Pope Boniface VIII’s supporters might have been able to send Dante into exile, but Dante got to send Pope Boniface VIII straight to Hell — in the Inferno. Contrary to what many believe, even among Catholics, images of popes being punished in Hell have not been entirely absent, and most do not consider Roderico Borgia (a.k.a Pope Alexander VI) to be an exemplar of priestly chastity. But, even for those who are not Catholic, the pope seems to be a sort of embodiment or vessel of spirituality or holiness that will not go away.
Perhaps this was why Pope Benedict’s resignation from the Papacy, and adoption of the title Pope Emeritus, was greeted by those of us in the more secular sphere with something like a collective sigh of relief. After all, if the pope gets tired, who doesn’t? At least, that was pretty much the assessment of Brendan O’Neill, an editor at Spiked!
In a way, it made the pope seem like "he was one of us." Ironically, The Onion ran a satirical story a few months before: “Pope Reaches Out To Catholic Youth By Joining Twitter, Giving Up On Catholicism.” No, this was not what really happened this month, but for many non-Catholics, it seemed like it did. Typically, for those of us outside of the Catholic Church, the desire has been for the pope to be another Dalai Lama: Someone whose visits to America don’t merit a Wikipedia page and who doesn’t have to be greeted by the president when he arrives and seen off by the vice president when departs. Someone who is somewhat anachronistic and wears interesting clothing, but states his positions broadly enough that our leaders can say “Interesting thoughts, but politics is for we laymen.”
For nice Episcopal boys like me, the Archbishop of Canterbury has always filled these shoes easily enough. Any position within the Church of England is charmingly quaint and moderate. We may not always strive for reason, but reasonableness is a definite goal. In other words, it may not mean advocating the stalwart Protestantism of individuals like Henry Howard, who would celebrate Lent with the 16th century version of a Twenty-one Run, but neither does it mean taking the more Catholic position of abstention from meats during Lent altogether (though cutting back on the cholesterol a little bit never hurt anyone). The point is that, while not many elites are Episcopalians (or have any religion, for that matter), these pretty much are the sentiments elites carry with them when dealing with all matters spiritual. This is what it looks like when David Brooks’s Bourgeoisie Bohemians finally touch down in paradise.
So, now that the pope has decided to retire, has he joined those of us in the Bobo rat race who are looking for a beach house in Florida or maybe San Carlos? Probably not. His retirement will probably be spent as a life of quiet devotion in a very Catholic, monastic context. But that might be enough to satisfy most people. The story of a church that was of the world as well as in the world is something that a lot of people have been awaiting for a long time. And the departure of Benedict XVI, like a CEO going into retirement, might be the non-miracle that all have been waiting for.