A lifelong Catholic, President Joe Biden might do well to consider learning from the example of the man who was his pope for eight years. On February 28, 2013, Benedict XVI became the first pope in 600 years to resign the papacy.

The calls in America and around the world for Mr. Biden to withdraw as the Democratic nominee for president began on June 27, 2024, following his monstrously poor debate performance.

They will not cease.

Nor, it seems, will the president’s stubborn refusal to heed them, his insistence that he is a scrappy fighter from Scranton. Yet, what happened 11 years ago at the Vatican should matter to him today.

The Holy See and America, and the pope and president, are more alike than they may appear.

True, the Vatican is eight times older than the U.S.: 2,000 years versus 248 years. True, also, the Vatican is about 0.7 times the size of the Mall in Washington, D.C., with no armed forces (other than the Swiss guards). And true, the Pope is Christ’s Vicar on earth for 1.3 billion Catholics across the world’s 195 countries, whereas the President is a secularly elected chief executive for 333 million people in one country.

But, both of these United Nations members struggle for moral authority around the world.

Decades of clerical abuse, horrific treatment of indigenous persons, financial scandals, and a failure to veritably open its heart to LGBTQ+ persons have caused millions to leave the Church. Millions more young people have been turned off to the faith.

Decades of military interventions abroad, reversals on women’s reproductive rights, mounting national debt and fiscal deficits, and anti-gay, anti-trans violence have dimmed the light on America as a shining city on a hill.

At 86 years of age, Benedict XVI, one of Christianity’s most gifted theologians, knew he could no longer respond to the simultaneous challenges. His successor, the 88-year-old Pope Francis, regularly entertains questions and questions himself about his longevity in office.

This beloved Jesuit, who “gets it right” on so many issues— including climate change, Third World debt relief, arms control, and poverty alleviation— often has his own gaffes (as he did twice in recent months, using a homophobic slur).

Pope Benedict knew an external struggle requires externally apparent internal vigor. He could not fight the good fight anymore and that was evident. In resigning, he displayed a humility from which the 81-year-old president might learn.

Focusing on his place in history would have put the Pope’s sin of pride on display for the world. Catholics and non-Catholics might have sneered cynically at a senile, distant Pope, undermining their faith. Instead, Pope Benedict left reputational concerns to God, realizing his sacred obligation was to ensure his age-related limitations did not corrode the church.

The president has free will, too. So, Mr. Biden might examine his conscience.

First, he should ask whether clinging to power is the example he wishes to set against “the other guy”? He (and the world) knows the former president is a narcissistic populist. 

Yet, it is ironic among plutocratic elites that the more one seeks to proclaim he is different, the more he may seem like the rest. In turn, hubris may well spell doomsday for the Democratic Party.

An honest withdrawal speech— citing Pope Benedict’s example— could go down in history as displaying a virtue of President John F. Kennedy (another ostensible role model for Mr. Biden): grace under pressure. 

Second, he should ask whether framing the election as a choice between democracy and the rule of law versus autocracy and the rule of man is correct.

Perhaps the accurate characterization is dualistic: a forced choice between the evil of two lessers and the lesser of two evils. Is that a compassionate, much less fair ask of American voters?

President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974 when it became clear he would be impeached and convicted. Even for the quintessential power-oriented realist, that prospect was too much trauma, too shameful to put the country through.

Third, he should ask whether running for a second term is gaslighting America and the world.

Misleading and manipulative behavior, like that Democratic operatives have been accused of for not leveling with the public about the president’s cognitive and physical capacities, cannot be in the national interest.

The volume of decisions that must be made in the Oval Office will not decrease, but the pace at which they must be made will increase. Consider nuclear threats from Russia, North Korea, and (possibly) Iran: how many fewer minutes will a president have to react to a crisis as these adversaries advance their delivery systems?

Or consider economic threats from China: What new ideas to resolve the Sino-American trade war will come from a second Biden Administration when the first one has not only stuck to but even increased the tariffs imposed by the Trump Administration?

For all their differences, inaugurations at the Vatican and in America have at least three similarities.

Both refer to the physical and mental capacity of the oath-taker. At a Papal inauguration, a new Pope pledges “… to safeguard reverently the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort….” At a Presidential inauguration, a new President pledges to uphold the Constitution “to the best of my ability.”

There’s a Bible at both events. And at both, America, the world, and God watches. 

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