For most people, the reckoning with the infirmities of advanced old age is a poignant but mundane part of the life cycle. Not so for popes, as this week’s global astonishment suggests, for they are thought to hover over human affairs just as the church itself does. “The church is distinguished from civil society,” Pope Leo XIII solemnly declared in 1885. “It is a society chartered as of divine right, perfect in its nature.” This perfect society, Leo wrote, cannot “be looked on as inferior to the civil power, or in any manner dependent upon it.” This manifesto hints at the larger significance of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign his office: If a pope can come and go so easily, then how is the church different from a country or a company?
After Benedict's surprise announcement Monday, much has been made of the nearly 600 years since the last papal "resignation" — a misnomer, since Pope Gregory XII, one of multiple claimants to the Chair of Peter, was, in effect, fired by a reforming church council. But for far longer than that the papacy has been the linchpin of the Catholic Church's claim to transcendence. That popes are human has always been clear (St. Peter, the first pope, denied Christ three times), but popes have also been living signs of the sacred. In modern times, the boundary separating the Roman pontiff from all other humans is reinforced by his mode of dressing, his rhetorical style, and his isolated splendor. He is himself a sacrament of what "distinguishes" Catholicism, in Pope Leo's word.
Indeed, the entire clerical pyramid of which the pope is the apex is traditionally understood to be of a higher nature than other human institutions, with ordination so changing each priest that the angels in heaven genuflect to him. Not that every priest is taken to be a saint, God knows. But if anything, the claim is more drastic: In his symbolic role, a priest is an "alter Christus," another Christ. This notion partly explains why the priest-as-child-abuser was, for most Catholics, unthinkable.
To call the pope's role "symbolic" is not to minimize it. As Pope Leo's idea of the perfect society suggests, the church was emphatically positioned on the sacred side of the sacred-profane divide, walled off from "the world, the flesh, and the devil." The pope, as the vicar of Christ, embodied this extraordinary status in his own person. Across a thousand years, this doctrinaire papal exceptionalism escalated, until, finally, in 1870, the First Vatican Council defined the doctrine of papal infallibility "in matters of faith or morals." Indeed, the claims made for the pontiff's absolute spiritual power approached idolatry.
All of this was surprisingly questioned from within at the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 — an explicit attempt to correct the pope-elevating excess of the First. The current pope has been notably ambivalent about Vatican II, which jettisoned the notion of Catholicism as a perfect society in favor of a new, modest description of the church as a "pilgrim people." Benedict has devoted himself to a restoration of the idea that the church, for all its humanity, exists "chartered as of divine right" in a sacred realm apart. He is a pyramid protector.
From his point of view, Benedict has seen only a solemn obligation to defend the church, and that explains his failure to address the abuse scandal forthrightly. It also explains his protection of the cover-up bishops, beginning with Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law. In May 2001, seven months before the Globe first revealed Law's enabling of the Rev. John J. Geoghan, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent a letter to every Catholic bishop defining crimes "perpetrated with a minor by a cleric" as falling under his jurisdiction — a mandate widely interpreted as requiring strict confidentiality and cutting civil authorities out. "Cases of this kind," Ratzinger declared, "are subject to the pontifical secret." When asked about the letter upon Ratzinger's election as pope, a Vatican spokesman said, "This is not a public document, so we would not talk about it."
All of this shoring up the pyramid has come to naught, even as the pope emerged this week, in an ironic turn, as a more potent symbol than ever. His decision to resign as his faculties fail may be Benedict's most important act. In effect, he confirmed that there is no radical divide between the sacred and the profane, no hierarchy of being to protect. Despite tradition, the church is not against the world, nor apart from it. As Vatican II said, the church is in, not above, a world where we all live equally as mortals, his holiness included. That is what Benedict XVI symbolizes now. His resignation for reasons of infirmity is a profound reckoning with the human condition, which, in Genesis, God pronounced "good . . . very good."
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.