I have never been a fan of Pope Benedict XVI. Before he was elected, I considered the election of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger as the next Pope my worst nightmare. He had already interfered in Anglican affairs, a practice he did not abandon once he became the supreme authority in the Roman Catholic Church. Benedict has been a reactionary, and his successor will likely be in the same mold.
I must applaud Benedict, however, for stepping down from the papacy because he feels he does not have the strength to carry on. His decision is a good one for him and for his church. We should hope that this courageous action—a radical action in its context—sets a precedent for his successors.
Lifetime appointments are intended to insulate office holders from undue influence, but they become dysfunctional if retirement based on reduced competency is prohibited or severely discouraged. Federal judges, and particularly Supreme Court justices, have lifetime tenure, but they sensibly retire when interest in their job flags or they believe themselves incapable of performing adequately. This is a good practice.
Even the Roman Catholic Church exhibits some suspicion of advanced age. The convocation that will elect the next pope limits the electorate to cardinals no older than 80 years. In light of Benedict’s retirement decision, perhaps the next pope will be younger and more vigorous, and perhaps he, too, will consider retirement rather than working, however poorly, to his dying day.