FOR MOST people, the reckoning with the infirmities of advanced old age is a poignant but mundane part of the life cycle. Not so for popes, as this week’s global astonishment suggests, for they are thought to hover over human affairs just as the church itself does. “The church is distinguished from civil society,” Pope Leo XIII solemnly declared in 1885. “It is a society chartered as of divine right, perfect in its nature.” This perfect society, Leo wrote, cannot “be looked on as inferior to the civil power, or in any manner dependent upon it.” This manifesto hints at the larger significance of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign his office: If a pope can come and go so easily, then how is the church different from a country or a company?
After Benedict’s surprise announcement Monday, much has been made of the nearly 600 years since the last papal “resignation” — a misnomer, since Pope Gregory XII, one of multiple claimants to the Chair of Peter, was, in effect, fired by a reforming church council. But for far longer than that the papacy has been the linchpin of the Catholic Church’s claim to transcendence. That popes are human has always been clear (St. Peter, the first pope, denied Christ three times), but popes have also been living signs of the sacred. In modern times, the boundary separating the Roman pontiff from all other humans is reinforced by his mode of dressing, his rhetorical style, and his isolated splendor. He is himself a sacrament of what “distinguishes” Catholicism, in Pope Leo’s word.
Indeed, the entire clerical pyramid of which the pope is the apex is traditionally understood to be of a higher nature than other human institutions, with ordination so changing each priest that the angels in heaven genuflect to him. Not that every priest is taken to be a saint, God knows. But if anything, the claim is more drastic: In his symbolic role, a priest is an “alter Christus,” another Christ. This notion partly explains why the priest-as-child-abuser was, for most Catholics, unthinkable.
To call the pope’s role “symbolic” is not to minimize it. As Pope Leo’s idea of the perfect society suggests, the church was emphatically positioned on the sacred side of the sacred-profane divide, walled off from “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” The pope, as the vicar of Christ, embodied this extraordinary status in his own person. Across a thousand years, this doctrinaire papal exceptionalism escalated, until, finally, in 1870, the First Vatican Council defined the doctrine of papal infallibility “in matte...