A Wise Time for Going, A Good Way to Leave

By David T. Jones on February 12, 2013

Washington, DC - Far be it for non-Catholics to pontificate (so to speak) on Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to retire from the papacy on February 28th.  There are those who might consider any comment at best gratuitous; at worst, intrusive.

But the Pope is a global change-maker and political figure at least as much as a religious leader. Certainly, that was true for John Paul II whose long tenure defined the strengths and challenges facing 21st century Catholicism.  

Consequently, we see Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to retire as wise. His tenure as Pope is already being called a transitional period, but history is yet to speak.

Clearly, it is a prayerful decision by a man who was one of the oldest men to accede to the papacy in modern times.  He also saw Pope John Paul II’s final years of physical debility.  He clearly intends to avoid this fate for himself and for the church.

Resignation or abdication is often in bad odor in the United States.  Nixon resigns; King Edward VIII abdicates to marry Mrs. Simpson;  Petraeus resigns.  It is often a thinly veiled consequence for moral turpitude (“I want to spend more time with my family”) but ultimately a failing to uphold personal/legal principles and a failure to finish what you committed to do.  

But it does not have to be this way.  The decision by the Queen of the Netherlands to abdicate in favor of her son follows her mother’s decision to abdicate.  In each case, the successor had been groomed and was ready to assume the position in the prime of life.  It was a good decision allowing a parent the pleasure of seeing a child do well.

Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta have both decided to leave at the ‘top of their game’ or at least at the point where the beginning of the inevitable downhill slide would have begun.  Or at least to turn this page on their life’s history and to move to something else.

Pope Benedict XVI’s decision is understandable.  With personal self-appraisal that no outsider can know and deeply felt prayer, he has determined that the physical and mental challenges of the papacy are now beyond his capabilities.  He knows this intellectually and, more to the point, in his heart and soul.

His timing is impeccable.  There is a ‘bench’ of well-qualified possible successors in Rome and around the world.  A new Pope should be installed in time to celebrate Easter on March 31.

That said, the adages known by former ambassadors might provide some insight for Pope Benedict XVI’s remaining years.  

Leave the country where you have served and stay away while the new incumbent finds his footing.  Say nothing about your successor and issues in the transition period.  If something must be said, assure it is good if possible or at least benign and/or noncommittal if not.  

There are many pleasant monasteries in the world including in Pope Benedict XVI’s German homeland; he has much to provide in creative intellectual/theological analysis of our era.

And we hope to read his memoirs.


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