Archived Story

Editorial: Pope Benedict XVI sets a precedent

Published 9:14am Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI is making the wise choice and, hopefully, setting a precedent for popes to come.

Benedict announced Monday he planned to resign Feb. 28 due to ailing health. He is the first pope in 600 years to resign the papacy, rather than die as the title holder.

No lifelong position should actually be for life. U.S. Supreme Court justices are appointed for lifelong terms, yet it is common for them to resign at an age of their choosing, so that they may enjoy their golden years. Moreover, such choices save the court from dealing with absentee justices who may be facing long-term hospital stays or end-of-life medical situations, both of which do no good for American citizens who seek jurisprudence.

When Benedict was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Bavarian worked closely with Pope John Paul II. He witnessed the great church leader from Poland retain the pontificate as he suffered for four years through a debilitating fight with Parkinson’s disease, ultimately passing in 2005. John Paul in these years had trouble listening and could utter but a few words at a time.

Though he was the second-longest-serving pope of all time — and there is no doubt about him being one of the most influential people of the 20th century — John Paul’s frail health did not serve to lead the Catholic Church in those waning years.

This must not have been lost on Benedict, who on Monday said: “If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”

Media outlets can dither and quibble over Benedict’s track record as pope. That’s another issue. As for the wisdom of this decision to resign before his health declines, he most definitely got this one right. Just because the papacy has ancient and medieval ties doesn’t mean it cannot make strides toward modern practices.

Let’s not wait another 600 years to pass the title of pope from one living person to another.