Aging and Office

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.