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Aging and Office Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Sunday, 24 February 2013

For some reason, perhaps it’s because I’m an adult convert who didn’t grow up Catholic, I’m not as shocked as most people seem to be by Pope Benedict’s resignation. Indeed, what shocks me is how shocked people seem to be.

Pope Benedict has simply decided to face up to a problem that we in American society have staunchly refused to face. Although we tell ourselves that we’ve greatly extended human life, what’s actually happened is that we’ve simply taken away many of the things that used to kill the bulk of individuals before they reached the maximum age of eighty or ninety.

Thus instead of dying rather quickly of pneumonia or consumption or apoplexy, as people often did in the past (read any novel by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, and you’ll see) — now the elderly will often live on, albeit with increasingly diminished powers, for many years. That’s a blessing in one respect, but a challenge in others.

So, for example, when the Social Security system was first established, the age for receiving benefits was set at 65 because the median age at which men died in those years was roughly 63. Social Security was understood to be a “social safety net” to catch those who lived far past retirement and the “natural” warranty of human productivity. It was never intended to be a twenty-five year retirement benefit, which is what it has become. Our failure to deal with this fact has led to the system’s impending bankruptcy.

So too, we don’t quite know what to do with “lifetime” appointments to the Supreme Court. What happens when a justice just won’t leave, even though he’s far too old to handle his duties effectively?  It is said that in Justice Marshall’s last years, his colleagues agreed that they would not allow Marshall’s to be the swing vote on a central case for fear that later interpreters would consider these votes “illegitimate” due to Marshall’s diminished capacity.

Whether that rumor is fair to Marshall is not my present point; what I’m pointing to, rather, is that we have a problem that we steadfastly refuse to deal with. “Lifetime” appointments made sense when office-holders died within months of being stricken with a life-ending disease. Now, thanks be to God, we have the ability to live past such episodes, enjoy years with our grandchildren, and survive as great gifts of wisdom to the society. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be up to all the duties that come along with an “office” (officium being the Latin word for “duty”).

I can remember news reports when I was younger about major cardinals dying in office at 65 or 68, the normal age in those years. Nowadays all bishops are required to submit their resignations at 75. And cardinals, no matter how cogent and wise (I’m thinking of Cardinal Dulles in his final years, for example) are not permitted to vote in the papal conclave after they’re eighty. This policy has always seemed to me a prudent “rule of thumb.”  Obviously some, like Cardinal Dulles, would be exactly the sort of men we’d want voting – and indeed, he was at Benedict XVI’s conclave to dispense the wisdom of his years – but there are others that likely should refrain. Is the pope the sole ecclesiastical figure who is exempt from the difficulties of aging?  Clearly not.

The faithful are fully accustomed to having their “former” bishop or archbishop circulating around the diocese, saying masses, making occasional public appearances, and giving speeches. Some of them, like my own beloved former bishop, John D’Arcy, who recently passed away, are also fighting the lingering, debilitating effects of cancer. Such men deserve privacy from the constant media colonoscopy and some peace as they enter upon the process of dying. Because let’s be honest: that’s what’s in store for them – and for us.

In the Middle Ages, wiser men used to write treatises on the ars moriendi, the “art” of dying and dying well. This had nothing to do with killing oneself with the right amount of poison, but with living out one’s final months and days preparing oneself and one’s loved ones for that journey whereby one meets one’s Creator face to face.

This preparation was not thought to be something that could be done during a weekend seminar or an afternoon’s barbeque. It took prayer and lots of it, a skill in which no one is a professional and few are especially adept. Monks don’t need to retire. But for people who live the sort of “active life” we take so much pride in and who have known precious little time to quiet their minds and sit alone with God, old age was a time to grow accustomed to the practice.

In the modern world, by contrast, Dylan Thomas’s lines to his dying father: “Rage, rage against the dying of light. / Do not go gentle into that good night” have become our own. Instead of lovingly accompanying the elderly in their process of dying, we either insist they keep acting like productive yuppies (witness the Super Bowl commercial with the hard-partying seniors) or we shut them away from us to die unseen and alone. We are a truly cruel culture.

Pope Benedict is in the process of dying. And all some people seem to be able to think about is how his retirement to a monastery to pray and prepare for the day is going to affect the politics of this ephemeral realm we think so crucially important.

Benedict XVI has served us wisely and well. I look forward to the wisdom of another book or two, if that is his wish and God’s will. May he rest and retire in peace. And may Catholics around the world turn once again to their true protector in times of trouble and turmoil:  God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who will continue to guide His Church as he always has.

 
Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.
 
