If you grew up in an average occidental family, chances are excellent that at some point in your childhood, one of your parents threw open the door and screamed, “I’ve had it up to here with you kids! I’m leaving! You all can eat roots and berries or each other or the stinking dog for all I care! Oh, you won’t miss me — not as long as the TV’s still working! The next time you start wondering what’s become of me, whether I’m alive or dead or living out of a locker at the bus station, just pop in Lady and the Tramp for the five goddamned millionth time…”
Whereupon, you’d start bawling, whereupon the fed-up parent would discover a new lode of tolerance for you and your misbehavior and ingratitude, whereupon you’d all live more or less happily ever after. Either that or the parent really would split, leaving you with a lifetime supply of guilt and separation anxiety.
Well, after just under eight years at the head of our family, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has flung open that door and made a like announcement. Of course, the former theology professor was pretty sober about the whole thing. “In order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel,” he announced today at a consistory, “both strength of mind and body are necessary.” Benedict said that his own strength has deteriorated “to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Benedict’s plea has a solid, observable medical basis. Nobody who’s seen the pope recently can have failed to note the exhaustion in his eyes or his general look of frailty. His older brother, Georg, himself a retired priest, has told the media that Benedict finds walking difficult, and was told by his doctor to avoid transatlantic travel. But this is still remarkable. Though popes aren’t generally Iron Man triathletes, on February 28th ours will become the first to leave office alive and willingly since the 15th century. Gregory XII, the last pope to shake hands with his successor, stepped down in 1415, in the midst of a schism.
That last factoid raises the question of just how rotten, ungrateful, and ungovernable we kids have become. At first glance, this is a pretty easy time to be pope. No armies are sacking Rome, no antipapal standards have been raised. No ancient senatorial families are scheming to dispatch Peter’s sucessor with hemlock or hammer and replace him with one of their own. No radicals are threatening to strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest. (If any were, they’d have to haunt Europe’s bike paths and clothing-optional beaches, since that’s where the royals seem to hang out these days.)
But it’s certainly no picnic. On one hand, we’ve got the UK’s Parliament voting in gay marriage at a margin of 400-175, while French deputies threaten to send each other to Devil’s Island over the same issue. The latest accomodations offered Catholic employers by the Obama administration have gone over with the American bishops like Jar Jar Takes Manhattan. Cardinal George now warns that mandatory coverage of assisted suicide could lie just around the corner.
Next we’ve got the scandals. Benedict ascended the throne promising to purge the Church of “filth” — his own word — meaning predatory priests. Since then, he’s banished the corrupt Fr. Marciel Maciel to a life of “prayer and penitence,” and formally clarified that “Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed.” But as new incidents, along with new revelations of old incidents, have continued to make headlines, the pope has continued to catch flak — much of it undeserved. In the spring of 2010, with the Times’ Laurie Goodstein holding him personally responsible for a failure to laicize Fr. Lawrence Murphy, and the Times’ Maureen Dowd calling for his replacement by a nun, pontiff-baiting reached its nadir.
It may be coincidence, but that was the same year Benedict first spoke of resigning.
Finally — well, okay, there is no “finally” when it comes to stressors in the career of a pope, but you get the idea — there’s the frazzling new connectedness of the global village. Benedict has spoken warmly of social media and begun tweeting his own messages. My colleague Kathy Schiffer, who attended the Vatican bloggers’ convention in spring of 2011, informs me that Vatican spokesman Fr. Frederico Lombardi swore the Holy Father begins each day with a fact-finding visit the blogosphere. If his temperament’s anything like mine, or even anything like the average person’s, this must mean he spends the remaining hours before lunch wanting to jam his ferula down somebody’s throat, the strain involved in repressing which urge can present serious health hazards to anyone of any age.
Well, maybe Benedict’s right to step down. Maybe too many of the challenges facing today’s Church do lie beyond his diminished physical and mental capacities, his experience, his leadership style. But with Lent casting its long, purple shadow, I’m going to ask myself whether anything I did or failed to do — anything I wrote or failed to write — contributed to Benedict’s burden as he faced these crises. I’ll also ask myself how I can make the new guy’s life and job easier. Driving a parent out of the house needn’t be the end of the world; there’s always therapy. Driving a pope off the throne, on the other hand, probably demands sterner remedies.