Too pooped to pope

Yesterday's stunning announcement of Pope Benedict's resignation from the papacy was full of ironies. The man who succeeded the indefatigable John Paul II, one of the longest-serving popes, was cutting short his own reign. The man who was once called "God's Rottweiler," for his sometimes rough handling of problems among the faithful, has become a tired old dog.

Of course, the jokes are flying. "Holy Father, what are you giving up for Lent this year?" Or, "Pope Benedict resigns, just in time to be eligible for social security under the Ryan plan." And the two-week notice he gave the world is somewhat less than a CEO would be expected to give when leaving his post.

But behind the jokes and the headlines is an exhausted old man who just can't do it anymore. This must be especially galling to Benedict, who so obviously hoped to follow in the over-sized footsteps of his predecessor. But Benedict never had the stage presence and charm of JP2. He smiled, and looked like a storybook villain. He tried to dress up, but his medieval red velvet headgear made him look like a crazed, homeless Santa. Even his red Prada shoes came in for more mockery than admiration.

And the 21st century church! The unrelenting eruption of scandals from around the world would be enough to make a saint weep. But that was only part of what weighed on Benedicts's stooped shoulders The church is ever more out of step with a democratizing and technologizing world. That old philosophical pillar of Catholic thought, natural law--in a world of carbon-dating, DNA sequencing and the practical certainty of evolution--is so antiquated and wrong-headed as to be embarrassing, when it is not outright laughable. The twisted biblical and theological theories that undergird the celibate male priesthood cannot be accepted with a straight face by anyone with a working cerebellum. Then again, the church's bizarro-world understanding of human sexuality -- which lumps canoodling, condoms and cunnilingus in with pederasty and bestiality -- is overdue for a major overhaul. If not outright scrapping.

All of this Benedict faced, with a slowly deteriorating mind, a failing body and a sclerotic spirit. He is no longer the man for the job. It's a blessing that he realized it himself, and is courageously transferring the tiller to abler hands.

Not that I am optimistic about the future. Free spirits and independent thinkers, alas, do not get promoted to the episcopacy. They do not vote for popes. A doctrinaire insistence on the church's verities never hurts when gunning for a promotion. But I do believe that the Holy Spirit moves in us, goading us toward communion, love and amity. There is still a kingdom to reach, however far away it seems and how daunting the road. And the Church, as it was at the start of Vatican II, is on the brink of collapse and irrelevancy. The only difference is that this time, many Catholics know it. If the Church does find a way to cast off its immobilizing marble overcoat, Benedict's words will seem like bitter prophecy. The church will become smaller and more "faithful," if by that we mean void of the prophetic voices that call it to holiness.