Monday, February 11, 2013

Two Weeks' Notice

For all the solemnity of his Latin declaration, Pope Benedict's surprise announcement lands with a certain banality in the modern world. We get old, our powers diminish, we relinquish responsibilities; in sum, we retire. In acknowledging this all too human condition Ratzinger has perhaps done the papacy a great service, and in any case has effected a profound change, just by acting on that commonplace of human experience.

But therein lies the radicalness of the gesture. Despite the tawdry stories of much earlier papal resignations--bribery, scandal, schism--the papacy since at least the Counter-Reformation has aspired to a transcendental identity, famously in the doctrine of official infallibility, that has nothing to do with the claims of human frailty. While his more seriously disabled and suffering predecessor, John Paul II, made the astonishing declaration that "one doesn't climb down from the cross"--an assertion of mystical transcendence it would be hard to top--Ratzinger's decision is grounded in the pathos, and the rationality, of the finite.

And yet in its timing, two weeks before what could be a pivotal national election, the Pope's announcement imposes its spiritual temporality on the secular, with consequences it is still too soon to quantify. What seems to be clear is that the Pope was perfectly indifferent to the effect his announcement would have, sucking all the oxygen out of the media at this crucial moment in the campaign. Such are not the concerns of an eternal, Catholic, divinely-inspired institution. While the Pope allegedly made his decision months ago, and could have announced it well outside the electoral cycle, or waited, my suspicion is that he worked within the framework of the Church calendar, timing his announcement so that the election to succeed him would take place during Lent, with the new Pope elevated just in time for Easter. Fair enough. Between the parallel planes of national and spiritual life, the superiority of the latter is implicitly asserted.

Still, the introduction of that much-discussed social question, old-age retirement, into the papacy, which got along for nearly two millenia without it, does bring the two spheres closer together. Though the Pope's announcement has made it harder for Italy's candidates to speak into the public microphone at all in these wind-up days of the campaign, in the long run Ratzinger's historic improvisation,whatever its motivation, will reduce the impediment of religion in the public sphere. At the last, then, we have something to thank him for.


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