Pope Benedict XVI will be remembered not for the ease of his arrival, nor for the unremarkable quality of his tenure, but for the courage of his departure. It takes character to sublimate one’s ego to the demands of duty, and to recognise that both body and spirit have now lost their ability to serve the great cause of an institution such as the papacy. His example has inevitably inspired questions about a Prime Minister, or two, who seems to have passed his sell-by date. As the poet might have remarked, nothing he did in his grand office excelled the humility of his exit.

When history is written with a cold pen, Pope Benedict will be seen as no more than a brief hyphen between predecessor and successor. But this extraordinary event just might begin to raise questions, albeit along a tangential arc, about a doctrine that has controlled the image of the Pope for the last 140-odd years: infallibility.

There were more similarities between the Catholic Pope and the Islamic Caliph than either might care to admit. Both were territorial monarchs who imposed a halo of divinity upon a worldly enterprise. Both could use religion as a shield for their politics of power. Succession was limited to an oligarchy in the church, and dynasty in the Caliphate; but equal care was taken to ensure that the throne did not fall into careless hands. The Pope’s ceremonial attire is no less opulent than any king’s. In one respect the Caliph was more cautious; he did not outsource his power to any Holy Roman Emperor. But both ordered armies into the field, used torture against their enemies, took booty, amassed and lost fortunes, and were a major factor in the power play of their areas of control and influence. The Caliph actually displaced the church across all his territories, from Byzantine Turkey to Asia Minor and north Africa.

By the 19th century and the gradual rise of a modern nation-state, both the papacy and the caliphate began to lose their energy and purpose. The Caliph’s empire was whittled away by nationalist urges [encouraged by traditional and new enemies] in Greece, the Balkans and finally the Arab regions. The Pope’s lands were limited to fiefdoms in Italy, and Italian nationalists soon reduced the Vatican to a handsome church and a few marketplaces in the heart of Rome.

The Catholic church changes, if it changes at all, from top down. But a democratic age builds pressures from down-up, as for instance in Catholic Ireland, which is in the midst of a debate on abortion.

It was at this juncture, in 1870, that Pope Pius IX saved the institution in the short run. He called a council and forced it to declare that a Pope was infallible; he could do no wrong. Unable to compete with men, he elevated the papacy to the voice of God. Quite a few previous Popes might not have sniggered in public, but they would have laughed heartily in private at the thought that a Pope was the epitome of virtue. There were colourful Italian Popes who enjoyed excesses of the flesh with insouciant joy. They sired illegitimate children and delighted in the delicacy of their food. Their greed and crass exploitation of faith led to the protests which the German Martin Luther channelised into the Protestant church.

But the best of them were brilliant politicians; most of them were extremely capable rulers. And when history made their temporal power a figment of imagination, they reinvented themselves in their alter ego: they claimed total control over the personal lives of their flock, issuing edicts of the sort that still makes birth control a sin among Catholics.

The Caliph was less fortunate when the time came for Turks to pack him off. The Sultan could not become an upgraded Sheikh ul Islam because Muslims, like Jews, believe in tawhid, or the indivisibility of God: it would be sacrilegious for any Muslim to claim that he had become as infallible as divinity. [It might be mentioned, in passing, that it was only in the early part of the fourth century that Christian bishops adopted the trinity as a central tenet of their faith, at the Council of Nicea; before that most Christians did not consider Jesus son of God.] The Vatican survived, and flourished; as an independent state with supranational power over Catholic believers, it has ambassadors across the world.

Pope Benedict’s retirement creates the unique situation of two infallible Popes being alive at the same time. One answer to any potential dilemma is obvious: it is the office which is infallible, not the individual. Benedict returns to life as Joseph Ratzinger, this time even without the privilege of being Cardinal. But what if he differs with a successor who suggests that long-held convictions, as on birth control or women priests, need to be revised? The Catholic church changes, if it changes at all, from top down. But a democratic age builds pressures from down-up, as for instance in Catholic Ireland, which is in the midst of a debate on abortion.

Pope Benedict protected the status quo in office. Would he be tempted to save his legacy with the moral power of abdication?

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