I don’t envy the next pope. Next month, the cardinals’ conclave will almost certainly select a young(ish) and vigorous priest to serve as God’s hand-chosen vicar of Christ. Unlike his predecessor, a man appointed at age 78, he won’t be seen as a temporary caretaker.
But despite the hope of a billion Catholics that the new pope will lead his flock for decades, all it will take is a bad bout of the flu for the rumors to start circulating. And when old age and infirmity begin to take their toll, his life will be unbearable as the will-he-won’t-he-step-down speculation becomes deafening.
That’s the legacy of the soon-to-be-again Joseph Ratzinger, the first pope to resign because of bad health. And who would have believed that Benedict XVI would have a legacy of his own? In a generation that has been educated by Hollywood to view the Vatican through the prism of “The Da Vinci Code,” nothing that happens in the Holy See can be taken at face value.
An hour hadn’t passed after the announcement on Monday before the Web was rotten with conspiracy theories about why Benedict was quitting. I don’t believe any of them. Not that there is a scarcity of sin and scandal to cover up in Rome, but anyone with the slightest knowledge of pontifical history will tell you they have been through much worse.
No, you may look at Ratzinger and see just a dour old Bavarian ideologue, but I see something else. There is a glint of the grimmest, most macabre gallows humor in the corner of the Holy Father’s eyes. I shudder to think what jokes actually make him laugh, but in his departure, how wondrous is the way Benedict has turned the tables on the man most responsible for the dreariness of his eight years on the throne of St. Peter.
A dig at John Paul
Infallible popes of course are not supposed to criticize their equally infallible predecessors. But when Benedict said on Monday that “I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering,” it could only be interpreted as a dig at his old boss, Pope John Paul II, and the way he let his Parkinson’s-suffering body be dragged on display in the window above St Peter’s Square. The adulation of the slowly dying man in his last years must have been anathema to Ratzinger, who said to his cardinals this week that “in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.”
Nothing Benedict has said could have such resonance as this parting flourish that has suddenly cast a pall over John Paul’s record. Some commentators have exulted at the sight of prominent Catholics who waxed lyrical over John Paul’s fortitude until the end now tying themselves in knots explaining why Benedict’s decision was the wise and responsible thing to do.
I think it is callous to enjoy others’ religious sophistry − it isn’t easy for intelligent believers to reconcile their conflicts. But since I don’t have to praise these famous men, I have no problem in saying that John Paul was a selfish celebrity, content for his ministry to fester in a morass of corruption while he slipped into a long slumber. On the other hand, Benedict has now proved he may be an arch conservative (though no more conservative than his predecessor), but at least he has a proper German sense of responsibility. And he has set an example that the rabbis could certainly learn from.
It’s true there is no Jewish pope, but we have no shortage of infallible rabbis. And while the Catholic Church got around to defining its doctrine of infallibility only at the First Vatican Council of 1870, Jews have had the biblical stricture of “you shall not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left” (Deutoronomy 17:11) for thousands of years. And in recent generations, this has been strengthened by the modern concept of Da’at Torah (Knowledge of Torah) that elevates the rabbis to all-knowing arbiters on all matters, not just of a spiritual nature.
Spinning myths of enduring lucidity
Haredi rabbis literally wield a power of life and death over their followers, not all of them Haredi themselves. They are consulted on acute questions of health care, finance and family, and those who control the voting patterns of the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members have direct influence on the lives of all Israelis (and Palestinians).
The centuries ate away at the pope’s fiefdom until the 1929 Lateran Treaty left the pontiff with less than half a square kilometer and no right to raise armies or taxes. But while the papal power diminished, that of the rabbis expanded. Where they once held sway over tiny communities, technology made them global poskim, faxing rulings from Jerusalem to all four corners and having a say in the affairs of a nuclear power.
One thing though they still had in common with their colleague in Rome. Modern medicine extended their tenure beyond reasonable limits. As decrepitude set in, despairing acolytes had to hide the dozing senile oracle from public view, spinning myths of his enduring lucidity and sharpness.
The Haredi leadership has been paralyzed for nearly two decades now by the longevity of its sages. As long as the average age of the senior rabbis is nudging three digits, the paralysis will solidify. Add the fact that these rabbis have no knowledge of modern life as it is lived by their followers and the wider society.
The ultra-Orthodox community is facing two major crises − the more immediate one is the new Israeli political landscape that is about to force on them a new national-service law that threatens to prise thousands of yeshiva students away from their Talmud volumes, breaking the rabbis’ monopoly over the young men’s lives. The wider crisis is the irrevocable exposure of the entire younger Haredi generation to the outside world through the Internet and the unavoidable question marks being raised on the most fundamental articles of faith.
A group of clueless nonagenarians, feeble in body and mind, are not capable of handling these existential crises. The rabbis would do better to take a page out of Benedict XVI’s missal and make way for a younger generation of leaders, hopefully better equipped to navigate the 21st century.