 
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Comments (15)Add Comment
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written by Frank, February 24, 2013
Spot on and well written! I too wonder what the fuss is all about? I am sure the Holy Father prayed incessantly about this and I believe his experience and heightened sensitivity and discernment to divine will assures him that what he is doing is altogether proper. Whatever palace intrigue notwithstanding, the Holy Father understands that his condition and abilities against the challenges and pressures facing the Church are not up to the task. Pope John Paul II's age at the time of election provided the stamina to face down the Soviet Union. This time, our next Pope will have to face down the United States and its President. The College of Cardinals knows this and sees this challenge NOT from the present day but also from history going back all the way (at least) to the Wilson Administration when the war on the Church began to take credible traction and we see the effects today. Perhaps the iron hand inside the velvet glove will in short time, be applied to the likes of Biden, Pelosi, Sebelius, DeLauro et al and perhaps the Church will deftly and prayerfully begin to firmly push back. I love this country and will fight to the death to preserve it. Nonetheless, even the Shining City on the Hill is losing its shine simply because it has lost its respect for the source that makes it shine in the first place.
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written by Manfred, February 24, 2013
"Benedict XVI has served us wisely and well. I look forward to the wisdom of another book or two,..." Thank you for identifying yourself as a convert , Mr. Smith, as well as your report on geriatrics. Unfortunately, you are way off the mark. If you believe this man is well enough to write books he is well enough to remain as Pope. The Pope is not just another man of retirement age-he is the Supreme Pontiff who agrees to serve until his death.My wife and I took vows forty-six years ago to marry for the rest of our lives and we are still together assisting each other to attain salvation. At times it is difficult.Neither of us would think of telling the other:"it is time for me to go." This resignation is part and parcel of the modern church (sic), a soft, forgiving, understanding, pastoral church rife with effeminates, aberrosexuals and quitters. This resignation is the proper denouement for one of the architects of the Second Vatican Couincil. I will take a leader of Abp. Lefebvre's caliber any time. (P.S. Can anyone actually imagine anyone being a martyr for this new religion?)
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written by Mack Hall, February 24, 2013
Dear Dr. Smith,

Thank you. Yes. Exactly.
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written by Grump, February 24, 2013
What's so special about these arbitrary age "limits" that usually end in 5 or zero?

Verdi composed "Falstaff," an acknowledged masterpiece when he was 80. At 100, Grandma Moses was painting. Bertrand Russell was still a thorn in the side of warmongerers at the age of 94. George Bernard Shaw wrote a play when he was 93, and Eamon de Valera was president of Ireland at 91. Artur Rubenstein gave some of his greatest concerts at the age of 89 and Pablo Casals at 88. The list goes on and on of achievements by notables at an advanced age.

Just because someone is on Social Security or "retired" doesn't mean he or she can't be productive and contribute to society's betterment. Look at me. I'm a relative spring chicken at 70 and still getting a rise out of a lot of you on TCT.

As George Burns once put it, "You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old."


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written by Joseph Wood, February 24, 2013
Manfred,

In your comment, you go too far. People are martyred regularly for their faith in communion with the post-Vatican II Church where Catholics are persecuted around the world. The fact that this exceeds the limits of your imagination is unfortunate, and I would suggest that out of respect for those so martyred, you reconsider.

JRW
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written by Howard Kainz, February 24, 2013
This verse from Psalm 90 needs some tweaking: "The length of our days is seventy years-- or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away." But the part about "trouble and sorrow" can remain unchanged....
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written by Manfred, February 24, 2013
Joseph Wood: Thank you for your comments. A person with your background should know that many (most?) of the Christians executed today are persons from various faith communities which are not Catholic. They are mostly killed by Muslims who identify them as Westerners. We hear of the Copts in Egypt, for instance, who while in union with Rome, are not being killed because they prefer ad orientem vs. ad populorum. I understand there is a pastor (Protestant?) who is being tortured in Iran. No, the fact that catholic(sic) legislators are voting to support aberrosexual "marriage" and they are not being publicly excommunicated tells the sorry tale. Abortion, ephebophilia, divorce and remarriage without annulment, contraception have all been tolerated by the U.S. Church for decades. The only two items left I can think of are polygamy and bestiality and they are just over the horizon I am sure. Mrs. Pelosi hit the nail on the head when she said: What is the problem with the Catholic Church and the HHS Mandate on contraception? Most American Catholics have been contracepting for decades! Ideas have consequences and the task of putting the genie back in the bottle after the last fifty years is more than our 85 year old Pope can face. This never would have happened under the papacy of Saint Pius X.
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written by Louise, February 24, 2013
Randall, perhaps it is because you are an adult convert. (I love that TCT has so many converts involved both in the articles and the comments section.)

Most cradle Catholics were raised on the notion that the pope only leaves through death's door! We trusted that the Holy Spirit would see to it that the pope would always be able to legislate for the good of the Church and if not then the pope would die upon reaching the point when he couldn't. I was never concerned that Pope JPII would reach a point where he could no longer legislate for the good of the Church. Perhaps we were just believing a pious legend, I don't know.

It's hard for me to disagree with his decision because disagreeing with even a prudential decision of the pope goes against my grain but I am having a hard time with it. However, I am choosing give it the respect I would give any other papal decision of a prudential nature.

