Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement Monday that he would retire at the end of this month was universally regarded as a surprise. That’s because popes don’t retire. They die in office. The last one to step down did so in 1415 — well before Christopher Columbus, whose voyages would over the centuries add hundreds of millions of Catholics to the fold — was born.
But if the pope’s announcement was a surprise, it might be because we don’t always pay attention to him. He had indicated several years ago that if a pope didn’t feel up to the challenges of the office — spiritually, intellectually and physically — he would not only be wise to step down but doing so would be his duty. In his statement Monday, he said, “Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Other reports indicate that Pope Benedict had not overtly sought the job nor has been entirely comfortable in it. What’s more, he is 85, and increasingly frail. And his tenure, which began in 2005, has been a difficult one.
It’s been marred by clergy sex-abuse scandals that extended well beyond U.S. parishes, and by the Church’s slow response in disciplining archbishops and even cardinals who in covering up priests’ offenses put their own reputations and the image of the Church ahead of the interests of victims. When he visited the United States in 2008, the pope met with some of the victims of predatory priests and subsequently offered an apology for their crimes, but those steps, though constructive, didn’t go far enough.
He has been described as more of a theologian and academic than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who was something of a media darling before age and infirmities took their toll. Perhaps Pope John Paul II’s deterioration entered into the present pope’s considerations, and led him to conclude that the church would be better served by somebody stronger and more able to handle the demands of the papacy.
If so, he ought to be credited rather than faulted for breaking with centuries of tradition. His decision will enable the College of Cardinals to consider the future direction of the Church anew and allow him to return to a quieter life he enjoys and has earned.