In a visit to the Rome-based Community of Saint’Egidio home for the elderly in 2012, Pope Benedict told residents that senior citizens “are an asset to society, even in suffering and disease.”
If only someone had whispered those same words in his ear before he stepped down as the 265th successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict might not have resigned.
Most commentators have spent the past several weeks praising Pope Benedict’s “humble” and “courageous” decision to be the first pope to willfully abdicate the papacy in over 600 years. Very few have voiced their disagreement with his decision. However, an essay published in La Croix, the semi-official daily newspaper of the French church, has been getting some attention for doing precisely that.
The column in question, titled “The pope’s abandonment is a catastrophe,” is written by Pierre Dulau & Martin Steffens, two philosophy professors.
“This resignation by the pope is a catastrophe,” Dulau and Steffens argue. “It is an event that is rarely found in history, a fact that, in its symbolic violence, is a portrait of our time.” The authors continued:
The Papacy is, in the West, the very last function of which it is commonly accepted by all that it engages the one who entered it “up until death.” This “till death” means at least two things. First, that human life is not its own goal: our life has no meaning if not linked to a greater life to which we may, in justice, sacrifice everything – exactly as the love of the spouses, “till death” as well, takes its meaning from beyond itself, in a promise that does not cease existing.
This “till death” recalls consequently that the pope, a “pontiff,” is the arch that links Earth to Heaven, that is, by the threshold of death, finite life to infinite life. A pope who resigns is a bridge that decides not to reach the other side where promise lies, [a destination]of which it is the assurance, and that leads there all those who left the point of departure.
To rupture this arch by way of a unilateral decision means to join hands with the global movement of non-commitment that strikes the entire Western symbolic order. Parenthood? Yes, but if we are in the mood for it, as long as we are in the mood for it. Marriage? Yes, if I can get divorced. To be in charge? Why not, if that does not deprive me of my right to happiness… There where a word is given that opens the door of life to something greater than itself, there also that word is broken, mocked, relegated as an old oddity. And even a pope should resign? A CEO or a president may resign. A pope is fired by death.
Although I don’t entirely agree with the assertion that Pope Benedict’s decision to step down is a catastrophe, count me among those who think Dulau and Steffens marshal a very strong argument as to why pope’s shouldn’t be resigning. And count me among those who don’t think it would be wise for Pope Benedict to retire and, as some Catholic leaders have assumed he will, start cranking out books on theology. After all, didn’t he cite a deterioration in mental strength as the reason why he resigned?
Some will surely point out that the intellectual rigor required to shepherd a flock of over 1 billion is different than writing a couple of books, and that having a pope who is mentally incapable of effectively managing the church can lead to disarray. That’s a fair point. But there’s a reason why fewer than a dozen popes have resigned from the papacy over the course of the Catholic Church’s 2,000 year history. It would be unwise to think this should be the new normal.