The surprise announcement Monday that Pope Benedict XVI was retiring at the end of the month sent shockwaves around the world, and also sparked many questions.
First in many people’s minds was: Can a pope actually “retire”?
That was followed closely by what Benedict’s legacy will be, and speculation as to who will succeed him as leader of the Catholic Church. The College of Cardinals is expected to have a successor selected by March 24, in time for Easter.
Under Roman Catholic law, Benedict’s decision to be the first to willingly resign the papacy since Celestine V in 1294 is allowed. In fact, given his reputation for thoroughness on church law and history, it would have been an even greater surprise to find his action was not in line with church doctrine.
The pope appears to have simply taken a pragmatic approach that places the needs of the church ahead of his own. In explaining his decision to the cardinals, Benedict, who had had a pacemaker since 2005, noted that to when serving pope, “both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Reports from around the world indicate — anecdotally, at least — that while many of the 1.2 million Catholics support Benedict’s decision, others feel they are being abandoned and believe the pope should remain in office until death.
Less certain than the pope’s decision is how his term in the papacy will be judged. He had his successes — Israeli chief rabbi Yona Metzger praised his inter-religious outreach and said the relations between Israel and the Vatican were at an all-time high. But the issue that may end up being the one by which he is judged was his inability to bring to a halt the sexual abuse of children by priests. His harshest critics in this area say his apologies were little more than words and that he did not lift the veils of secrecy that allowed the actions to occur and could allow them to happen again be covered up.
How Benedict’s legacy will be judged will be left to historians of the future, but his resignation may have a lasting effect. Lifespans have been extended, but not without consequence. Despite all the advances of medical science, health deteriorates and judgment can be impaired, both serious concerns in stressful positions of leadership. It is possible these days to simply outlive the ability to do a job.
In leading by example, Benedict, who has indicated he will move into a quiet, reflection period of study, is showing that power is something that can be set aside, not something that must be held onto at all costs. It is an example of placing the needs of others ahead of one’s own pride.
That should be an inspiring lesson, not just to the pontiffs who will come later, but to secular leaders as well.