However improbably, on Thursday Pope Benedict XVI will retire. Much has been said and will be said about what this means for the Catholic Church, in terms of having a pope living within shouting distance of his living predecessor. Benedict promises that his retirement will be a quiet one, dedicated to prayer and writing. He is not giving up his calling as a consecrated servant of God, but admitting that at age 85 he no longer possesses the “strength of mind and body” to lead the church on a daily basis.
I cannot imagine the awful burden of being the spiritual and ecclesiastical leader of over one billion people, the most recognized and scrutinized religious figure on the planet. What the pope is asked to be and to do is nothing short of superhuman—almost by definition. The daily physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual toll must be unspeakable.
Benedict reminds us all that the human mind and body, no matter how miraculously conceived and providentially sustained, has its natural limits. Even the prayers of a billion people cannot maintain a person indefinitely. Most of us have watched people we know diminish in the unrelenting creep of time’s shadow. As my grandmother said (well into her 90s), “Old age ain’t for sissies.” I marvel at friends and colleagues currently in their mid-80s who remain mentally acute and physically hale; some are more productive than I am, a man five decades their junior! But they are the first to admit that they can feel their faculties begin to slip, and they can’t keep it up forever.
So I am grateful for Benedict’s retirement, less for what it means for the church and more for what it means for our shared human condition. The Roman Catholic Church has for three decades been at the forefront of proclaiming what has been coined a “seamless garment of life.” As articulated perhaps most eloquently by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, this consistent life ethic maintains that all human life is sacred, from the moment of conception to the final breath, and that it should be given dignity and sanctity at every stage. Joseph Ratzinger’s life at 85 is sacred not because he is pope, but because he is human.
This is not the place to debate the fine points of the Catholic Church’s ethic of life, which critiques nuclear (some say all) war and capital punishment just as fervently as it does abortion and euthanasia. But the back-to-back papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI offer us a pair of contrasting case studies to consider how we think about maintaining dignity and purpose in our final years. John Paul was ravaged by Parkinson’s disease and other ailments that transformed him, before the world’s watching eyes, from an avid sportsman to a humbled, stooped shell of his former physical self. Benedict too has declined, though not from such an athletic starting point and thus not so precipitously. For the good of the church he decided—perhaps implicitly signaling that he may not always be able to consciously do so—to hand over the keys of St. Peter to another man, inevitably a younger one.
For most of our species’ history, an average human could expect to live less than fifty years—often considerably less. The average life expectancy has almost doubled since 1800—it hit 49 in the United States in 1900, and stands at 78 today. The miracles of modern medical technology, especially in the developed world where access to such technologies is relatively equitable and affordable, means that doctors can keep a body alive for a very long time, often much longer than they can keep the body or brain healthy. Our ancestors who established certain institutions with lifetime tenure such as the papacy or the Supreme Court never envisioned a world in which so many people would live into their 90s. Mandatory retirement ages for most professions often smack of ageism and fail to recognize the longevity of modern human productivity. But taking retirement off the table for certain jobs—especially our most important ones—denies the natural cycle of human decay.
Pope Benedict says he no longer has the physical or mental capacity to lead a billion people, let alone manage the world’s largest transnational organization, but he can still pray, and reflect, and write. He may live another fifteen weeks or fifteen years, but he will be doing what he feels called to do at this twilight stage of his life. Indeed, whether or not he does anything, the world will be graced by his presence, and the church he loves will continue unshaken. And then, at some point only God knows, He will take Joseph Ratzinger home, and send a new son or daughter in his place, and the seamless garment will continue from one sacred life to the next.