Two recent ‘resignations’ have encouraged me to dream of a third.
Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Catholic church by announcing that he would step down on February 28th, the first papal resignation in 600 years. In a statement read out in Latin, the 85-year-old pontiff said he had decided to leave office because of his age and because ‘strength of mind and body are necessary’ for the job.
Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, the oldest reigning Dutch monarch, announced her abdication on January 28th in a sudden move three days before her 75th birthday. After 33 years on the throne following her mother’s abdication in 1980, Beatrix said she would relinquish the crown at the end of April, leaving the monarchy to Crown-Prince Willem-Alexander, the oldest of her three sons. The queen went on national television and radio to announce the departure, having recorded the broadcast earlier in the day. The prime minister, Mark Rutte, delivered a statement on television shortly afterwards. ‘The queen was there for us in good times, but also in bad times. Her knowledge and compassion made her an icon of the Netherlands,’ Rutte said in his statement.
Is it not inhuman to expect any person to die in office? Many Catholics glorified the suffering of Jean-Paul II at the end of his life. For them there was something Christ-like in this globally mediatized suffering. And Pope himself made the link, saying that Christ had not chosen to come down from his cross. But I longed to see an old man enjoy some well-earned peace and quiet at the end of a long life of sacrifice and service. And I mistrust the entourage of dying leaders who take some of the power of the institution for themselves, without being answerable to anyone, as the ailing office-holder is losing their grip and their hold on life. Venezuela offers us another example: who was governing the country during the long illness of Hugo Chavez?
And if the office, the function, is indeed important, as arguably both the papacy and the British crown and the Venezuelan state are, then surely they need office holders in good health? Should not term limits apply to all? So thank you, Benedict, for freeing all your successors from this chain of office, for offering them and yourself an honourable rest. Long may the world benefit from the prayers that you have promised to offer from your retirement.