But I have to admit more than a passing affinity with the views of Grump on aging. If it were only his inability to travel I would say, just get a skype account or something.

In a way, your reflections on the value of the prayers of a pope really are more of an argument for him to stay put because once he leaves his prayers will be those of a cardinal, not a pope.
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written by Maggie-Louise, February 24, 2013
Mr. Grump, how are you? Did you come through your surgery well? My husband and I prayed for you at Morning Prayer, at Mass, and at our evening rosary. I am happy to see you posting again.

BTW, I have 10 years on you, but I haven't commented because I could come down on both sides of the issue under discussion here--even as it pertains to my own life. I will make a couple of quick comments, however, and that is that some people are old at 30 and others never seem to be old.

In addition, I don't know that there has ever been such a chasm between generations as what we are experiencing today. Our generation (of which the Holy Father is a member) have been so shut out of the affairs of these days that I don't think that we have the resources to address them. Our generation carried forth the values and approach to life, family, even politics I think, that are a continuation of our parent's and grandparent's values and way of life. The people who are our adult grandchildren (somehow we kept our children with us), however, are a completely different animal, simply beyond our reach or our ability to communicate with or to appeal to on the basis of shared values. We have no shared understanding of man and his purpose. I wonder if our Holy Father recognizes that he doesn't have the intellectual or spiritual weapons to bring this situation in the Church under control, that it is best handled by a man who "speaks the language" of the generation whom he is trying to reach--so to speak.

I hope you are recovering nicely.
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written by Graham Combs, February 24, 2013
Perhaps the better example than the late Justice Marshall is the late Justice William O. Douglas -- a man who led a vigorous life and married a considierably younger woman. From my old Ivy League law school connections, he apparently was loath to resign and needed to for his sake and that of the Court.

As for Pope Benedict XVI, I don't begrudge him his retirement. As he has said on several occasions he had tried to do so several times. But he thought it unseemly and unfair to his "boss," Blessed John Paul II, to retire to reading and writing while the Pope struggled to fulfill his duty as he saw it. I call that sense of duty on the part of Cardinal Ratzinger laudable indeed.

I do think that the one demographic that is surprised, perhaps shaken, even a bit disappointed, is the babyboomers. It has been since our collective childhoods, one thing after another. A shared history eventful in all the ways it could or can be, including profound and troubling changes in all the things we once took for granted: the Church, family, work, education, morals, art, literature etc.
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written by Maggie-Louise, February 24, 2013
"and that is that some people are old at 30 and others never seem to be old."

I would just like to add a note to this sentence. When I recently told a man in his late 50s that I still think of him as a 10-year-old boy, he said to me, "I think of you the same way I think of my parents--old but only in your 40s."

If, indeed, I fall into the "old but not old" category, I can only say that this is more of a curse than a blessing. Those of us (and I think I can probably include Mr. Grump in the category, and even our Holy Father) who are old but not old cannot stop caring--about our Church, our society, our culture, our country. We don't want to care because it is painful to care and our caring is wasted in today's world. Our caring is of no value to this world. Our caring is not even understood by this world. But we just can't let it go. We cannot stop caring. Pray for our Holy Father. He cares more than most of you can possibly know--at least for a few years.
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written by diaperman, February 24, 2013
Nice article Mr. Smith.

A minor quibble.. Your characterization of social security is inaccurate because "life expectancy" incorporates infant mortality. As that has dropped dramatically in the 20th century, average life expectancy has gone way up. But this dramatically overstates how long the typical social security beneficiary can expect to live. In other words, this is a common right wing trope to overstate the (real!) problem that social security faces.

But more to the main point...why the hubbub over the retirement?? It is because Catholics see the pope not just as a leader but a father! Presidents and prime ministers retire--but fathers stay on for life. And the idea of a pope serving till death also lent a certain mystique to the office...as though the leader of the Church served at the pleasure of God himself--a claim that we would not make of any other officials.

The fear is with this retirement, a lower more functional view of the papacy might take root, which cuts against centuries of conditioning of the faithful.

Does that make sense?
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written by Louise, February 24, 2013
Graham, where are you getting that about baby boomer sentiment...it's interesting.
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written by Grump, February 25, 2013
Thank you for your kind words, Maggie-Louise. Surgery went well. I am not quite seeing perfectly clearly now but certainly everything appears brighter and more vivid and there has been a vast improvement. Still need reading glasses and may have to correct for distance but overall am happy with outcome. I appreciate your prayers and sentiments. God be with you and yours.
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written by Maggie-Louise, February 25, 2013
You're welcome, Mr. Grump. Of course, my husband demanded an explanation when he saw that I had written "Mr. Grump" on the calendar. And after 58 years! :)

BTW, I included you on the postscript to my comment above. I hope that was all right.

And thank you to Mr. Miner for allowing a little correspondence. I will not abuse the privilege.

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