Term limits for the pope?

Posted: May 15, 2005 12:00 AM

An aging pope, holding on to little more than life itself, did not impress everyone. Not a few Catholics ? and probably many more non-Catholics ? nurtured the opinion that John Paul II should have stepped down long before his final days.

Before the late pope's death, even William F. Buckley expressed some impatience (if that's the right word) with the lingering of the pontiff. The job was not getting done.

And, behind the widespread concern for the man, not a few wondered, wistfully, whether the position should be reconstituted to support a limited term for service.

Yes, term limits. For the papacy.

It's not really that shocking of an idea. Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium even published such views in a recent book. And a number of other Catholic writers and editors ? with full acknowledgement of John Paul II's achievements in the years of the fall of Communism ? have considered the idea, respectfully, without any hint of malice. It just seems practical.

And I suppose one could cynically say that, by choosing a 78-year old successor, the College of Cardinals was, in fact, tacitly accepting Danneels's point. At that age, nature itself provides the limit. This itself provides one argument for term limits: With a term limit in place, younger candidates might become more acceptable for serious consideration by the College of Cardinals.

Now, I bring this up not to take a position. It does not strike me as exactly proper for non-Catholics, ex-Catholics, and wannabe/hanger-on Catholics to debate such concerns in public. And even actual Catholics ? baptized communicants of the Church ? should probably keep such discussion somewhat within the confines of their church and church publications, to avoid the busybodies amongst infidels, apostates, and heretics.

Why? The Catholic Church is not a public institution in the same manner that the U.S. government is. Citizens have every right and every bit of propriety to criticize their government and its leaders. But serious discussion of the inner workings of a more select organization, like the Roman Catholic Church, should be more circumspect. Outsiders really have nothing to do with the institution. The spectacle of secular Americans approving or disapproving of the late pope's successor, Benedict XVI, was far too common on the news shows and in the papers.

By long tradition and established doctrine, the pope is said to be the anointed Vicar of Christ. When we speak of limiting the terms for American presidents or judges or representatives, on the other hand, no one with a foot firmly planted in reality can make that claim ? or anything approaching it ? for our politicians. They don't have quite the pope's degree of "anointedness," now, do they? We cannot point to one, and not another, and say with any certainty that "this man (or woman) is on God's side" or "this man is of the Devil." Democratic politics doesn't work that way.

Though I make no recommendations to the Catholic Church, I do find it worth noting that if good Catholics can contemplate a term limit for the pope, then certainly citizens should see the virtues of term limits for their public servants.

Term limits, after all, make sense for many reasons. (In fact, they make common sense, which is one reason I call my free e-letter Common Sense.) With a career in politics less an option, the republican ideal of citizen involvement could flourish again. And with less time in office, legislators and executives would have less time to consolidate power and accumulate the bad habits of corruption and logrolling and a dozen other features of today's precarious democracy.

We have such limits for the Presidency of the United States, for 36 governors, and for the legislators in 15 states. We need them, sorely, for the U.S. House and Senate, and for the Supreme Court. We should be talking, now, about extending term limits ? and by this I do not mean the weasel-word usage of "extending term limits" that newspapers and politicians bandy about; I do not mean extending terms. Such talk is nothing else than weakening term limits. No, "extending term limits" means extending them to cover more positions. More legislatures. More executives. More judicial positions. Perhaps more bureaucratic positions, too.

Whether they make sense for the pope, well, that's another matter entirely. And none of my business.

But for public servants in these United States of America? That's every American's business.