I don’t envy whoever sits in the Chair of St. Peter. It must be one of the most difficult jobs in the world. I would never even want to be a Bishop. The responsibility would likely crush me. I have enough trouble looking after my own soul.
So I feel fairly sympathetic to Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down. He didn’t want to be Pope, but, knowing it to be God’s will, pushed himself until he reached his limits.
Having said that, there are some good reasons for why there is not much of a precedent for Papal resignations, as Ross Douthat frames it:
There is great symbolic significance in the fact that popes die rather than resign: It’s a reminder that the pontiff is supposed to be a spiritual father more than a chief executive (presidents leave office, but your parents are your parents till they die), a sign of absolute papal surrender to the divine will (after all, if God wants a new pope, He’ll get one), and a illustration of the theological point that the church is still supposed to be the church even when its human leadership isn’t at fighting trim, whether physically or intellectually or (for that matter) morally.
I, along with Douthat, hope that this doesn’t become more common in the Papacy (though, given the greater longevity we have these days, it might). But in those instances where our frail human nature starts to break underneath the burdens placed on us, I don’t want to be the one to say that you should just suck it up and take one for the team.
Don’t get me wrong – doing just that is often what is morally required of us, and I don’t know whether or not this is ultimately for the best. Perhaps this had to happen, perhaps not. Pope Benedict XVI is one of the strongest moral forces in Christendom today, and what he has managed to accomplish is enough for me. If he feels that he is too tired to continue on, I won’t begrudge him his rest.
At the end of the day, the most important thing to do is to pray. Pray for the Pope and the Church.