Pope and the splendor of the papacy as an office, which is being manifested in a new way in and through this turn of events.

    The pope is just a man and the Church often growsin spite of bumbling and incompetent bishops. 

    You think this is news to me?

    You obviously haven’t watched that Arinze clip.  Or, if you have, you weren’t paying attention.

  16. katievs
    Western Chauvinist: I don’t mean to be an “unseemly” alarmists here, but has anyone considered that this request for release came from the top-down, and not the bottom-up? I don’t think anyone living ismore in touch with the will of God than Pope Benedict. Maybe God knows something about what’s coming and knows the Church needs a younger, more vigorous steward in the coming years? Maybe? 

    That God knows more than anyone on earth is a given.  That the Church is in dire need of strong leadership is likewise given.  But when in history has that ever not been the case?

    The idea that God might have explicitly “directed” the Pope to step aside doesn’t seem to me to fit with the Pope’s own way of describing his decision.  He pointedly does not say anything like, “Though I would have liked to remain with you as your Pope, it is God’s will that I step aside.”  

    He says, rather, that he arrived at this decision after due deliberation and having examined his conscience repeatedly.

    Don’t forget that he tried twice to resign as Cardinal under JP II, who refused him. 

  17. Mama Toad

    Kierkegaard7 — as a fond and devout “Romanist,” I wonder what you mean when you say that “they understand instinctively that if this thread is tugged, much more unravels.”

    It sounds like you are saying that once we realize that we can dispense with the Holy Father, we can get back to Christ and ignore the sideshow?

    If that is the basic gist, I would argue vociferously against it. The Church is the body of Christ, and the Holy Father is the vicar of Christ on earth. As the successor of Peter, we Christians should look to him to feed and lead us in battling the forces of Hell.

    As you say, Benedict XVI is just a man. The Vicar of Christ, however, was given to us as a gift by Christ, to lead and feed and protect us from error.

    If the Pope feels old and weak and unable to do so, who am I to ask him to continue? I trust him.

    May the Lord bless Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger — may he write many more books of great holiness and scholarship to bless and enlighten us in his retirement. Well done, good and faithful servant!

  18. Douglas

    The Bible says there’s a season for everything. Presumably, that includes retirements.

  19. John Walker

    Perhaps the Pope’s decision is simply reflecting the state of the art in gerontology, which is much different today than it has been since the last Pope voluntarily resigned.  We’re at an odd point in supportive therapy for the consequences of ageing where we can preserve life far longer than before, but only mitigate the debilitating effects of age to a limited degree.  Might it be common in a few years that people with superb medical care (which I presume a Pope has) will routinely live to ages between 95 and 105?  But if nothing is done to halt the physical and mental effects of age, a majority of their papacy would be spent in a largely passive role.

    Benedict may have taken this step to reflect this reality.  I expect it is a transient condition, as research presently underway holds the promise of extending the human lifespan to 120 years (and possibly substantially more) with quality of life equivalent to those of age 60 today.

    Once that happens, a subsequent Pope might want to revisit his decision.  (I could write 2000 words about the fundamentally conservative consequences of such an increase in lifespan, but 200 constrains me.)

  20. Joseph Stanko
    Peter Robinson

    In other words, the modern world doesn’t really need to see in the pope a model of competent administration, nice as that would be. It does need, however, a public reminder that we are not incapacitated as human beings when we age and prepare to die. 

    The modern world may not need a “model of competent administration,” but the Vatican desperately needs a vigorous and competent administrator right now.  I don’t think managing a complex and unruly bureaucracy was ever Benedict’s strong suit even in his prime.  

    He’s an extraordinary thinker, writer, and teacher, and I hope and pray he will continue to write and teach us for many more years in retirement while a new Pope whips the Roman Curia into shape.

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