Institutions need to evolve over time. Institutions must rely on their traditions. These two statements may sound irreconcilable, but institutions – companies, hospitals, government agencies, schools, political systems, churches – can only thrive if they manage both to change and to remain true to their principles. In his surprising resignation, Pope Benedict XVI has given an example of the right balance.
Of course, the Catholic Church is special. It is especially large, especially ancient and especially international, as well as theologically presumptuous about its relations with an unseen heavenly power. The Church on earth, however, faces the same challenges as any long-standing organisation. Others can learn from Benedict’s decision to break with a tradition of nearly 600 years.
By Catholic standards, the tradition that popes always die in office was relatively new. There were several resignations during the Church’s first 14 centuries, and long after the last pope stepped down, in 1415, papal non-retirement was not so much a hallowed tradition as a fact of life. Official retirements were rare in all occupations, and almost unheard of among kings, who were considered roughly the secular equivalents of the pope.
Times change. Retirement is now standard, even obligatory, in developed countries. Democracy, with its limited terms of office, has become the standard form of government. To some extent, the Vatican changed with the times. A bishop is now required to offer his resignation on his 75th birthday. The pope usually accepts the offer.
But until Monday, the Bishop of Rome was in a special category. Over the last two centuries, the once accidental tradition of a life sentence had become a quasi-doctrine. While the pope’s unique position as Vicar of Christ, able to speak infallibly under certain circumstances, did not preclude the retirement of individual popes, a retreat from the grand and great office seemed somehow unimaginable.