As the world received the surprising news that Pope Benedict will be the first pope in just under 600 years to retire rather than die in office, the commentariat struggled to produce instant analysis. A typical facile effort (particularly typical for Slate), was this Tweet linking to a piece by the late Christopher Hitchens asserting that this pope’s “whole career has the stench of evil.” Not that they wanted to be critical or hostile or dismissive or anything. (Of course, as always, the Hitchens piece is powerfully written. If atheists had a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Hitchens would have been the perfect guy to head it up. Whatever he had to say, I almost always admired how well he said it.)
By contrast, I was impressed by the quick-draw thoughtfulness of this piece from The New Yorker. An excerpt:
One thing is clear: Benedict has made a conscious choice not to be John Paul II, who turned his own wrenching, illness-filled last days into something like a parable. It could be hard to watch John Paul wave at a crowd with a hand that trembled, and he knew it, and sought consciously to use that time to emphasize his community with anyone who hurt, and with his God. Say what one will about John Paul II, but one couldn’t honestly read his biography without being moved—he worked in a limestone quarry during the German occupation of Poland, studying at a secret seminary—and one can’t quite blame Benedict for not matching that, or for lacking John Paul’s Popemobile charisma or the manner that made his faith seem so manifest. But then it was John Paul II’s conservatism, particularly in the selection of cardinals, that assured Ratzinger’s succession. And which way is really better? Should pain—not only of the ill, but of the poor—simply be borne? One can argue that Benedict is far more honest—and by providing a valuable example of his own about knowing when one is done, perhaps he is doing the Church a six-century-overdue favor. But it is inescapable that Joseph Ratzinger has not lived, and will not die, as Karol Wojtyla did.
That’s an interesting thing to contemplate. There is an object lesson, and particularly a spiritual one, for the world in how a man perceived as so powerful deals with the powerlessness of age and sickness. Like John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (Columbia’s homeboy) did what he could to be an exemplar of how to face a terminal illness, showing solidarity with the weak and suffering of the world. In other words, they imitated Christ.
On the other hand, does not the head of any major organization, including the church, have a stewardship responsibility to make sure there’s someone in the job who’s up to it?
I thought it an intriguing question to raise, particularly since I’m not entirely sure how to answer it. The Pope’s made his decision, though, and as is his habit, he didn’t check to see what I thought first…