Nothing like kicking off the work week with a little melodrama. And Pope Benedict XVI supplied the world with exactly that via his early-Monday-morning announcement that he’ll be stepping down from his post at month’s end. Citing health reasons, the 85 year old Pontiff ‘s statement took everyone by surprise — it’s the first time since Gregory XII’s 1415 resignation that a pope has voluntarily vacated the Holy See.
“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry,” Benedict explained in Latin to a gathering of Vatican cardinals. “[B]oth strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Noteworthy enough even during unremarkable times, Benedict’s move is particularly attention-grabbing in our celebrity-fixated, power-craving age. Electively relinquishing his berth as “Bishop of Rome”, shepherd over one-billion Roman Catholics and plainly the planet’s most visible religious leader? Reportedly withdrawing to a “cloistered monastery”, out of the limelight, where he’ll serve his church “through a life dedicated to prayer”? Simply because he has concluded, before God, it’s the right thing to do?
In our Jersey Shore/Real Housewives of Beverly Hills era, there’s not much prospect of a reality series in that arrangement. Benedict’s is an attitude staggeringly incomprehensible to those poor, American Idol wannabees whose weekly, sobbing refrain is that a gold-plated recording deal “is all that matters to me!!”
I may have my theological and spiritually stylistic issues with the soon-departing pontifex maximus — but I can only admire the startlingly inspirational humility he’s modeling here.
Hours after the papal news broke, and quite serendipitously, I came across a superficially unrelated article that, nonetheless, tracked eerily with the pontiff’s decision. The piece, by Amity Shlaes in February 11th’s National Review, was about Calvin Coolidge — arguably among the 20th Century’s most exemplary presidents .
When President Warren Harding died halfway through his first term, Vice-President “Silent Cal” moved up. Elected to the Oval Office in his own right in 1924, the taciturn, former Massachusetts governor proceeded, insistently, to implement the “smaller government” policies on which Harding and he had originally campaigned — effectively checking the surging progressivism predecessors Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had championed during their White House tenures. Alas, with activist Republican Herbert Hoover, followed by the even more activist Democrat demi-god Franklin Delano Roosevelt, succeeding the no-frills Coolidge, Washington, D.C.’s flirtation with a more limited scope proved short lived.
Consistent with his restrained view of “the State”, however, Coolidge had declined a 1928 stab at a second full-term as Chief Executive. “I do not choose to run for President in 1928, ” he succinctly announced in the summer of 1927. “If I take another term, I will be in the White House till 1933 … Ten years in Washington is longer than any other man has had it — too long!”
Years later, again foreshadowing Benedict’s frank explanation of his own withdrawal from public life, Calvin Coolidge would self-effacingly avow, “”The Presidential office takes a heavy toll … While we should not refuse to spend and be spent in the service of our country, it is hazardous to attempt what we feel is beyond our strength to accomplish.”
Reflect on that a moment; and on Benedict’s similar ruminations. Then contemplate Bill Clinton — convulsively clawing after the presidential brass ring at any and all costs. Snagged flagrante delicto with a girlish intern, debauching and disgracing the premiere governmental slot on earth, he first lied about it, brandishing bold-faced denials to underlings, supporters and the American people alike. When that didn’t cut it, he opted for a pallid mea culpa; then frantically set about changing the subject — all to keep hold of political power, his very reason for living.
Even today, the shameless “Man from Hope”, putatively the most popular éminence grise of unprincipled Liberaldom, never misses an opportunity to maneuver his beaming mug in front of the TV cameras — as, allegedly, he is ceaselessly intriguing to get his potential-presidential-candidate wife, and thus himself, re-ensconced at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Barack Obama? The fellow who cavalierly suggested his presidency would be a “one term proposition” if he failed to revive America’s sputtering economy in his first three years, exposed those words as mere rhetoric: in the crunch, he pulled out all stops to keep his seat beyond 2012. Few campaign tactics were too low, few accusations against his adversaries too base for this seethingly insecure product of Chicago’s infamous “machine”. Any alternative to maintaining his death grip on the international spotlight? Inconceivable! Surrendering those Hollywood-stuffed schmoozefests, prestigious East Room rock concerts and exotic, tax-payer-funded junkets? Never, never!
I’d be remiss to overlook the bi-partisan nature of this grasping. Not a few venal GOP luminaries addictively play-it-safe, avoiding meaningful risk-taking or conviction-driven leadership for the sake of protecting cushy chairmanships or comfy sinecures. Is there any question, really, that for the Boehner-ites concern for their job security rates well above the national security?
When, in 1783, King George III was informed that, having concluded his military responsibilities to our fledgling republic, the toweringly popular General George Washington would be resigning his commission and returning to farm Mt. Vernon, the British monarch famously marveled, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world..”
Imagine his hypothetical assessment of Benedict XVI some two hundred thirty years later: A cleric who’d reached the distinguished peak of his specific field, globally recognizable, formidably influential, guaranteed his rarified perch until death — walking away from it all because he’d prayerfully concluded someone else could better discharge his duties.
I suspect the English ruler who wondered at America’s Revolutionary War champion would have glowing words for the octogenarian pope, as well.
Image: Pope Benedictus XVI; author: Giuseppe Ruggirello; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Middle Image: Calvin Coolidge; 1919; source: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc. 03670; public domain
Lower Image: Statue of George III on London road Liverpool; author:John Bradley;
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license