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Revisiting the Wisdom of the Elderly

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 20, 2011

In yesterday’s On the Culture entry (Reliable Old Churchmen: Long Odds), I mused on the dangers of looking to aging, retired Churchmen for justification for this or that viewpoint or course of action. Last night I found myself seriously wondering whether that point needed to be made, or whether, in fact, I had succeeded in making it with sufficient precision and without offense. This morning I noticed the following Sound Off! comment on the piece by romy1274329:

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.

On reflection, I am inclined to be sympathetic. It is true that Cardinal Policarpo has not been noted for his orthodoxy, but the nature of his remarks and retraction at age 75 suggest either a significant mental slip or an appalling abuse of trust. The former has at least the merit of being the kinder interpretation.

In any case, the fairly minor point that concerned me in yesterday’s commentary was the problem of attachment by the faithful to the statements of Churchmen—men of either high position or excellent reputation and even former greatness—whom old age has, sadly, rendered unreliable. Cardinal Obanda y Bravo’s situation is a stellar case in point; it is a shame that this prelate, who was once targeted by Ortega for death, is at age 85 now permitting his reputation to be used to further Ortega's bizarre politics. I have seen the same pattern before in other areas of life. That’s what triggered my reflection.

Nonetheless, it is quite possible, as romy1274329 suggests, that with all the troubles in the Church, it would have been more than sufficient to deal with this on a case-by-case basis, rather than seeking to make a principle out of it. Moreover, I can see that it is too easy to misunderstand my purpose, especially with the provocative title; I trust that purpose is now clarified by the preceding paragraph.

On the question of the pope having “handlers”, I also want to emphasize that “handlers” is simply a common tongue-in-cheek term for administrative staff. Here my point was simply that few elderly cardinals, bishops and priests have the extensive administrative staff of the pope, a staff which can (and had better) help keep him out of trouble. (Unfortunately, we have also seen, especially in matters of public relations, that Pope Benedict’s staff has not always been up to the task.)

In any case, perhaps my whole discussion of this issue tended to make a mountain out of the proverbial molehill. Certainly I did not mean to imply that all elderly people are unreliable, or to suggest a hard and fast age at which such unreliability must invariably develop. For the vast majority of us, of course, if we live long enough, our powers of judgment will at length decrease, often dramatically, but there is no hard and fast rule, as I indicated briefly in my opening paragraph. Indeed, many elderly people remain wise, a point I hope to be able to emphasize with some merit as I move through my sixties toward, and perhaps beyond, my own three score and ten.

At the same time, many who are young or middle-aged are also fools. And each of us can speak or act foolishly at times. It is easy to distinguish the old from the young. But to distinguish the wise from the foolish is another matter. In the latter case, reputation can deceive, and so we must strive for wisdom ourselves.

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: - Apr. 27, 2017 3:48 PM ET USA

    Beautiful reflection.

  • Posted by: djpeterson - Aug. 21, 2011 2:31 PM ET USA

    In the late Sixties, many of us anti war activists were told "don't trust anyone over 30" Once I was past 50, it was clear to me they were wrong.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Aug. 20, 2011 2:38 PM ET USA

    Wisdom is what we seek-prudence & wisdom. There is always a danger of falling into thinking "that's not Catholic enough"... Sin is sin; Grace is grace; virtue is virtue. There is nothing wrong questioning with the intent to deepen and understand your faith. Why are many afriad to ask questions if the immediate answer does not fit "what the book says". The challenge is to follow this, seek to understand why and trust what Our Lord and Church teaches - even if we don't get it right away.