A Bold, Dramatic Step

Commentary | February 12, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI's papacy has not been known for stellar moments, yet he is ending it with a stellar action. By surprising not just his Catholic brethren but the whole world with his resignation—something that no pope has done since Gregory XII stepped down in 1415—the 85-year-old Benedict has instantly assured himself an elevated place in history. This fundamentally conservative pope has taken a bold step that is truly exemplary. Not only his successors but any number of religious and secular leaders would do well to keep his precedent in mind as they contemplate how long they should stay in office.

It is impossible to view Benedict's decision in isolation from the waning years of his predecessor, John Paul II. Unlike Benedict, who was 78 when he was elected, the Polish pope took office in 1978 at the sprightly age of 58, allowing him to continue skiing, swimming and hiking—and to break all travel records with his 104 foreign trips. But during the last years of his papacy, John Paul was so weakened by his assorted ailments that his public appearances were often painful to watch. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope who was right by his side, observed his physical decline on a daily basis.

As Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who served as the Polish pope's private secretary, revealed in his memoirs in 2007, John Paul considered resigning in 2000. But that was a largely taboo subject at the time. In a 2002 article for Newsweek, I argued that the Polish pope should take this unprecedented step, explaining that it would only add to his remarkable accomplishments that I had been privileged to cover during the early years of his papacy. The Vatican dismissed any such suggestion. Yet clearly Benedict has had plenty of time to reflect on the virtues of deciding when to end a papacy.

Benedict's reign was never expected to be groundbreaking. He certainly realized that he could not aspire to play the same historic role as his predecessor, who was a key player in the collapse of communism in his native Poland and elsewhere, and whose charisma and seemingly boundless energy broadened the church's appeal far beyond the traditional Christian Western world and to young people everywhere.

In many ways Benedict lived up—or down—to expectations, and his reign of less than eight years will be seen mostly as a bridge between the electrifying John Paul and whomever is elected to the papacy next month. His doctrinal conservatism was no surprise on issues like gay marriage, but his harsh rebukes of those who were perceived to have strayed did startle and alienate some of his followers, especially in the United States. The Vatican's report last year denouncing American nuns for promoting "radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith" went beyond the general protection of orthodoxy to a frontal attack.

Yet it would be a mistake to view Benedict as only clinging to dogmas many Catholics no longer can fully accept. Despite the church's dismal record of covering up child abuse by priests, and recent questions about the future pontiff's opposition to defrocking one such priest in 1985, Benedict was the first pope to both recognize the damage of this procession of scandals and to apologize for them, meeting with victims and introducing new procedures. This was hardly enough to satisfy the need for a full accounting, but it was an important first step nonetheless.

Benedict also built on his predecessor's accomplishments. He displayed as much sensitivity as John Paul famously did in reaching out to the victims of the Holocaust. On a visit to Auschwitz in 2006, Benedict agonized aloud about the difficulty of saying the right thing: "To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible—and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany." He was acutely conscious of the fact that, as he put it, he was "a son of the German people."

In terms of travel, Benedict did more than expected, embarking on 24 foreign trips, touching down in countries as disparate as the U.S., Brazil, Cameroon, Lebanon and Israel. In 2006, he provoked a backlash with a highly academic speech on Christianity and Islam, which quoted a Byzantine Christian emperor's remarks declaring: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The Vatican quickly pointed out that Benedict wasn't endorsing those statements but making "a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come." Given the hypersensitivities of our era, there is no doubt that the pope could have done a better job explaining that in his speech—but his underlying message was right on target.

Overshadowed by his predecessor in so many ways, Benedict often failed to get credit for the fact that he, too, could handle several languages comfortably—and deliver papal greetings in many more. Just this past October in Rome, he offered brief greetings from St. Peter's in Arabic for the first time. Of course, the step was largely symbolic, as were some of his other attempts to show his ability to change with the times. Since the Vatican announced a Twitter account in his name two months ago, @Pontifex has generated all of 34 tweets—but garnered more than 1.5 million followers.

Benedict's papacy never shook the perception that he was presiding over an unremarkable period in the life of the church. Now, though, with one dramatic decision he has changed his place in history—and perhaps he will change how those who hold high office without term limits see their own futures. It's worth remembering that in 1966 Pope Paul VI introduced a retirement age of 75 for bishops and archbishops. If the U.S. Senate had a similar rule, 10 of its current members would have retired by now.

By stepping down, Benedict is teaching us all about recognizing one's own limits at a time when more people than ever are living to a very old age. It isn't the number of years that matters as much as the energy and capabilities each of us has left. And there can be no greater tribute to the institution a leader serves than recognizing when the moment to step down is here. That's exactly what Benedict will be remembered for.

Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales)