Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Of Popes and monarchs going on and on

So Pope Benedict XVI has announced his resignation from the Papacy. He has said he is too old to continue in the role and wishes to step down on health grounds.

It is a surprising move, not least because it is several hundred years since the last time a Pope resigned. For centuries the only way they have left office is when their God has taken them.

The story first broke on Twitter and it is there where I discussed the issue with a number of people. I was surprised at the reaction of some saying they were "disappointed" with the news and one person (a former UK MP) described the news as "dreadful". When I challenged her on this she suggested that it is only Catholics who can understand this disappointment.

I find this attitude rather strange. There are very few jobs or roles nowadays where the position is considered to be for life. Some other religions have leadership roles like this and of course there are still monarchies including our own in which the roles are only usually departed upon death.

Religions and monarchies generally do often change over time. Perhaps not with the times but once certain practices become too antiquated, forward thinking people within those institutions tend to nudge them in a more progressive direction. For example the place of women in the Anglican church has been advanced in recent decades and we now have female priests (not yet of course female bishops but I am sure that will come in time). We are also seeing changes to the primogeniture rules that govern our monarchy in the UK. Yet the idea that the role of the our Queen (or King) is for life is not ever seriously challenged.

As a confirmed republican I obviously have my own views about the monarchy and how the position of head of state should be decided. But I recognise that my views are in a minority in this country and our royal family is here to stay for a good while yet. So given all of this I do wonder why if as a country we love our Queen as much as we profess to why we treat her so cruelly. She is nearly 87 years old, already older than the soon to be ex-Pope. She has been on the throne for 60 years. Even I would concede that she has been a faithful adherent to the principles of her position and has executed her duties with care. So why do we as a country and as a system insist that she need to keep going?

Given how long her mother lived for, Queen Elizabeth II could be with us for another two decades or more. Is it really right to expect a nonagenarian or even a centenarian to keep on with the sort of punishing schedule a head of state is expected to follow? I would argue that she should be released from her bond to the nation and be allowed to serve a hopefully long and happy retirement.

I know the instant rebuttal to this. The Queen does not want to resign. Her childhood was seared with the memory of the abdication crisis, she sees her position as given by God and that it is her duty to stay in the role for the rest of her life. All of that though is a construct put in place over many centuries in order to provide continuity and order during times when too many changes of head of state was destabilising. I don't think anyone can seriously argue that were Queen Elizabeth II to abdicate that it would destablise our country. The role is now essentially titular and her son (or grandson) could easily execute the duties required while she was still alive.

I'm sure there is no chance of our current Queen changing her mind on this but I hope her successors think long and hard on this subject.

Pope Benedict XVI has shown that even when positions are considered to have been given by God, there is a way for holders of them to stand down with dignity when they feel the time has come to do so.

All of us, republicans, monarchists, religious and non-religious should be grateful to him for injecting a little bit of humanity into the public discourse around how long religious leaders and monarchs should go on and on for.

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