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The Unlikely Survival of Sacred Office by Joseph Shaw

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The Unlikely Survival of Sacred Office

Queen Elizabeth II attends a service for the Order of the British Empire at St. Paul's Cathedral in London in 2012. The Queen is the Sovereign of the Order of the British Empire.

Photo: LUKE MACGREGOR/AFP via Getty Images.

In Britain we recently celebrated the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II: her 70 years on the throne. It is said that The Queen (as she is conventionally, though eccentrically, capitalised) takes the view that her abdication would weaken the monarchy, as it was weakened by the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII. 

Many centuries ago, her ancestors, the Kings of Wessex, commonly abdicated to devote their final years to a life of contemplation in Rome, as later the Emperor Charles V entered a monastery. Married couples, too, have occasionally agreed to end their common life to join religious communities. It is possible to give up one vocation, Catholic discipline has it, only to take up a higher one. This is not something to be attempted lightly: St. Augustine famously advised the Roman general Count Boniface against leaving public life for a religious vocation.

Since the alternative to dying in office today is effectively a life of idleness, Queen Elizabeth’s opposition to it is certainly correct. The forgoing exception aside, the monarch must be completely identified with the office: while she is alive, Elizabeth (she has no surname), must be The Queen.

A special 1953 edition of the UK’s Picture Post, a now defunct photojournalism publication published between 1938 and 1957.

Placing one’s social role ahead of one’s personal preferences is certainly a sacrifice, but the assumption by some that such a sacrifice must make it impossible to live authentically or happily is far from being true. The veteran conservative journalist Charles Moore remarked, on the occasion of the celebrations:

Perhaps the Queen’s most remarkable achievement is that, by accepting this [her role] so absolutely, she has gained a deeper fulfilment than if she had rebelled. She has become what she has tried to be. People who know her well say there is always an air of peace surrounding her. To use a phrase below the level of events, she has job satisfaction.

This echos the position of the philosopher Byung Shul Han, whose most recent book, The Disappearance of Rituals, I reviewed in The European Conservative. We do not lose our freedom by identifying with our social roles, as Romantics and Existentialists would have us believe, but gain it. As the phenomenon of social media has underlined, the effort to be ‘authentic,’ to create oneself anew at every moment, is an exhausting exercise of play-acting, a confidence-trick one plays on oneself and one’s most intimate friends, which today is packaged and sold as click-bait for advertisers. By contrast, from the stable platform, as one might call it, of a conventional role, one can be playful and creative: have the Romantics and Existentialists not noticed that play and art are themselves conventions? Without the conventions of language, there can be no satire. Without the conventions of religion, there cannot even be blasphemy. The brilliant self-defining act of the Romantic or Existentialist, without the background conventions of the societies in which these theories developed, would be completely lacking in meaning. They would communicate nothing.

We might have assumed that the one person above all others, in the early 21st century international scene, who would appreciate this reality, would be Pope Benedict XVI. As things have turned out, he chose to reject it. His abdication in 2012 was a repudiation of the idea of the Papacy as a sacred office: an office bestowed by God, which can only be laid down in death. My initial fear that Pope Benedict’s example would create a precedent which his successors would feel tempted, or even obliged, to follow, has however been dissipated somewhat by subsequent events. No future Pope will want to repeat Benedict’s performance of helplessly watching the destruction of his legacy from the Vatican Gardens. It is a tragedy, for him, on the scale of Shakespeare’s King Lear. His example will perhaps create a reaction among his successors, just as Edward VIII’s precipitation of the Abdication Crisis did within the British Royal Family.

More or less the only precedent for Benedict’s act should have been off-putting enough. Pope Celestine V, consigned to hell by Dante though he had been canonised by Pope Clement V, after a disastrous five-month Papacy to which he was entirely unsuited, attempted but failed to return to his former life as a hermit, and died quite literally a prisoner of his successor.

It may be objected that, as an executive monarch, Pope Benedict needed to be mindful of the vigour necessary to govern the Church. However, insofar as he was aware of a crisis which overwhelmed his powers to resolve, he could have delegated responsibility for it to others, as has long been the practice of the Popes: they create commissions of cardinals to perform some important function. The most famous example of such delegation is the ‘Red Triumvirate’ appointed by Pope Pius IX to restore order in Rome after the defeat of the revolution of 1848. The three cardinals governed Rome for 8 months and 12 days, at the end of which period the Pope was able to return to the Eternal City and take up again into his own hands the reins of power. In any case, as the later years of Pope John Paul II reminded us, there is something to be said for the placid governing style of Aesop’s King Log.

I sympathise, therefore, with those who compare Pope Benedict’s abdication to a father’s abandonment of his children: something which has been experienced, today, by far too many young people. In taking up the office, he was not promised it would be easy; he was not promised its demands would be within his natural powers to fulfil. He was offered divine assistance, however, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). By the same token, I hope very much that Pope Francis does not abdicate.

There are, alas, few heads of state today whose appointment is for life, in which the individual office-holder can, to the fullest extent, identify with his office. In the Catholic Church, bishops and parish priests were once in a similar position at a lower level, but this is no longer the case, with retirement ages and the practice—fiercely criticised in earlier centuries—of bishops moving from see to see as though they were the rungs of a career-ladder. The classical analogy applied to bishops and priests conveyed the idea of the sacred bond between them and the specific see or parish under their care: they were said to be married to them.

It is marriage and parenthood, indeed, which represent the central cases of the concept of a sacred office, and it is from these that, literally or by extension, by divine or by human law, the other cases derive. One does not retire from being a husband or wife, or a father or mother. The demands of the role certainly evolve over time, but it remains part of the job description that it lasts for life. Indeed, in a vestigial way even the much-diluted definition of marriage found in the law of England and Wales retains the phrase “life-long,” qualifying this with the phrase, “or until ended by divorce.”

The British Royal Family does not have a very positive record when it comes to the institution of marriage. Nevertheless, The Queen’s devotion to her office offers us an example: in sickness and in health, till death do us part. 

Joseph Shaw is a senior research fellow at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the faculty of philosophy. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, chairman of the Latin Mass Society, and president of the Una Voce International Federation.

This essay appears in the Summer 2022 edition of The European Conservative, Number 23: 115-117.