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Pope Benedict’s resignation has taught us many lessons, from both his decision to retire when he felt he was no longer up to the task, and the way he conducted himself afterwards as “Pope Emeritus”. Even that title, which he devised for himself, raises more questions than it answers.

There is no specific provision in canon law for a pope to be forced to retire if he is mentally incapacitated. Maybe there ought to be. And there is a widespread view that the long, drawn out final illness of Pope John Paul II left undue influence in the hands of his senior advisers, who did not always act wisely. Against this, his obvious public suffering became a form of witness to the Gospel, even a kind of martyrdom, which was very moving and, in its own way, inspiring.

Pope Benedict opted after resigning to live in seclusion in the Vatican. Yet he continued to wear white and to be known as “Holy Father”, and said he felt he played a continuing role in the Petrine ministry, supporting it by his presence and prayer. Despite his intention to stay away from controversy, his name was drawn into it – especially when the direction chosen by Pope Francis, with its greater emphasis on mercy rather than on dogma, seemed difficult to reconcile with positions taken by his predecessor.

The real danger, therefore, was the formation of a perception that there were two Popes in the Vatican side by side. The traditional view that a pope was the unique “Vicar of

Christ” – though Pope John Paul II himself stressed that the term applied to all bishops – suggested that elevation to the papacy was a quasi-sacramental ordination, one step above the episcopacy. This could lead to the mistaken view that election to the papacy, like the ordination of a priest (according to the Catechism, a bishop receives the “fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders”), conferred a permanent mark – “once a pope, always a pope”. For this reason, many theologians and canonists regard the term chosen by Benedict, “Pope Emeritus”, as confusing. A more appropriate title for a retired pope might be “Emeritus Bishop of Rome”, parallel to the title “emeritus bishop” used, for example, by the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor who became, after his retirement, Emeritus Archbishop of Westminster. The same applies to other symbols of papal office, such as the white robes and being addressed as “Holy Father”. On relinquishing the papacy, the fisherman’s ring of St Peter that Benedict wore as Pope was broken up, but that symbolism was contradicted by other signs suggesting continuity. With an agreed protocol for any future papal retirement, the risks of confusion and conflict could be eliminated; making it easier for a pope to retire from office would weaken the case for a fixed retiring age. Popes ought to be trusted to know when they should retire. If they lack that degree of humble self-awareness, they probably should not have been elected in the first place.



Trade unions across almost the entire public sector are demanding that the UK government should do more to protect them from the unprecedented cost of living crisis. The government says to do so would fuel inflation, and its priority is to bring that under control. Who is right? There is a moral argument on both sides, and neither position is without merit. But whereas the unions’ case is a simple one, the government’s rests on a number of assumptions that have been questioned.

For instance, the government’s assertion that to raise pay in the public sector would contribute to an inflationary wageprice spiral appears to ignore the fact that most public services, especially health services, are free at the point of delivery. It is possible that large wage increases in the public sector could encourage similar increases in the private sector. But the evidence shows the reverse. The Office for National Statistics reported this week that wage growth in the private sector is running at 7.2 per cent per annum compared with 3.3 per cent in the public sector.

That disparity also explains the huge number of job vacancies in many parts of the public sector, which in turn impacts on the quality of services, increases the stress on its employees and further reduces their job satisfaction. One might expect a Conservative government to listen to the view advanced by many free-market economists, that wage rises may increase unemployment but do not drive a wage/price inflationary spiral at all. And unemployment is not the UK’s current problem.

Aside from these technical arguments, what is driving strikes across the public sector is a seething sense of injustice – the view that employers have a responsibility to protect their employees’ living standards from a steep drop in the real value of their earnings. It is well established that contracts of employment cannot be altered by one side without the consent of the other. An employer who tried unilaterally to reduce the monetary value of their employees’ earnings would be acting unlawfully and, by implication, immorally. With inflation running at around 10 per cent a year, they could achieve the same effect by pegging wages at existing rates, or by raising them by an amount that is significantly lower than the inflation level. That is lawful. But is it moral? Millions of public sector workers do not think so, and most people seem by and large to agree with them. What is at stake here is the moral bond between employer and employee – the mutual recognition of obligations. Governments cannot exempt themselves from such obligations.

Catholic Social Teaching has a lot to say about an employee’s right to a living wage, and about humane and stress-free working conditions. If a certain real value of pay is fair, does it become unfair if it is lowered below that level? If so, then it is unfair whether the lowering is brought about by cutting actual wages – or by inflation. That is what public sector workers are saying.

2 | THE TABLET | 21 JANUARY 2023

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