Western New York Catholics, like Catholics around the world, were stunned Monday to learn that their pope would resign. That hasn’t happened in nearly 600 years, but rarity alone doesn’t make it unthinkable or unwise. We don’t know if Pope Benedict XVI made the right decision in stepping down from the papacy, but trusting in what appears to be rigorous contemplation about his circumstances, he demonstrated remarkable, selfless leadership.
Citing his age and a lack of strength needed to continue meeting the demands of his post, Benedict announced that he would resign as of Feb. 28. He will become only the fifth pope in the last 1,000 years to leave the papacy voluntarily, the first since Pope Gregory XII stepped down in 1415.
Benedict, born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, is 85 years old and has served just eight years, since the death of the charismatic and widely admired John Paul II, who served for 27 years. Despite his love of the church and sense of duty to his office, John Paul was frail and not functioning well when he died. At a time of rising challenges for the church, he was decreasingly able to offer the leadership that it needed.
That’s not to say that John Paul II was wrong to remain in office or that Benedict should stay on. Devotion to duty is a valuable quality in any leader, and so is knowing when it’s time to let someone else take on the burdens you are no longer capable of bearing. Benedict earlier had said that popes have an obligation to resign if they can’t carry out their duties.
It was clear that the cardinals who elected Benedict in 2005 were looking for a pope who would be a “place holder” – a leader of a shorter duration than his predecessor. With him, they got a pope of notable conservatism, though less than some had feared or hoped for. The question going forward is what qualities the next pope will need to meet the challenges that continue to confront and even rattle the church.
The sexual abuse scandal remains a potent threat to the church, as underscored by recent revelations about the conduct of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony in covering up child abuse by priests in his charge. It is unfortunate that Mahony will be among the cardinals to select the new pope, and it doesn’t seem too much to suggest that if Benedict can step down for the good of the church, Mahony might consider doing so, as well, before he influences the decision, expected next month.
Some are suggesting that the church should select a non-European as pope in an acknowledgment of the church’s declining influence there and its growth in Africa, Asia and Latin America. That would represent a break with the past, but so does Benedict’s resignation. And, in any case, traditions can outlive their usefulness. With all the church is facing, perhaps it’s time to make a bigger kind of change.