Last week’s most unexpected story was the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church. When I say unexpected, I mean it. A number of sources - mostly traceable to the Ur-source, Wikipedia - reported that it’s the first time a pope has resigned in 600 years, but it’s actually rarer than that. In 1415 three popes (or "popes") resigned simultaneously, because none of them could convince the rest of Christendom of his legitimacy. The RCC seems to have decided in retrospect, I don’t know on what basis, that one of these three, Gregory XII, was the proper pope and shouldn’t have needed to resign after all, in spite of his having been elected by a mere handful of cardinals, but at the time it was one of those historical deadlocks like the Schleswig-Holstein question to which nobody knew the answer. (The history of Anti-Popes, from the same University of Wiki, is most entertaining, by the way).
But Papa Josef Ratzinger has no rivals to the title. There are about five popes currently heading small denominations (two papacies became vacant in 2011), but there is not currently an Anti-Pope in the running for top Catholic. The last undisputed pope to resign was poor old Celestine V, in 1294, and Dante put him, or someone who looks a lot like him, into the ‘limbo of the futile’ for his pains. Celestine’s immediate successor as pope showed his gratitude by imprisoning the old man and then not feeding him, but he was canonized almost as soon as he was cold, which was probably not as much consolation as a few buns might have been. Celestine’s only other Papal act was to proclaim the principle that popes can resign.
Anyway, we are witnessing a one-in-800-year event. The Italians have a saying ogni morte del’ Papa (every time a Pope dies) meaning once in a blue moon, but compared with resignations, popes’ deaths are as common as mayflies’ and blue moons as mundane as midday.
There are a lot of strange things about this story. One of the strangest is how quickly it has been normalized, as it dawned on everyone how apparently sane and sensible this astonishing decision actually is. The Pope is 85, in fragile health, and has reportedly been advised not to travel. In any other line of work, retirement at this juncture would be remarkable only for the fact that the soon-to-be-retiree had gone on for so very long already. Pope makes sensible announcement, shock, horror.
But it’s also curious to consider the line of work he is in. The Pope is not simply a priest and a religious leader, but also a head of state. An absolute head of state, for all that he’s elected, and you don’t get many of those any more. Vatican State is the last absolute monarchy left in Europe, and the only theocracy.
Citizenship in this micro-state is determined by religious affiliation, which is true of a few other states in the world. But simply being a Catholic does not in itself get you a Vatican City passport. You have to be a high-ranking member of the clerical hierarchy – and therefore, male. Vatican City is a state which has no native-born citizens, and citizenship rights are granted purely on the basis of occupation. It seems to have few female citizens, as far as I can tell: the language of the Vatican website, which notes that in certain circumstances, citizenship may be extended to employees’ spouses, is carefully gender neutral, but one somehow doubts the Vatican is an equal-opportunity employer. Of its 800-odd citizens, three-quarters are celibate male clerics and most of the rest are members of the in-house mercenary army, the Swiss Guards. Lose your job, and you are quite likely to lose your passport with it. If you find yourself stateless as well as unemployed after a particularly hard day at the Holy Office, the Italian state is treaty-bound to take up the slack. Citizenship does not enfranchise you to vote for your absolute monarch, either: that’s done by Cardinals (so long as they’re under 80) who for the most part are not actually citizens of the state whose ruler they are electing.
By far the oddest thing of all is that this bizarre theocratic uni-gender statelet sits on numerous international bodies and commissions, and has voting rights on many of them (not the UN, though, in a rare example of someone being sensible). It uses its position to affect international agreements on laws which govern all of us – notably those which affect women’s lives - and to avoid jurisdiction in matters, such as banking transparency, which most normal states are supposed to abide by.
This is as strange as if Barclays Bank or Tescos had managed to get a few acres of land to hoist their flag over and managed to persuade everyone to agree they were states. But citizenship in BarclayCity or Tescopolis would not be available to the employees, not for shelf-stackers or counter staff or even for the regional managers, and certainly not for the depositors or the customers, even those with loyalty cards - but reserved for just a very few top members of the board, holders of some kind of super Clubcard. Then imagine that this ersatz statehood gave the bank or the supermarket a seat on the international organizations who make decisions about, lets say, tax laws, or town planning.
In the meantime, a million Pope jokes have succeeded and combined with those about horsemeat in burgers, Chris Huhne and his marriage, and so on. My personal favourite is that when Ratzinger ceases to be Pope he will return to being known as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger: and Ex Benedict, in fact.
NB 'A Hard Day At The Holy Office' is the title of a novel which was published, I think, in the 1970s. I've never read it, or seen a copy, but based on the title alone I'd love to.