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Reliable Old Churchmen: Long Odds

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 19, 2011

There are reasons the Vatican imposes a retirement age on priests and bishops. One of these reasons is that few people retain sound judgment for very many years after their seventy-fifth birthday. There are always exceptions, of course, and a tender of retirement does not have to be accepted immediately. It is also noteworthy that cardinals 80 years of age or older cannot vote in papal elections. As a general rule, judgment and discretion recede significantly as we approach 80 and beyond.

That’s also why it is so dangerous for Catholic groups of various kinds to rely on famous but elderly priests, bishops and cardinals for guidance and support for their projects and ideas. Periodically we see Churchmen saying really stupid things about public affairs or even the Faith and the Church after they’ve retired. We also see the more extreme groups in the Church validating their positions by citing the assertions and opinions of those who are, sadly, over the hill.

A classic example is the various groups which have used the former Roman exorcist Fr. Gabriele Amorth as their authority for various claims. Fr. Amorth began publishing books and making extravagant statements on many topics a dozen years ago when he was about 74 years old. Now those attempting to justify their views on the evil of many things, such as rock music, tend to take his every word as part of the Gospel. His books, interviews and resulting fame are interesting, given his insistence that to be an exorcist a priest must “treasure obscurity”.

One is also reminded of the recent remarks and subsequent retraction concerning the ordination of women by Cardinal José da Cruz Policarpo, Patriarch of Lisbon. He is not yet retired, but he is 75. It is hard to imagine he was unaware even five years ago of Pope John Paul II’s definitive settlement of that question in 1994.

This would be neither here nor there except we now have the story of the support for President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua by the retired and aging Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who had actually opposed Ortega back in the 1980’s as Archbishop of Managua. Ortega’s slogan of “Christian, Socialist, and in Solidarity” contrasts rather pointedly with Pius XI’s famous statement that “no one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true Socialist” (encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, #120).

It also gets on the nerves of some of the current Nicaraguan bishops, and Ortega’s wife’s likening of Sandinista rallies to the Mass doesn’t help.

A pope, of course, cannot retire without grave potential harm to the Church from doubts about who the real pope is, and it is at least pious to believe that popes are protected from mental debility by their grace of office. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence to the contrary but, if worse comes to worst, popes (like presidents) can be protected somewhat by their small army of “handlers”!

But apart from the Holy Father himself, my advice is to discount the strange claims of retired Churchmen, just as we invariably learn to discount the strange claims of our aging parents, and just as our children should certainly one day do with us. Past performance, as they say in the stock world, is no guarantee of future results. Aged Churchmen, like aged parents, are to be loved always—but seldom followed.

[Note: For follow-up comments, triggered by misgivings, see Revisiting the Wisdom of the Elderly.]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Dan111 - Aug. 22, 2011 3:11 PM ET USA

    While Canon Law requires all Bishops, Priests and Deacons to offer their resignations at age 75, that is just about all you got correct in this piece. Age is not a determination of wisdom, I have known many young people that possessed great wisdom as well as older people. Likewise I have know both young and old individuals that lacked even rudimentary tact and knowledge. Your piece struck me as blatant age bias that is rampant in our modern society. Deacon Dan (Age 58)

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Aug. 21, 2011 7:22 PM ET USA

    If you had started this piece with the second paragraph, it would have been unexceptionable. But to generalize about us octogenarians is absolutely unacceptable. I am 81 and am far from dotage, if I say it myself. Nor did my father become senile before he died at 94, or my mother before she followed at 99.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Aug. 20, 2011 11:24 AM ET USA

    On the excellent point made by Pro Deo et Hibernia, it is certainly up to each pope whether he should resign, but the dangers of resignation remain grave. This is why it would be unwise to seek a retirement age for pontiffs (not that this could be done, in any case).

  • Posted by: - Aug. 20, 2011 10:14 AM ET USA

    Card. Policarpo began ruminating about a female priesthood in the mid-1990s, according to another site; so he was not in his dotage back then. You will get quite a bit of backlash on this point of aging. When there is so much to talk about in the Church, you chose this? Are not the young also lacking in judgment? You could take this argument and use it to invalidate anyone. A senile pope has "handlers"? This is a clear "miss", and I am a bit embarrassed for you.

  • Posted by: Pro Deo et Hibernia - Aug. 19, 2011 6:23 PM ET USA

    Yes, but the possibility of papal resignation has been examined by some very holy pontiffs- we know that Bl. John Paul II considered it and that St. Celestine V actually did resign. It seems better, therefore for the Holy Father himself to discern whether or not age prohibits him from exercise his Petrine ministry well or not rather than to trust in his "army of handlers." I think this follows from today's increased longevity.