Pope Benedict XVI announced today that he will resign at the end of the month, saying that at his advanced age and current state of health, he can no longer fulfill his duties adequately.
Now perhaps other aged, infirm, ill and declining men and women in important positions of power that they are increasingly unable to fill will get the message and resign too, giving up perquisites, influence, and celebrity for the good of the organizations and constituencies they serve. The current roster of Americans who should, if they were properly responsible, do “a Benedict” include members of Congress,U.S. Senators, Supreme Court Justices, doctors, lawyers, state legislators, college professors, corporate founders, CEOs, and many more. Staying beyond one’s pull-date is a national epidemic, one of the unintended bad consequences of increased longevity and better health care. A prominent role model to show the way was just what the doctor ordered—one of the young ones, who keeps up-to-date via the internet.
As reasonable and natural as the Pope’s decision seems, it is extremely rare in a position where dying on the job is traditional and expected. No Pope has resigned since Pope Gregory in 1415, and his health had nothing to do with it (Gregory resigned because there were three Popes). A Pope resigning because he believed he wasn’t up to the job is not quite unprecedented, but close, and no wonder. The last Pope who did it, Pope Celestine V after only five months in 1294, got thrown into prison by his successor and was consigned to Hell in Dante’s “Inferno” for “rejecting” the Papacy.
Thus Pope Benedict deserves ethics honors for taking responsible action that has virtually eluded his predecessors for almost 2000 years. That requires courage, humility and selflessness, as surrendering great power always does. If enough people pay attention, leaving his post might do more good than anything Benedict accomplished while serving in it.
UPDATE: Look! The estimable Chris McDonald has a similar take!
Graphic: Fr. Z’s Blog