A pope steps down

February 11, 2013 

On Sunday, Roman Catholics heard Luke’s account of how Simon Peter came to follow Jesus. After a night of fishing and catching nothing, Peter was dubious when Jesus told him to go into deeper water and cast his net, but Peter did, and he and his companions caught fish in such abundance they filled their boat until it nearly sank.

On Monday, Catholics heard a different account, not of enlistment, but retirement: Peter’s successor as head of the church, Pope Benedict XVI, is taking off the shoes of fisherman. He will resign Feb. 28, ending a papacy that began in 2005.

This, like the Gospel, is also good news. Good news for Benedict, who is 85, weary and in need of rest. And good news for the papacy. By becoming the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years, Benedict broke what had become a stifling custom of popes remaining at the head of the church until they died.

Benedict’s bold choice put his church before himself and opens the way for a younger pope to lead the world’s Roman Catholics at a time when the church needs to repair its image and re-establish its moral authority. If he stayed on, Benedict likely would have repeated the sad spectacle of his predecessor, John Paul II, who held his position even as his health failed visibly as he struggled with Parkinson’s disease.

John Paul is said to have dismissed the idea of a pope retiring by asking: “To whom would I offer my resignation?” The quip revealed a skewed perspective of one without an earthly superior. Benedict sees his role in a refreshingly different light. He is not the head of the church, but the servant of it. He offered his resignation to the more than 1 billion Roman Catholics he serves.

The pope’s retirement may also free the College of Cardinals to consider a much younger leader. Now that it’s acceptable to serve a term rather than until death, the cardinals won’t feel the need to pass over a relatively young man for fear that his tenure – especially if it’s a bad one – could last too long.

Benedict’s decision is wise, welcome and even inspiring. But it is unfortunate that it may be the brightest moment of a papacy in which he, largely through his appointment of cardinals, locked in the rigid, conservative theology that dimmed John Paul’s 27-year tenure despite his popularity and energetic preaching around the world.

Benedict delivered a belated apology to victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests, but he did not remedy the insular and self-protecting culture that allowed the crimes to occur. Benedict was also unsuccessful in his efforts to reverse Europe’s fading commitment to the church. He will leave without resolving the debates over priestly celibacy and admitting women to the priesthood, two contentious issues where changes in church law and doctrine could spur vocations and move the church beyond the sexual abuse scandal.

Papal succession often brings a change in direction, a pattern that gave rise to the Italian saying, “After a fat pope, a thin pope.” Benedict XVI was a departure from John Paul II. He was more of an intellectual, less of an evangelical, but the two men were twins in their conservative outlook and resistance to changes in doctrine.

But with his bold and unexpected casting off of power, this latest successor to Peter has cast a net upon the waters for new moral leadership. For the church and for the world, may it bring an abundance.

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