Layla Carr is a Washington DC-born blogger and science fiction writer. She recently graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy, and is currently based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she works a day job and routinely gets up-in-arms about feminism, traffic jams, and people who are wrong on the internet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My childhood holds a whole mass of things I try not to dwell on unless absolutely necessary – middle school, braces, and tie-dye to name just a few. Along those lines, I haven’t thought seriously about the Catholic church since I was fifteen, and being forcibly ejected from bed every Sunday morning, to spend an hour in a drafty room with a bunch of strangers that smelled of incense and old lady perfume, with nothing to look forward to at the end besides a stale donut.
But last week, upon hearing the news of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, all I could do was sit in a chair, stare at my coffee, and mutter wow every few seconds. A friend, bemused, declared that it was probably due to the fact that she hadn’t been raised Catholic like I had, but it just didn’t seem like such a big deal.
And honestly, she’s right. Here, in my average American life, the Pope is about as directly relevant to me as knowledge of the best way to construct an igloo, or disassemble a diesel engine. Which is to say, not relevant at all.
But there was a time – a period of about a thousand years – when it would have been a big deal. The biggest deal.
In the past, the office of the Pope was not one many would willingly give up. For centuries, the church was one the most powerful institutions in existence. Not only did the Pope have spiritual power – he was also the king of all of Christendom. He had the power of excommunication – as in, he could throw anyone out of the church, which often went along with shame and banishment. In theory, excommunication still exists today, but it has no bearing on one’s standing in the secular sphere. Most of the western world has won its freedom from the shadow of the church, just like I have.
In the 21st century, I have the right to decide whether or not the workings of the church matter to me, and I have the freedom to live without fear of the caprice of someone who makes the dubious claim to be God’s representative on earth. The pope may have the ear of a great many people, may influence policy, and he may have a terrific hat, but as things stand, I have every right to ignore anything and everything that comes out of his mouth.
That is not to say that the pope does not still possess a great deal of influence. When Benedict XVI declared birth control to be immoral and unacceptable, it was a blow to the rights of women in developing countries, and an insult to everyone else in the world who enjoys having rights over their own bodies. But regardless, the pope wields no military power over us. The world does not move according to his whims.
The last pope to resign before his death was Gregory XII in 1415, and even then it was under duress. He had been elected during the Western Schism, a period when there were two competing popes – one in Rome and one in Avignon, France. His ascension to the office was under the condition that if the French pope were to abdicate, he would as well, in order for a new, fresh one to be elected.
After that was a run of famously terrible popes. Alexander VI (otherwise known as Rodrigo Borgia) was a notorious murderer, betrayer, and thief, who mobilized his personal army against the myriad kingdoms that made up the Italian Peninsula. By the time Alexander VI died, he was so widely hated and feared that when his coffin bearers stumbled and dropped him, his body was left to rot in St. Peter’s Square for almost a day. His successor, Pope Julius II, was known for flying into violent rages when things did not go his way.
A pope voluntarily resigning, letting go of that power without it having to be wrenched from his cold, dead hands, means something. It’s a little too early to say exactly what that something is, and there’s no telling who the next pope will be, whether he will make reforms or just continue in the same old direction. But whatever happens, I can rest easy in the assurance that it will have little effect on me or the people I choose to surround myself with, and if that is not freedom, I don’t know what is.