I was shocked as the rest of the universe to awaken on Monday to news that the pope had quit. Surely all this talk of him “stepping down” was just some kinda metaphor for something, I thought. Popes can’t… do this.
But everyone else can, so why not? A few weeks ago it was announced that the Queen of Holland would be abdicating her throne, for no other reason than she felt it was time. She’s 75 and has been reigning since her mother’s own abdication in 1980. “I am convinced that the responsibility for our country should now move to the next generation,” she said in a brief televised statement.
It’s possible the other elderly monarchs of Europe will follow her example. Many have heirs now well into their 30s or 40s, and it seems only human that they might want to support and counsel these kids during their first shaky years on the throne, rather than just heave the crown at them upon death. That would defy God’s plan, granted, but one really has to wonder how many kings and queens even buy into the whole divine-right thing anymore. European royals tend to be quite a bit more religious than their subjects, but everyone has their limits.
Pope Benedict, for his part, has certainly made his theological opinion clear that while certain people may be summoned by God to perform services for Him, He also deserves a certain standard of competence and energy from His employees. Advances in medical technology allow humans to live longer lives than ever before, but also much weaker and unproductive ones, and it’s hard to see what godly purpose is being served by a servant as enfeebled as, say, John Paul II was in his final days. The era of long, drawn-out papal and royal death-watch successions may soon be a relic of the past, and that’s probably a good thing for any institution that values a genuine, active commitment to leadership from its lifetime appointees — as opposed to mere dogmatic insistence on running out the clock.
Beyond our nominal head of state, Canada doesn’t have any life-term political offices, though we do have a boatload of appointed senators legally licensed to serve ’til age 75. I don’t know how many of them believe their positions to be divinely ordained, though it’s worth noting that in 140 years of Canadian history only 22% of the country’s over 900 senators have resigned, and before the age limit was imposed in 1965, most seemed happiest to leave in a casket. (Claire Hoy’s wonderful book on the Senate, Nice Work, notes that in the early 1990s Canada’s was the only parliament in the world to feature two centenarians serving simultaneously — both pre-1965 senate appointees).
Of course, the other mandatory prerequisite of extreme political longevity is a lack of accountability, and here’s where our Senate’s monarchical-papal absolutism can still ride with the best of ’em. Though the Canadian constitution theoretically allows it, nary a single senator in this country’s history has ever been forcibly expelled from office. When plagued by scandal, crime, or corruption, many simply wait for the magic birthday, or quietly step down (pension intact!) when the media ruckus gets too raucous. Recent events, however, may finally bring an end to that dubious streak.
Longtime Filibuster readers may recall that last March the Canadian politics set was all agog over a big charity boxing match between beloved Liberal dauphin Justin Trudeau and some burly aboriginal Tory senator no one had ever heard of named Patrick Brazeau. Skinny Justin ended up walloping Patrick something fierce, and even though the outcome of some stupid fight has nothing to do with anything, there are many who think JT’s prime ministerial destiny was truly sealed that heroic day.
Following his beat-down, Brazeau quickly because something of a tabloid darling, a true rarity for Canadian senators who usually enjoy their cushy chairs without much media bother. Among other things, we’ve been told he’s fond of swearing at reporters, picking fights with other Indian chiefs, scamming aboriginal tax exemptions, provoking claims of sexual harassment from former co-workers, and now, allegedly, wife-beating.
Last Thursday, Senator Brazeau was arrested on charges of domestic abuse following some manner of altercation at his Quebec home. Prime Minister Harper promptly expelled him from the Conservative Party, and on Monday the Senate convened to put him on paid leave. Brazeau’s shown no indication he intends to resign, however, which means the Senate would have to vote to boot him out — but only if and after he’s formally convicted, per constitutional rules.
The possibility that Canada could face another 38 straight years of this man and all his, in the words of the National Post‘s Jonathan Kay, “self-destructive” antics is a grim one. But this is what you get from a political system willing to dole out decades of tenure unburdened by democratic oversight. For every Benedict XVI or Queen Beatrix, there’s a lot of Brazeaus.
The best you can hope from lifers is that they’ll have the good sense to quit while they’re ahead — rather than cling while they’re down.