The pope’s decision to resign Feb. 28 establishes in the most orderly way possible a precedent that had to be set sooner or later. Medical technology has reached the point where a pope may live long past his ability to discharge his duties, and the lives of popes will only be getting longer. Quite apart from whatever personal health concerns might lie behind this decision, Benedict’s reputation as a stalwart conservative makes him just the man to pull off this reform—no one can say that the precedent lacks authority for having been set by a modernizer or theological lightweight.
The move both strengthens and weakens the papacy, and for the better in each case. Future popes are more likely to serve only as long as they are vigorous, which in the troubled times the Church faces for the foreseeable distance is an imperative. But the existence of ex-popes will also help to remind the faithful that the pontiff’s authority is in his office, not himself. The haste with which John Paul II has been pushed for canonization—by popular demand—illustrates a dangerous confusion, one with ancient roots but one exacerbated by today’s cult of the celebrity. It takes little imagination to guess what would have happened if John Paul, rather than Benedict, had been the first Bishop of Rome in modern times to resign: for too many of the faithful, John Paul in retirement would held more authority than the successor who actually occupied the See of St. Peter.
The pope should not become a celebrity whose personal qualities threaten to eclipse the office itself. And while the charisma (in Weber’s sense) of a John Paul II might not be repeated any time soon, popes to come may inspire excessive personal devotion in other ways. Benedict has shown that the man and the office are not inseparable, and not identical once joined.