Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Resigned to the Resignation

 Papal refuseniks: Benedict XVI checks out the tomb of Celestin V

As a long-time friend and admirer of the great dantista Robert Hollander, and a sometime apprentice in the fabulous summer seminars he has conducted in a thirteenth-century Tuscan castle, I have learned to sing along with the chorus of Dantolators for whom the poet can do no wrong—and I mean none at all.  Even Homer may nod, and for all his greatness my guy, Geoffrey Chaucer, published some fairly dubious stuff, such as the following account of the failure of medicine to save the dying Arcite:
                        Hym gayneth neither, for to gete his lif,
                        Vomyt upward, ne downward laxatif.
But I am required to believe that Dante never errs, that every line is spun gold, and every idea platinum.

            But as Milton’s Satan says, “The mind is its own place.”  And I have to tell you from that undisclosed location that I think there is some—not much, but some--pretty dumb stuff in the Divine Comedy.  There!  I said it!  Dante and his guide Virgil are barely through the famous gate of Hell before we get a real lollapalooza.  There in Hell’s waiting room, so to speak, are the Trimmers, the morally inert, the lukewarms, the neither fish nor fowl, the spiritual Thyatyrans of the ages. These folk are being stung by wasps and hornets.  Their mingled blood and tears drip down to attract stinking worms around their feet.  Not nice.  Dante gives us only one representative human member of these tormented sadsacks.  He recognizes “the shade of him who, through cowardice, made the great refusal [gran rifiuto].”

            Learned annotators explain that this has to be the shade of Pope Celestin V, the emaciated old man who resigned the papacy in 1294 less than a year after accepting it.  Yesterday I saw strings of interviews with people, mainly distraught, lamenting  the announced retirement of the current pope.  Two of them actually brought up Celestin V, whose name I had never before heard mentioned in half a century of loyal viewing.  I am sure these people got it from Dante, also the attitude.  Both of them were steaming mad at the pope.

            Well, not me.  I admire him.  But then I also admire Celestin V.  Celestin V was anything but a coward.  He was an octogenarian holy hermit, and it didn’t take him long to conclude that the chair of Peter was, in that age, no place for a religious person.  The cardinals agreed; they didn’t elect another one for quite a while.

            I am not a Roman Catholic, but I have had a special reason—I’ll come to it in a minute—to follow the career of Benedict XVI.  Hence I am aware that he has often been criticized as a hide-bound traditionalist trapped in yesterday’s moral theology.  Well, he has just struck a powerful blow for modernity.  The idea that the pope is a spiritual monarch who must hold up his orb in his palsied hand until dementia or prostate cancer finally carries him off lacks theological warrant, common sense, or simple Christian charity.

            Recently, when the Archbishop of Canterbury resigned and went on to become the head of a Cambridge college, I regarded it as an episode in an upward trajectory.  But of course I am a college professor, which is what the pope also was so many years ago.  That’s why I knew him before many of you did.  I knew him as Professor Joseph Ratzinger, the author of a brilliant book* about St. Bonaventure’s theology of history.  This is one of those books that—granting a preliminary interest in its admittedly arcane subject matter—simply knocks you off your feet.  There are only a few books the reading of which actually changes the direction of a scholar’s work.  For me, this was such a book.  Without it I hardly would have stuck my toe into the subject of Franciscan studies.

            I had no idea who Ratzinger was, of course.  I didn’t particularly want to know.  One of the joys of academic study is encountering the disembodied minds of other people a thousand miles or a thousand years away, completely independent of personal or biographical speculation.  He had been pope for two or three years before I tumbled to the fact it was the same guy.

 Dante checks out the tomb of Boniface VIII

          Dante didn’t really know squat about Celestin V.  He was simply furious that Boniface VIII, who he thought was a really bad guy, was able to leap into the breach.  So I’ll forgive his little poetical hissy-fit.  But whatever else resigning the papacy might be, it can hardly be an emblem of “cowardice” [viltade].  I wish Professor Ratzinger even longer life and good health, and I shall hope, selfishly, for another dynamite book.

*Geschichtstheologie des heiligen Bonaventura (1959); English translation The Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure (1971)