Buckley Praying for Pope’s Death

Drudge links Wednesday’s column by William F. Buckley, Jr., arguably the founder of the modern American conservative movement and inarguably a devout Roman Catholic.

At church on Sunday the congregation was asked to pray for the recovery of the pope. I have abstained from doing so. I hope that he will not recover. The seizure brought on by his dramatic trip to the hospital a week ago suggests the international sense of his indispensability. Pope John Paul is a graphic figure in the lives of Catholics and many non-Catholics. He is, of course, a towering theological figure who has presided over the development of Catholic thought and practice for the 26 years of his papacy. He is a major historical figure, who began as a Catholic seminarian in a Poland subservient first to a Nazi overlord (they hanged him in Nuremberg), then to a communist overlord (nothing happened to him — the communists are never prosecuted). From that scene he succeeded to the Holy See, where he was the symbol of hope and, after the communists fell, of triumph, distinctive in his bid for international recognition as a God-fearing man of good will.


The temptation is, always, to pray for the continuation of the life of anyone who wants to keep on living. The pope is one of these. In the past, he recorded that he did not plan ever to abdicate, that he would die on the papal throne.


Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said simply, “If there is a man who loves the Church more than anybody else, who is guided by the Holy Spirit … that’s him. We must have great faith in the pope. He knows what to do.”

What to do includes clinging to the papacy as a full-time cripple, if medicine, which arrested death by only 10 minutes, can arrest death again for weeks and even months. But the progressive deterioration in the pope’s health over the last several years confirms that there are yet things medical science can’t do, and these include giving the pope the physical strength to coordinate and to use his voice intelligibly.

So, what is wrong with praying for his death? For relief from his manifest sufferings? And for the opportunity to pay honor to his legacy by turning to the responsibility of electing a successor to get on with John Paul’s work? Muriel Spark commented in “Memento Mori”: “When a noble life has prepared old age, it is not decline that it reveals, but the first days of immortality.” That cannot be effected by the hospital in which the pope struggles.

An interesting question, indeed. As Buckley suggests, withering away in office is not theologically mandated. Given the exhausting demands of the office, one would think retirement more logical. There is, apparently, antecedent for it. Still, dying in office has been the norm throughout the history of the church.

There have been only three popes in my lifetime–Paul VI, who served from two years before I was born until I was twelve (1963-78); John Paul I, who was pontiff for only a few weeks in 1978; and John Paul II. The previous two died in office and it seems the current one will do so soon, lasting much longer than most expected given an assassin’s bullet in 1981 and the ravages of age and disease these last several years.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    This thought process would seem to be affected by Buckley’s own advanced age.

  2. I see Buckley’s point – it would be hard to watch this man you respect wither away in the public eye. Why not pray that he be done with it?

    Reminds me of the Numenorian’s in Middle-Earth (ancestors of Aragorn) – they had the option to give up their lives of their own accord, and to give up their thrones much earlier – they usually did so when of sound mind but of weakening body – when they knew that soon, they would either lose mind or body. Once they started clinging to life, they started to get afflicted with senility.

  3. BigFire says:

    Re: B. Minich

    Not exactly how I’d read it. The Númenórean Kings usually know when their time is up. They abdict in favor of their heir to smooth the transition.

  4. Yes, they would do that. In fact, some abdicated and stuck around for a while in “retirement”. But I seem to remember they were able to simply sleep when their time had come – no going senile or anything like that.

    Its been a while, though.

  5. Cricket says:

    There is nothing ghoulish about it. However, I
    think that given what this man has suffered, and
    what he means to so many people, I wish him
    a peaceful departure in his sleep, no pain
    and that he believes he made a difference.

    I am not a Catholic, but I don’t think it hurts
    to pray for release.

  6. lunacy says:

    Those of us who have worked as caregivers for the terminally ill and extremely frail or have watched our mothers, grandmothers, whomever, die a long death, have no problem praying for release. The end of life can be as wondrous as the beginning. And it is something that you only get one chance at. To have a peaceful death, with time to prepare yourself and make peace with your loved ones, that is the final blessing and luxury of a life well lived.

    That said, just as I have seen the very sick give up and die before predicted, I have seen many very sick people will themselves to live long enough to accomplish a task, say all their goodbyes, hold out another month for Uncle Jim to make it down. I don’t know where the church is in regard to a successor, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a man such as the pope forestall death if he had unfinished business or loose ends.


  7. McGehee says:

    I have had that same experience as Lunacy is talking about, with my mother. It’s humbling to know she held on, apparently for several days, so I could make arrangements to fly across the country for one last visit.