“The Old Order Changeth”

16 June 2022

“The Old Order Changeth”

Pope, President, Queen.

By Neil Tidmarsh

In the UK, Queen Elizabeth II was absent from the State Opening of Parliament and from the Epsom Derby last month and from much of the celebrations for her Platinum Jubilee this month. In the Vatican this week, the Pope was absent from Sunday’s annual Corpus Domini procession and he also cancelled his Apostolic journey to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic Congo planned for next month. In Russia, President Putin cancelled his annual marathon phone-in with his citizens this week, and last month he cancelled his annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly.

It’s beginning to feel like the end of an era. It looks like an aged, ailing and embattled old guard is edging off-stage. Each absence and cancellation raises anxious questions about the future, about what will happen when they’ve gone, about who will replace them.

Pope Francis is 85 years old. He’s in poor health and usually appears in a wheelchair, following colon surgery last year and a recently torn knee ligament. This week’s cancellations stirred rumours that he isn’t planning to stay on his throne until he dies but is about to announce his retirement. Those rumours were further strengthened by another announcement; on August 28th, the Pope will visit the tomb of Saint Celestine at L’Aquila, in central Italy.

Celestine V was a medieval pope; he was elected in 1294 but he stepped down only five months later to return to his monastic life as a cave-dwelling hermit after issuing a decree allowing popes to resign. It was this decree and precedent that allowed Pope Benedict XVI (Francis’s predecessor) to resign because of ill-health at the age of 85 (the age that Francis is now) in 2013. And before he resigned, Benedict also visited the tomb of Saint Celestine.

Pope Francis appears to be preparing for succession and protecting his legacy. Last month he named 21 new cardinals. 16 of them, being under 80 years old, will be eligible to elect the next pope once they have been officially appointed at a consistory scheduled for August 29, the day after his trip to Saint Celestine’s tomb. This means that he will have appointed 83 of the 132 cardinals who will choose his successor, improving the chances that the next pope will continue his fight for liberal values (“mercy before dogma”) in a traditionally conservative institution. It also means that his new Vatican constitution, which he’s been working on for almost a decade and which will decentralise power from the Vatican and allow lay women into positions of greater authority, is more likely to get a favourable reception. It came into force this week but it has to be discussed by all cardinals before it can be officially approved – and Francis has invited them to the Vatican to do so on August 30, the day after those appointments.

But it’s not certain that Pope Francis’s attempts at a liberal reform of the Roman Catholic church’s organisation and beliefs will survive his passing, whether he resigns like Celestine and Benedict or dies in office.

President Putin is almost 70 years old and he’s been in power for over 20 years. Suspicions about his physical and mental health have been increasing in recent months. Some rumours say that he’s dying of cancer; others that he has Parkinson’s disease; others that he’s had some sort of psychotic breakdown due to Covid isolation or strong medicine. Whether any or all of them are true, the consequences of his disastrous miscalculation in invading Ukraine must be taking their toll on him physically and mentally. And the military, diplomatic and economic consequences must be taking their toll on his grasp on politic power as well; Russia’s armed forces and economy are being put through the shredder and he alone is responsible.  It’s difficult to see how such an embattled and stricken leader, mired in a mess of his own making, can survive in the long if not the short term.

The ruthlessness and opacity of his top-heavy power structure mean that any internal manoeuvres against him would be difficult and hidden. Nevertheless, a report in The Times this week on former president Dmitry Medvedev suggests that political jockeying for position may already be taking place. In recent weeks, Medvedev has made some surprisingly hard-line and aggressive statements – puzzling because he presented himself as pro-democratic, as almost a liberal, when president between 2008 and 2012. The Times quotes former opposition MP Dmitry Gudkov with an explanation; “He is trying to please the hardliners in the hope that they will promote him in the event of Putin leaving office.”

And if Putin does leave the stage – replaced or overthrown or resigned or dead – the aftermath is far from predictable. Peace – or more war? Stability – or greater instability?

Queen Elizabeth II is 96 years old and has been on the throne for 70 years.  This month’s Platinum Jubilee rightly and appropriately celebrated her reign as a second ‘Elizabethan Age’. Her coronation began a confident and outward-looking era for the nation, just as the first Elizabeth’s coronation did. But now the celebrations are over, we are perhaps aware that the final years of her reign are ushering in an era of uncertainty and anxiety about the nation and the monarchy, just as the final years of the first Elizabeth did.

The question of succession to the aged and childless Elizabeth I was so vexed and sensitive that any discussion of it was banned. Would the nation survive her death, or would it be plunged into civil strife? Would it be taken over by foreign powers? Would the English monarchy survive?

Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations might have put the saga of Princess Diana to rest as a danger to the monarchy; they might even have made us forget the troublesome revelations and accusations about Prince Andrew and the exasperating manoeuvres of Harry and Meghan; but in the cold light of day following those celebrations, new problems for the monarchy arrived as certain opinions of Prince Charles made headlines this week. The respect and affection commanded by his mother are due in no small part to the fact that her opinions have never made the headlines, in all of those 70 years. Prince Charles is entitled to his own private opinions, of course, but he is not entitled to pre-empt the democratic process by using his unique position to further them. And making them public threatens to do just that. Whether those opinions are sound or unsound is irrelevant.

We don’t know whether Prince Charles was pleased or displeased that those opinions were made public; we don’t know whether he hoped that they would be made public or whether he intended them to remain confidential. But he does have form, in the shape of those ‘black spider letters’. These issues threaten to introduce anxiety and uncertainty into the prospect of Charles as king. His mother seems to understand that the survival of an unelected head of state depends upon him or her isolating themselves from the business undertaken by elected representatives; but does Charles understand this?

Pope Francis, President Putin, Queen Elizabeth II. “The old order changeth, giving place to new” as Tennyson’s dying King Arthur said to the last of his knights. “Comfort thyself; what comfort is in me? I have lived my life.”

Tile photo: Alvesgaspar / Wikimedia / Creative Commons
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