Monday, March 4, 2013

The Bishop of Rome

I am not Catholic.

I don't see anything wrong with Catholicism. Many of my friends are Catholic. I have attended Catholic services. I was even a pallbearer at a Catholic funeral once.

I say all that merely to establish the fact — beyond any doubt — that I have virtually no credibility when it comes to saying anything about the pope. None. Consider yourself warned. Take anything I say on this subject with the proverbial grain of salt.

Especially if you're Catholic.

See, on this matter, I feel a lot like Frasier Crane must have felt when he found himself at a Jewish shiva. One of the guests — well, several, actually, but I'm thinking of one in particular — observed, "You're not Jewish, are you?" when it was clear from his unfamiliarity with Jewish mourning customs that he was not.

Frasier replied, "Well, my ex–wife is Jewish, which means our son is half Jewish, which makes me — no, I'm not Jewish."

So I guess I'm sort of cutting to the chase by acknowledging up front that I am not Catholic.

I was raised in the Methodist church, but I suppose I have had more exposure in my life to a greater range of religious faiths than most people. My father was a religion and philosophy professor, just like his father before him, and, when I was a child, my family often attended religious services in other faiths. My father knew most of the religious leaders in the area, and we attended services at least once in every faith that was represented in central Arkansas in those days — regardless of the size of the congregation.

In spite of all that — or, perhaps, because of it — I am not especially religious today. I'm not really sure why that is so. Deep down, I think I believe that there is some sort of greater power, but my interpretation of God and the afterlife seems to be quite different from that of most people.

It is not my intention to persuade anyone that he or she is wrong about any spiritual matter since I don't know for certain what lies beyond. Never has been. Isn't now. And, while I cannot see into the future, my guess is it will continue to be that way.

But even if I have little or no credibility on religious issues, that doesn't stop me from having an opinion on Pope Benedict's decision to step down.

I thought it was a courageous decision — and yet another example of what a pope can teach us.

Thanks to the nearly three–decade papacy of John Paul II, there haven't been many popes in my lifetime. In fact, the upcoming conclave, in which the next pope will be chosen, will be only the fourth in my memory.

But it will be the first of its kind in the memories of all living people, no matter what their faiths may be.

The last time a pope resigned, William Shakespeare hadn't even been born. For 600 years, popes have left office only through death. In most families, you would have to go back a dozen generations — if not more — to find the ancestors who were living when a pope resigned.

But Benedict has shown Catholics and non–Catholics that it is all right — even preferable — for a pope to accept the fact that he is not infallible when it comes to the natural aging process, that while he may be seen as infallible when it comes to matters of faith, he is not immune to matters of the flesh. When that process interferes with a pope's ability to face the challenges confronting his church (which has more than 1 billion members worldwide), a wise pope needs to step aside and let someone else do the heavy lifting.

Seven years ago, when John Paul II died after a long, painful and extremely public physical deterioration, it was often said that he showed everyone — Catholic and non–Catholic alike — how to die with dignity. I felt at the time that there was much truth in that, but I also felt that he had forced his church to function without an effective leader while it waited for him to die.

I recall thinking — a year or two before he died, perhaps longer — that the Catholic church needed to have some sort of mechanism through which a pope whose physical or mental capabilities were in the inevitable decline of old age could step aside.

I didn't realize it was possible for a pope to resign. No pope had resigned since Gregory XII in the 15th century. I had always assumed that was part of the deal. When a man became pope, I thought, it was with the understanding that he could not become a pope emeritus.

But Benedict has shown that it is possible for a pope to become a pope emeritus — and put the interests of the church above his own.

It is a wise man who recognizes when it is time to go, to hand the torch to the next one in line. Benedict is to be commended for his selfless act.

As the papal conclave begins, I hope — for the sake of all my friends who are Catholic — that the cardinals will choose a pope with the vitality and the strength to lead his church into the challenges of the 21st century — and to deal with the unfinished, sometimes messy, business from the 20th century.

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