Today we learned of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI effective February 28th, 2013 due to concerns related to health and aging.
The reactions have been mixed. Some have used this opportunity to express their ongoing anger at the Catholic Church over the pedophilia pandemic and felonious cover up of the same by bishops in the Church including Pope Benedict himself. Others have said that the Pope should continue until he dies, no matter how infirm he becomes, because it is “his cross to bear.” There have been other criticisms of his decision for other reasons as well. I believe they are all exercises in missing the point, even if some of the issues they raise have validity.
Human beings live longer now than ever before. Centuries ago, when life expectancy was in the forties or fifties, Popes quite simply didn’t live long enough to become infirm. The advent of antibiotics and other medications and treatments as well as advances in nutrition have extended our life expectancy significantly. For the first time in human history we now see people outlive the ability of their body to carry out the tasks and duties their mind is still capable of – and, sadly, at times our minds can no longer function at optimum capacity long before our bodies wear down. Aging brings a measure of uncertainty, and something in human nature deplores uncertainty. Leadership, however, brings with it the responsibility to admit when we reach the point in life when – whatever the reason – we are no longer able to lead effectively and so must resign.
I have been roundly critical of the Papacy of Benedict XVI. However, I want to say quite clearly on this occasion that his resignation reflects an amount of humility that could only be present in a profoundly spiritual being. Our ego wants us to push on, persevere, continue no matter our condition and seeks to convince us that we are still capable – even when the rest of the world clearly sees we are not. We saw the result of attempting to push on past our ability to do so in the last years of John Paul II, and it was painful. Making the decision to become the first Pope to voluntarily resign since Celestine V resigned in 1294 could not have been easy, and I admire the Pope’s courage and vision. Regardless of whether or not we agree with his past decisions, we can indeed say that at this point in his life he has been faithful to the leading of the Spirit in his life and respect that decision.
I am, of course, hopeful for a more moderate voice to replace Benedict, but part of his legacy is that he has stacked the College of Cardinals with men even more conservative than he and so that hope is slim, indeed. In all likelihood the Roman Catholic Church will continue to decline in the North and retreat to the Southern Hemisphere where its influence is stronger. That strategy may save them from having to confront reality for another century or two, but by then it will be too late to have any hope of addressing life in the developed world. It is a tragic end for a once great institution.