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What the Pope Teaches Us About Our Old Age

The Pope has resigned. He has not died, or been taken up like Elijah, but resigned because “both strength of mind and body are necessary” for his work and he is running out of one, the other, or both.

The history books will likely see this as an emblematic moment of an old dilemma with profoundly new reach and seriousness: we are starting to outlive our competency, outlive our health. What makes the Pope such a particularly compelling example is how his office aspires to permanence and timelessness, for he gives us a very public display of our nature as finite, limited creatures endowed with that transcendent, troublesome ability to participate in the infinite. For millions beyond the Catholic Church itself, he is the man most associated with the quest to stretch ourselves beyond our sins and earthy limitations, towards a higher calling. Ross Douthat wrote in the immediate aftermath of the announcement that:

“There is great symbolic significance in the fact that popes die rather than resign: It’s a reminder that the pontiff is supposed to be a spiritual father more than a chief executive (presidents leave office, but your parents are your parents till they die), a sign of absolute papal surrender to the divine will (after all, if God wants a new pope, He’ll get one), and a illustration of the theological point that the church is still supposed to be the church even when its human leadership isn’t at fighting trim, whether physically or intellectually or (for that matter) morally.”

And yet Pope Benedict XVI resigned. Instead of waiting to be called heavenward he exercised his own judgment (profoundly informed by long and searching prayer, doubtlessly) that he was no longer fit for the office to which he had been called. What does it mean to outlive a post meant for a lifetime?

The past two occupants of the See of St. Peter have confronted a situation familiar to many families across the Western world as the spirit may still be willing, but the flesh is wearing out. We are better off than we once were, without any question, as science and medicine have made their well-deserved reputations curing our bodies and fending off the individual ravages of our flesh-and-blood condition. After all, death used to haunt us at all stages of life: the large families of earlier generations were at least in part a hedge against painfully high rates of child mortality; war and overwork took many men before their time; and disease has always lurked, waiting, capturing, especially the aged. There was once a time when pneumonia could be known as “the old man’s friend” because of all the many ways to die, it at least was quick and painless.

The scientific project has beaten back the reaper’s agents, at each stage, and today to be born is to expect to live long and hopefully even to prosper. This victory has had its own consequences, though, and many of them. Most personally, however, most painfully, often, is when we seem to outlive our very selves as we once knew them. Today we carry mended and patched bodies into our eighties and nineties, sometimes beyond, where even the strongest among us begin to fail. Memories slip, minds and movements slow. Science has been healing our bodies and mending our organs, repairing damage and thus allowing us to reach the point when the being those organs support begins to fade.

This is a particularly troubling problem for us to have, because our modern liberal society is not very well equipped to address it. Yuval Levin put the point characteristically well in a meditation on health and society in The New Atlantis last year when he described “our inability to properly rank health in relation to other public goods…a problem with roots deep in the historical and philosophical foundations of modern liberal thought, and with implications that cut to the heart of our politics today.” So many of the best qualities of modern life have come from the hyper-valuing of health that we are very often hard pressed to think of it in context with other concerns.

At the outset of the modern scientific project one of its founding fathers, the French philosopher Rene Descartes declared, “The conservation of health…is without doubt the primary good and the foundation of all the other goods of this life.” Ever since science has focused on our physical health because health was the foundation of all else. If the body is sick, or ailing, after all, the mind it carries around can’t be expected to be doing very well. If the body is well, though, nothing should impinge upon the flourishing of the higher faculties. That attitude has served us well, for a time. The past century has seen the greatest extension of human lifespans in the history of the race. A first wave of wellness came from sanitation, making our cities no longer breeding grounds for disease and concentrated early death. A second wave has come from vast improvements in medicine and medical technologies, curing previously terminal illnesses and eradicating several of the worst ravagers from the face of the earth, like smallpox, with polio hopefully soon to follow. So far, so good. However, as the President’s Council on Bioethics wrote in its report Taking Care, “Precisely because people are living longer, many are living long enough to suffer age-related degenerative diseases,” including the general decline of vitality. As our society continues to age (and unless certain ominous demographic trends reverse, it will only continue to age) pressure is going to increasingly be put on our social safety nets, and personal finances. We as a society will have to address those financial problems sooner rather than later, but what we as people already are having to come to terms with is the human costs of long life.

Medicine has gotten us into this situation, but it cannot provide us many answers. Doctors will of course continue to minister to our ailments, and many of the recent calls for increased funding in brain research, including by our own James Pinkerton, have been driven by the desire to find cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s. Perhaps doctors will prescribe more stimulants to keep us at attention longer, or find some other way of staving off the vicissitudes of age. But these are intermediate answers. So long as we die, and so long as we are human, we will have to grapple with the disturbances of decline just as surely as we do the perturbations of puberty. It is written into our condition, and our way of being. Older wisdoms need to be brought to bear to teach us once again about mortality, and living life well to the end. New strategies need to be created to help us care for ourselves and each other.

The tremendous diversity we find in all things human is all the more present here. We will each age distinctively, in keeping with the discrete combinations of genetic inheritance and lived experience that make us who we are. Some will find their body betray them as their wits are still sharp, some will have their body persist past their best days. Many will stay strong to the very end. My own grandfather may have lost some of the pep off his driver on the golf course, but he still undershoots his age and beats his son-in-law and grandson every time out. But the lives we set up for ourselves in the post-war era of independence now, independence forever, may not survive unchanged under the strain of the challenges we face. We may need to reach back and revive older traditions of multi-generational households. We may have the wealth to continue building a service sector to support us in our later days. However the years to come turn out, we can be sure that our society will soon look very different than it does today.

Already the symbolic fatherhood of the Pontificate has undergone a revolution as the tools of progress preserved the Pope beyond his capacity for the office. Douthat closed his reflection by hoping “we have to wait another five hundred years, at least, for it to happen again,” but as Daniel McCarthy pointed out, this is a precedent likely to continue. There’s no reason to expect our own dilemmas to be any different.

The time has come, then, to start working on our answers.

about the author

Jonathan Coppage is a TAC associate editor. He received a BA in Political Science from North Carolina State University, and previously attended the University of Chicago, where he studied in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts great books concentration. Jonathan also worked at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Jon can be followed on Twitter @JonCoppage, or reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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