Popes don't have sex-change operations, they don't enter civil partnerships with witch-doctors from Haiti, they don't become skippers of nuclear submarines, they don't do porn videos with some nude Sisters of Mercy, and they don't resign.
This has been a central and defining truth of the Vatican. More than marriage itself, the Papacy is for life: for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do you part . . .
Madness is no obstacle to a continued tenancy of the Vatican. It is said Pius XII, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, took monkey glands to reverse the ageing process, which they certainly did; they apparently made him as permanently tumescent as a demented teenager.
The quack remedy that he took for the affliction of softening gums turned his mouth to leather, and gave him perpetual hiccups. He regularly saw visions of the Virgin, and issued statements on every subject under the sun, and even on it, as when he propounded his theological explanation for sunspots.
But he didn't resign – and more to the point, the Vatican curia didn't let him. There are some things – witch-doctors, submarines, porn shots – that Popes don't usually do. Resigning is the very top of the list.
This makes Pope Benedict's departure the biggest "scandal" to hit the Papacy since the Great Schism and the exile in Avignon, simply because no explanation, reasonable or unreasonable, can wholly account for it. Nor will the most open and logical account be believed. Ill-health is no more a reason for resigning than it is for divorce. Indeed, ill-health is almost a defining feature of the Papacy, simply because – with the exception of John Paul II – modern Popes have usually been elected while they are already in heaven's ante-chamber, with their bodily parts beginning to fray at the edges, if not actually drop off.
So whatever the reason for the abdication from the Holy See, the reality is that the Pope's decision places it irrevocably in the realm of modern myth, armour plated against truth, and thus the centrepiece of any number of conspiracy theories.
Roswell, UFOs, 9/11, Kennedy's assassination, Elvis's death, and just about everything written about by Michael Moore, these phenomena prosper in the popular imagination, "proof" that uncontrollable outside forces are at work on this planet.
Nothing that doctors, theologians or Papal experts ever say about Benedict will defuse the speculation that there is More To This Than Meets The Eye.
There almost certainly isn't. It merely is what it is: an old man wisely recognising the limitations of his power. However, that's in part perhaps because Pope John Paul II so dramatically redefined the Papacy, with the Pontiff becoming a vigorous mediator across the world. But actually, it should not be necessary for the Pope to jet everywhere, even if he largely is spared the sweating queues and the viral factory of Heathrow Airport, or Ryanair's interpretation of Rome airport, which is a landing-strip with a bus shelter just outside Benghazi. Modern communications should have eliminated the need for CEOs – even of the largest religious multinational on the planet – to travel much. The Pope shouldn't even have to tweet to get himself heard. He is, after all, the Pope.
Pope Benedict is the same age – 85 – as the last Pope to resign, the former hermit Celestine V. He left after a few months in office in 1294, having been utterly confounded by the political and financial complex-ities of the Papacy. So desperate was Celestine's successor, Boniface VIII, to ensure that the former Pope didn't undermine his authority that instead of allowing him to return to a nice fast in a freezing cave on a windswe-pt island, he locked him up in filthy conditions for five years – no doubt the medieval equivalent of listening to Marian Finucane – and in utter despair, the poor old bastard died.
Needless to say, there are no Irish contenders for the Papacy. But there never have been, probably fairly reflecting the shocking intellectual inadequacy of Irish Catholicism. It's an extraordinary fact that for all the many millions of Irish Catholics down the centuries, the Irish church has not produced a single moral theologian of any note. That's quite an achievement. Indeed, even in exile, Irish Catholicism has proved pretty philistine: a check on the list of great American theologians produces the names Dietrich, Diffendorfer, Gieschen, Gerhart and Bauman: but not a Murphy or an O'Sullivan.
But that doesn't mean that the Irish church need be entirely without influence. Perhaps in the absence of a suitable candidate, Ireland can quietly press for a change in Papal nomenclature. Because, we've had enough of all the Piuses (12) and the Leos (13) and the Clements (14) and the Johns (23).
After centuries of Hibernian fidelity, deep in the panting heart of Rome, it's surely time for a Pontiff to adopt an Irish name: yes, God Bless Pope Kevin I.