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THE SURPRISE ANNOUNCEMENT that Benedict XVI, supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, would “renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome” on February 28, 2013, stunned many in the Catholic world – and well beyond.

A resignation – although Benedict did not use that word in his February 11 statement – is almost unknown; the last time a Pope left office was in 1415, nearly 600 years ago.

Benedict XVI, it might be said, gave the Catholic Church a great gift: He’s put an end to the burdensome, centuries old, requirement that pontiffs stay in office until death. Looking down the road, this tradition was becoming more and more problematic. Regarding its bishops, the Catholic Church, several decades ago, stipulated that they all had to offer their resignation by age 75, except for the Pope, the bishop of Rome.

With the considerable increase in average longevity, it might be expected that Popes would live longer and longer, with all the problems and limitations of old age. The Roman Church could find itself with a Pope living on for many years, possibly handicapped by Alzheimer's or other seriously debilitating diseases.

There may be another subtext to Benedict XVI’s decision: the former Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, a highly regarded scholar, soon discovered that being a theological scholar and a Pope were not one and the same. Those roles are almost opposites, it could be argued.

The Pope is the administrator and leader of the largest Christian religious body, the Roman Catholic Church. Scholars, on the other hand, like to throw out ideas for discussion. They enjoy the back-and-forth of scholarly exchanges.

By contrast, a Church leader is expected, not least in a centralized and powerful office setting, to offer definitive answers and solutions. The impression I get is that Benedict was at times not very comfortable in his “supreme office” setting, with all its overwhelming demands, and including, what one might call the inevitable “ecclesiastical infighting” within the Curia, or central administration, which could consume much of the energy of one of the oldest Roman Catholic Popes in history.

In declaring he will “renounce” his office at the end of February, Benedict XVI has done more than break with nearly six centuries of tradition. . Now, there will be a new clarity, and, dare I say, honesty, in assuring the public that the reigning Pope is in good health, of sound mind, and truly making all the important decisions regarding his office and the future of the Catholic Church. Transparency is, indeed, a great gift.

Bert Beach, retired director, Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists

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