Pope Benedict XVI announced today that he is resigning the papacy, effective February 28. He’s the first Pope in centuries to resign.
Benedict, who is 85, said he was resigning because he felt his strength had deteriorated. He believes that leading the Catholic Church requires strength of mind and body and concluded that his failing condition was leaving him unable to adequately perform his duties.
I’m not a Catholic, and I therefore can’t speak knowledgeably about whether Pope Benedict has been a good Pope, a bad Pope, or something in between. However, I can applaud the Pope’s resignation decision as an all-too-rare example of selflessness and self-awareness by a powerful individual who could easily have served in his office until his death. How many Popes have been unable to let go of the trappings of office and the adulation that accompanies it? How many have been unwilling to acknowledge their declining physical and mental abilities? How many have been content to let their responsibilities drift as their individual capacities have diminished?
I wish more significant public figures — be they Popes, or Senators, or sports stars, or others — were willing to engage in objective self-evaluation and step aside upon concluding that they were no longer up to the job. Perhaps Benedict’s surprising decision will cause other people in important public jobs to consider whether they, too, should make room for a more active, energetic replacement.