The Problem of Abdication: A Tangential Reply to @AnomalyUK

In recent times, it has become a trend for monarchs to abdicate when they feel they are too old or sick to effectively carry out their duties. Pope Benedict XVI abdicated over a year ago, leading to the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis (of whom my opinions are well known). Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicated a little more than a year ago in favour of her son, now King Willem-Alexander.

Anomaly UK has written relatively positively (in passing) of the practice of abdication by elderly monarchs. I, however, am concerned by the trend.

Historically, monarchies have always claimed divine origin as a source of their legitimacy, and many of the monarchies of Europe continue, in name at least, to do so. Elizabeth the Second is officially Queen of the United Kingdom ‘by the grace of God’, for example.

Pagan monarchies often claimed their monarchs were gods, or were descended from gods. This has the advantage of lending a divine aura to the entire royal family, so abdication there may not be much of a problem; one simply replaces one god with another. (This system has great disadvantages as well; I’ve touched on these on Twitter once or twice and I may write about them here eventually).

Christian monarchies, however, were barred from this strategy by theological considerations, so instead they claimed that monarchs were chosen by God. This makes a certain amount of sense; after all, no man can control what kind of person is born into a particular family, so it is only natural that such decisions would be attributed to God.

However, the implications for abdication in this case are severe. If the king is chosen by God to rule, then who is anyone — even and perhaps especially the king himself — to set that calling aside and choose someone different for the role?

Of course, there are times when any sane standard of practicality demands that someone else rule in the king’s stead, either by means of regency or abdication. And if a king is genuinely incapable of doing his job — for example, if he is so senile as to be unaware of his surroundings — then one could plausibly make the claim that the time has come to relinquish his divine calling in favour of a more capable successor.

However, when abdication is carried out for the sake of convenience, it seriously undermines the divine justification for the monarchical institution.

Of course, theologically, we cannot say that God’s hands are somehow tied. One can say, as a matter of theory, that in the moment the elder monarch abdicates, the successor receives the divine mandate. However, this doesn’t change the fact that God Himself is supposed to have chosen the previous monarch. And while He has also chosen the successor, abdication for frivolous causes nevertheless tends to convey the impression that the monarch is not taking his divine vocation seriously. And if he does not take it seriously, why should anyone else?

The key point here is not that a monarch must always serve till death (though in my opinion that should be the norm), but rather that he must place his calling as monarch ahead of his personal satisfaction or other trivial concerns. If he does not, he betrays a lack of respect for his own office, and that lack will be contagious.

Abdication cannot be forbidden, per se, but it should be stigmatisedWhen the late Emperor Otto of Austria was asked (many years ago) whom he despised most as a contemporary figure, he answered, ‘the Duke of Windsor who has abdicated.’

The Emperor had the right idea. Christian monarchy cannot survive if kings abandon their posts for light or trivial reasons, and especially not if they are praised for it. If ‘divine right’ is to survive in any useful, meaningful way, it must transcend itself and become the principle of the monarch’s ‘divine duty’, before God, to his realm and his people. Otherwise it amounts to a rather self-aggrandising idea on the monarch’s part.

In other words, ‘abdication-shaming’, if you will, is necessary to the institution of Christian monarchy, and recent reactionary embrace of abdication is, in my opinion, a short-sighted strategic blunder.

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3 comments on “The Problem of Abdication: A Tangential Reply to @AnomalyUK

  1. I know some say there is a doctrine called “divine right of kings,” and that it is a ~17th century invention representing a new sort of absolutism unknown to earlier Christian kings. What do you think of this story, and what distinctions do you recognize in the theory of monarchy (e.g. different formulations of “divine right”)?

    • ‘Divine Right of Kings’, capitalised, is a doctrine articulated by James VI and I and I think that assessment of it is fair. But the idea that kings reign ‘by the grace of God’ is as old as Christian monarchy. In fact, in the East (particularly in Russia), the notion of the monarch as persona mixta, neither quite a priest nor entirely a layman, which had been known in Western Europe in the Middle Ages but died out in the face of the Renaissance if I recall aright, persisted all the way into the modern era.

      So I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘divine right’. Personally, I prefer the notion of a ‘divine trust’.

      • Oh, I definitely want to read more about persona mixta. Especially in the West, are there other terms associated with that one, or particular theologians or kings?

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