Unprecedented as it seems, Pope Benedict XVI was not the first to resign his papacy. All of 598 years ago, Pope Gregory XII had done the same. But unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict's farewell is proving to be far fonder: the 85-year-old resigned on Monday, citing his depleting strength of body and mind. It is precisely this objective assessment of his physical and mental faculties that makes the decision admirable.
As leader of the Catholic Church, any Pope has the collective faith of over a billion people to safeguard, and Pope Benedict XVI is not leaving behind a satisfied family of believers. Not only is the Church trying to find methods to cope with the 'modern' effects of choices such as abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage, it is also plagued by accusations of money laundering and sex abuse by its clerics. Enabled in part by a new culture of digital democracy and more social honesty, the number of child sex abuse cases reported against the Catholic clergy in the last three years has gone into the thousands. Pope Benedict's critics will of course argue that his eight-year legacy can only be marked by theological conservatism and a lack of resolution, but it seems clear that by deciding to retreat to the cloistered monastery, the Pope has ensured that his shoes be filled by someone with more nimble feet.
Giving up any position of relative power is never easy. One can find ample proof of this fact in tapes of the historic Frost/Nixon interviews. More than the references to Watergate, former American President Richard Nixon is broken down by a simple nostalgia for his presidency. Surely, no one likes to relinquish responsibility, but when infirmity and age start to weigh on one's body and mind, it seems best to restrain the extent of one's influence on public life. Few religions prescribe incessant activity in one's old age. Hinduism, for instance, advocates a solitary sanyasa after the age of 65. While modern medicine dictates that there is no reason for us to set a precise age limit for those in power, the octogenarian Pope Benedict XVI does seem to have set an example. It is best to leave when the act of going is universally hailed as good.