Like most people, I was surprised by the pope’s decision to leave his post to spend more time with his family. It was so unexpected that one immediately suspected that there was more to the story and the rumor mills have kicked into high gear.
Looked at one way, that is an unreasonable suspicion. After all, the Roman Catholic church can be considered a massive transnational business that is partly legitimate and partly an organized crime syndicate. Running such an enterprise requires energy and drive and it is not unreasonable for an 85-year old man who has had health issues (he reportedly has had a pacemaker for years and had hinted that he was not in the best of health) to feel that he is not up to the task and may step down.
But on the other hand, the fact that previous popes have continued to the end, even when they were very frail (like the current pope’s predecessor) and the church did not collapse suggests that the church is a well-oiled system that pretty much runs itself and requires the pope mainly as a figurehead who provides doctrinal guidance and boosts the morale of the followers. As long as he can wave to them and give the occasional homily, the flock seems satisfied.
Another reason for suspicion is that this pope is one who believes strongly in tradition, resisting change on all fronts and even going so far as to return to old forms of the mass. So why would he break one of its longest traditions? After all, no pope has resigned in 600 years, the last one to do so was in 1415 for political reasons in an attempt to heal a schism in the church with more than one pope claiming legitimacy. We have to go back even further to pope Celestine V’s abdication in 1294 to find an example of a pope who stepped down from the post without that kind of institutional crisis. But in Celestine’s case, having an ex-pope around resulted n all manner of intrigues which may be why such resignations were discouraged in the future.
Another factor to consider is that Ratzi is an extremely ambitious man who campaigned to get the job when his predecessor died. Such people love to wield power, enjoy the perks of office, and do not want to give those up. They tend to die with their boots on.
So why would such a person quit? One reason may be that he simply got tired of dealing with one horrific scandal after another of abuse by priests and cover-ups by the church and there are rumors that more may be revealed soon, perhaps with more direct links to his involvement. It may also be that he saw that on all the major battles he was waging (contraception, abortion, homosexuality, nuns, male priesthood, priestly celibacy) he was losing ground and could see the writing on the wall. After all, countries like France and the UK are on the path to legalizing same-sex marriage this year.