TCS Daily

Habemus Papam...Ad Perpetuitatem?

By Rand Simberg - April 21, 2005 12:00 AM

The new pope, Benedict XVI, is seventy-eight years old and, by conventional wisdom, it seems unlikely that he'll come anywhere close to matching the length of term of his immediate predecessor, John Paul II, whose twenty-seven-year tenure was the third longest in papal history. In order to do so, he would have to live to be a hundred and five years of age, a feat that no previous pope, and few men, have ever achieved.

In fact, many commentators think that his advanced age (the oldest in over a century) indicates that he's meant to be a short-term, transitional pope, until a new one can emerge for the new century. In addition, some say (including many of those who think him transitional), that his selection by the College of Cardinals was also at least partly to send a message of continuity of the Church and its teachings as they evolved under the previous pope.


Despite his years, though, they may get a lot more continuity than they bargained for. This is, after all, the twenty-first century, in which technological breakthroughs in general, and medical breakthroughs in particular, are coming along at a breakneck and accelerating pace. Such advances, described in the recent books More Than Human by Ramez Naam, and Joel Garreau's Radical Evolution, may upend (among many other things) the stately applecart of traditional papal successions if (as seems increasingly likely) they result in extreme life extension and indefinitely-long healthy human life spans.


Imagine that, a decade or less from now, a breakthrough occurs that cures some underlying, wasting disease from which the new pope might suffer, such as arteriosclerosis, thus buying him an additional decade of life that he might have been denied in its absence? Would he, should he, refuse the treatment?


Assuming that it doesn't require killing embryos, or some other means that is morally problematic to the church in itself, there wouldn't seem to be any existing ecclesiastically doctrinal reason to do so. After all, the previous pope availed himself of all available medical technology up until just days before his death, when he decided that the machinery couldn't offer him a life worth living, with the ability to continue to carry out his duties. Assuming that the current pontiff is otherwise in reasonable health, why turn down a therapy that could help maintain that state? In fact, as Virginia Postrel has pointed out, there is a major split coming down the road between those who oppose life extension techniques because of their means (e.g., cloning embryos), and those who oppose the end of longer life itself, as Leon Kass does. On which side of this divide will the Church (particularly under this pope) fall?


If under the new pontiff (and unlike Professor Kass) it embraces life, then suppose that, a few years later, he is diagnosed with a cancer for which a complete cure then exists. Why would he not avail himself of it? What of an actual rejuvenation treatment (which seems to be at least not in violation of the laws of physics), that would allow him to carry out his papal duties with more vigor? Where, and how, would they draw the line? Where would it end?


Well, if they don't come up with a way, there's no reason in fact to think that it would. It's quite possible that, absent a change in Church policy to set pontifical term limits, or outright assassination, Pope Benedict XVI might be not just pope for life -- all popes have been that -- but pope for a very long life, perhaps so long as to preclude the possibility of a Benedict XVII, or of any other name for that matter. This could be the last time we see a papal enclave. This pontificate (or if not this, then perhaps the next) could be, for practical purposes, the last one.


In a world of conventional life spans, we can always console ourselves with the thought that, if we're stuck with a dud pope, or a particularly nasty and competent dictator, or an overactivist judge, no one lasts forever.


But what if they do? What are the implications of this for the future of the Church? Or of dictators (who are usually the first in their own nations to take advantage of new medical techniques)? Or the Supreme Court? Or indeed, any position which, in our current finite-lived reality, is defined as a term for life? And what will be the response of the Church in particular, which like most churches, partly grew in response to the innate human fear of death, in a world in which death was commonplace, to a world in which it becomes a rarity, only resulting from severe injuries occurring too far from medical facilities?


Which of its traditions will have to give way to the new technological reality? The Church hierarchy is very learned, but this may be a technological change to which they've given little thought, because since the dawn of humanity it's been unthinkable (and to many, mortality with a life span of a few decades is a defining feature of humanity). If they do somehow draw a line, and declare certain life-extending, life-enhancing therapies to be un-Catholic, how many more will flee a Church that now seemingly wants to not only control their sex lives, but how long they live in good health?


If, as many think, this pope was selected to provide at least a temporary bulwark against modernity, how ironic that one of the features of modern life that he might be having to fight could also be one that could allow his own obstruction to it to be permanent?


Rand Simberg is a consultant and entrepreneur in commercial space, space tourism, and internet security. He publishes a weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.


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