My first reaction? I looked at the date to make sure it was not April 1st.
My second reaction? Good for him.
When I say this, I do not in any way want to convey a desire to not have Pope Benedict XVI serve as the leader of the Catholic Church. I know there are many different opinions surrounding Benedict’s papacy, and some might interpret this statement about his resignation as a reflection on his tenure. Not at all. Rather, I wish to uphold the bravery of a man who is willing to break precedent — in a Church often bound by precedent — and do the right thing for both himself and his people.
There will be the inevitable comparisons to John Paul II and how he stayed in the papacy while he battled Parkinson’s disease. Through his witness, John Paul II was able to use both the ceremonial role and the teaching role of the papacy to make a statement about the dignity of suffering and the role that illness can play in one’s journey to God. However, as Pope Benedict himself indicated in an interview a few years ago (see the end of this article from Catholic News Service), John Paul II’s decision to stay meant that the governing role of the papacy was neglected in the last years of his life. Others have pointed out that when the sex abuse crisis was exploding 10 years ago, one of the reasons for the inadequacy of the Vatican’s response was because of John Paul II’s weakened health condition.
Agree or disagree with Pope Benedict, you cannot dispute the fact that he is a first rate mind. And while from a practical standpoint, the decision to resign may have seemed obvious (there would not be much to reflect on if this had been the President of the United States stepping down because of health concerns), traditionally this move would not have been obvious. After all, it has been roughly a half-millennia since the last pope made such a move, and so much of how we understand ourselves as a church is based on what others have done before us. The forces of tradition for Benedict to remain must have been tremendous. But canon law does provide for this option, even if it is not traditionally taken.
For Benedict to make the brave decision to set aside tradition and step down after realizing that he could not adequately serve as pope is impressive. It shows a responsibility to his well-being and the well-being of the Church. The talk will soon move to the usual parlor game of who will be the next pope and where the Church goes from here. But I hope in the midst of all of that, we do not ignore what a momentous decision this is in the history of the Church. And history will demonstrate whether or not Benedict’s resignation will set a new precedent for the papacy in the years to come.