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J.D. Long-GarcíaSeptember 12, 2023
U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the nation on averting default and the Bipartisan Budget Agreement from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington June 2, 2023. He said he planned to sign the deal June 3. (OSV News photo/Jim Watson, pool via Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI died last year, but I think of him often. Sometimes I think of his writings, like his trilogy on Jesus or his first encyclical as pope, “Deus Caritas Est,” the warmth of which surprised so many. But more than anything else, I think about Benedict’s resignation.

Those last few months before he abdicated the chair of Peter, he looked so frail. Many have speculated about why he chose to step down. (There was even a fictional movie about it starring Anthony Hopkins.) But from what I gather, Benedict recognized there were things to be done that he could not do. So he made way for the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

I thought of Benedict when I saw videos of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky seeming to freeze up on two separate occasions when addressing the media. I think of him whenever I see recent pictures of Diane Feinstein of California, who at 90, is the oldest member of the Senate. Nancy Pelosi seemed to have taken the Benedict route when she stepped down as the leader of the Democratic Party in the U.S. House last year. But the 83-year-old recently announced she would run for re-election to her House seat in 2024.

Ms. Pelosi and the two leading presidential candidates in the 2024 election should reconsider. Perhaps they should follow Benedict’s example. Donald J. Trump is 77, and President Joe Biden is 80. Despite his two impeachments and now four indictments, Mr. Trump is nearly 40 points ahead of his closest Republican competitor. No credible candidate is challenging Mr. Biden for the Democratic nomination; he is around 50 points ahead of his closest rival. Barring a significant change, 2024 is looking like a rematch of 2020.

Many Americans have, I believe, well-founded concerns about whether Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden is suitable to sit in the Oval Office.

Many Americans have, I believe, well-founded concerns about whether Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden is suitable to sit in the Oval Office. Here, I am not interested in litigating the veracity of the myriad accusations their detractors have levied against them. Their ages, which are not in dispute, are reason enough to give me pause.

Benedict’s theology no doubt will be debated for decades to come, but I believe his resignation demonstrated a profound humility and a deep love for God and the church. As America has reported, insomnia and exhaustion were likely factors. I would argue that when Benedict resigned—the first pope in 600 years to do so—he revealed a great trust in the Holy Spirit and the cardinal electors. And he recognized it was no longer his time to lead.

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God,” Pope Benedict said, “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

Because of Benedict’s example, I am asking myself whether Mr. Biden, in particular, as a Catholic, has placed love for the United States and its people at the heart of his presidential bid. At some point, it isn’t a matter of whether candidates could lead, but should they?

Age is just a number, according to the saying, but people seem ready to admit that Mr. McConnell and Ms. Feinstein should consider retirement. That’s less true when it comes to Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. Changing a presidential candidate at this point, their supporters argue, would be a grave misstep that could lead to defeat. “Can you imagine another four years of ______? Our nation would never survive!”

Because of Benedict’s example, I am asking myself whether Mr. Biden, in particular, as a Catholic, has a love for the United States and its people at the heart of his presidential bid.

Too often we weigh presidential candidates solely by their ability to defeat their competitors. Even the candidates themselves speak in such terms. It is a corrosive habit of mind that identifies value in winning alone, not in leading. Our partisan politics have devolved to such an extent that elections have become little more than a contest between sporting rivals. Political wonks speak of scoring points with voters. But our elections are about so much more. When it comes to our nation’s policies, lives are at stake.

Who would have been elected pope if Benedict had waited five more years to resign? Would it still have been Pope Francis? Only God knows. At 86, Francis is one of the oldest popes in history, as my colleague Gerard O’Connell recently observed. To be sure, age isn’t the only factor when weighing leaders, and the comparison between the office of the president and the papacy is necessarily limited. But as voters in a democracy, we should demand that our public servants see beyond their own careers and help guide the generation of leaders that will follow them.

Perhaps it is naïve to expect secular leaders to examine their consciences before God, as Pope Benedict did. Perhaps it is equally naïve to want candidates to put the good of their constituents before their political careers. But that is the kind of leadership we need right now. As both Benedict and Francis have demonstrated, true leadership allows others to take the reins. 

Our country needs a reset. We need fresh perspectives. As voters, we must support candidates who remind us not only of our common destiny as Americans but also of the responsibility we have as one nation among many others on earth. In short, we need someone who can truly lead.

[From 2022: “Dear God, let me vote for someone younger than me before I die.”]

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