Both his most fervent admirers and most vehement critics would agree that Pope Benedict XVI has not been a fan of modernity. Depending on your perspective, that has been either a source of strength, as he has remained steadfastly faithful to traditional verities, or a sign of stubborn, unyielding rigidity.
But in the surprise announcement Monday that he will be stepping down as the leader of the Catholic Church at the end of the month, the pope has acknowledged some of the realities of modern life.
For the last 600 years – the last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415 – popes have stayed on the throne until they drew their last breath. But, even as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, John XXIII and Paul VI declined relatively quickly. John Paul I died in his bed of an apparent sudden heart attack, perhaps sparked by the stresses of the office he had undertaken only a month before.
But his successor, John Paul II, endured an extraordinarily long and public enfeeblement. Without his abdication, it seemed likely the Catholic Church would have gone through a similarly long twilight if an aged Benedict XVI had remained at the helm.
Always pegged as being a transitional figure, perhaps the greatest impact Benedict XVI will have on the papacy is his means of departure. It could serve as a sensible model for successors who want to stand aside before infirmities completely overtake them.