Why More People in Power Should Emulate Pope Benedict's Resignation
Last week brought the news of the emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s death, the end of almost a decade of the Roman Catholic Church having two living popes. (At least this time one of them wasn’t an anti-pope!) I was never a fan of this pontiff’s hardline attitude, either in the chair of St Peter or when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, bulldog enforcer of the Vatican. However, he did one thing I found to be quite admirable and worthy of imitation: he quit.
No pope in 600 years had resigned, but Benedict, a man committed to the church’s traditions, broke with tradition in a startling way for the benefit of the institution. He had zero credibility regarding the church’s exploding abuse scandals, which undermined the institution’s power like nothing else since its behavior in World War II. The church was hemorrhaging members and losing trust. The institution desperately needed credibility and new leadership, so he stepped down.
In doing so, Benedict gave up a great deal of power. Unlike most people with power, however, he cared more about the health of the institution he served, rather than himself. It feels strange for me to praise Benedict so much after my extreme dislike of his policies (don’t get me started on his butchering of the English-language liturgy of the mass.) I truly do feel that his resignation offered a fine example.
Look around the world and your own daily life and you will see powerful people failing at their jobs who refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Pretty much everyone I know has worked for an incompetent boss who has driven their business, school, or non-profit into the ground. When they were removed, it only came by force. They never said to their employees “you know what, I am doing a bad job, it’s time to let someone else have a chance.”
We see examples of the powerful’s impunity in the public sphere on a daily basis. Southwest Airline’s debacle, which left tens of thousands of people stranded, has not led to their CEO’s resignation, even though the software issues behind the cancellations could have been easily fixed. Elon Musk is gleefully driving Twitter into the ground, which has also contributed to Tesla’s stock hitting a nosedive. He claims he is giving up his position as Twitter. CEO, but so far that hasn’t happened. The Democratic Party leadership in New York state is responsible for their party losing the House, but they refuse to resign.
The people who sit at the top of our social hierarchy actually think they are the kings and queens of meritocracy. Accordingly, they can never fail or be demoted. I am sure we all have stories of our social betters failing upward. The impunity of our elite is a drag on our society, and something that feeds a kind of hopeless nihilism. Benedict’s papacy was a disaster, but at least he had the good grace to acknowledge that fact and step aside. A lot more people could learn from his example.