When Pope Benedict XVI announced he was stepping down a few weeks ago because his health would not allow him to do his job effectively, there was some muted shock in the world. This has not happened since Pope Gregory VII did so in 1415, and many Catholics around the globe consider the “Holy Father” somewhat of an earthbound deity. But as John Meacham, the former editor-in-chief of Newsweek noted, the act may set a similar precedent to when George Washington stepped down as the first US president. The precedent is and should be that when one is no longer able to serve the public, they should not be in a position that requires them to do so.
Heads of state possess great power through direct command of armies, instituting domestic laws, and shaping economies. In much of human history that power was derived through the “divine right” of monarchs who attained it by conquest. After the battles were over the victor claimed it was God’s will that he and his progeny should rule thereafter. Ironically, many of these kings were usurped by their own children because they would not die fast enough.
When democracy was struggling to take hold in America, much depended on what the first leader did. Many historians have tried to analyze what was in George Washington’s head, but most agree that he did appreciate the fact that he was, as author Thomas Flexner would dub him, “The Indispensable Man”. By giving the continental congress the surrendered sword of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown, and only accepting the head of state by election, Washington helped inoculate the budding American nation from an autocratic takeover. Then, driven by his ailing health and his loathing of politics, he served only two terms as president and most importantly did not die in office.
However, ill health has not always lead American representatives to step down in the interests of their constituencies. Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan all had their poor health status withheld from the public in what could be considered criminal acts. They or their handlers either arrogantly believed themselves to be indispensable at the time or more likely just wanted to hold on to power. More openly in Congress we’ve had Senators such as Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond hold onto their seats in near comatose states right up until death. Are we as a people best served by this action even though the representatives are lawfully elected?
The Pope’s governing power is more of an influential than a direct one, but he does control a worldwide institution that is an economic colossus. He affects the jobs if not lives of many people by his edicts and decisions in determining where bishops and priests serve. Thus having a lucid and competent Pope is essential at any time, but particularly now if the church is to cleanse the corruption and scandal of the last thirty years. I think Pope Benedict is to be congratulated for his efforts to clean up that mess and for knowing when he was no longer physically or mentally capable of continuing the job. I wish Joseph Ratzinger a comfortable retirement.