As leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI has proven an ardent defender of church tradition. But in announcing his resignation, Benedict has broken with centuries of precedent, setting an example that could shape the pontificates of many future popes.
In announcing plans to step down later this month — a move he said was necessary because of his advanced age and declining health — Benedict became the first pope to resign in 600 years. For hundreds of years, popes have ended their pontificates by dying in office. In opting to leave the papacy while he is still alive, Benedict will no doubt make it easier for future popes to exercise the same option.
In the 21st century, a pope’s physical condition is difficult to conceal. The modern media age means increased scrutiny on pontiffs, and gone are the days when a pope could work largely out of public view.
The modern papacy also brings physical demands that would tax a 20-year-old. John Paul II, Benedict’s immediate predecessor, traveled extensively. Because of that globe-trotting by the legendary pontiff, today’s Catholics expect to see their pope up close. Meeting such expectations can be especially difficult for an elderly cleric, and Benedict will soon be 86 years old.
In leaving the papacy, Benedict has sounded a note of change in a church where change tends to come very slowly. Whether more changes are ahead will depend on Benedict’s successor.