Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement this morning (US time) that he is resigning effective February 28th burst upon the audience to which he was speaking, leaving them in stunned silence.

Pope BenedictThat silence has not lasted long.

On the one hand, there is the “OMG! This is unprecedented! No one could have seen this coming!!!1!1!” reaction, coming largely from folks who are so enamored with the office of the Pope that they can’t conceive of a papal resignation. Well, no. Canon law explicitly makes provision for a papal resignation, and John Paul II certainly contemplated it, going so far as to draft letters of resignation on two separate occasions as his health fluctuated. Yes, there hasn’t been a resignation in centuries, but that doesn’t mean this is as incredible as some are making it out to be. Indeed, bishops are required to submit their letters of resignation at age 75 (though the pope is not obligated to immediately accept them). This rule was set in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, so the notion of staying on the job until death has been less and less the rule in the hierarchy of the Catholic church.

As a practical matter, it has been obvious to anyone who has been paying attention that Benedict’s health has been declining. Major liturgical events like Christmas Eve at St. Peters have been adjusted, so that the pope’s strength would not be overly taxed by standing too long or holding heavy objects. I’ve seen old men fall asleep on Easter morning during worship, even as the trumpets are sounding from the choir loft, and I can imagine Benedict looking ahead to Holy Week and Easter and saying “Enough. I don’t have the strength for this.” If popes have nightmares, one of Benedict’s must be falling asleep during high Easter mass and having that image flashed around the world.

And very specific to Benedict, he himself has spoken about this in the past. Last April, National Catholic Reporter talked about this as Benedict turned 85, noting:

Talk of possible resignation has been swirling around the pope ever since his 2010 book, ‘Light of the World,’ in which he said that if a pope felt ‘no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of carrying out the duties of his office,’ he would have ‘the right, and in some circumstances the obligation, to resign.’

So enough already with the shock. It only shows that you haven’t been paying attention.

As for Benedict announcing his resignation, I say “Good for him.”

For all the talk of infallibility and power and lifelong tenure of the pope, the pope is as replaceable as anyone else — and an honest pope knows this. If Benedict were to get hit by a truck this afternoon, the cardinals would gather and elect a successor, and the church would go on. For Benedict to voluntarily step down, rather than linger on with weakened strength and declining health, is a statement of trust that he knows he is not irreplaceable.

So now we enter the silly season, as rumors fly and speculation of successors runs rampant. Myopic conservative Americans will breathlessly talk about Timothy Dolan as a leading candidate because of his media savvy, or arch-conservative Raymond Burke (former archbishop of St. Louis and now ensconced in a powerful Vatican post) because of his arch-conservative credentials, but IMHO, these are both pipe dreams. I can’t see the college of cardinals elevating an American to the papacy at a time when Americans are viewed around the world as increasingly arrogant on the international scene, and I’m not alone in this.

So enjoy the retrospectives, but keep some perspective as well. Enjoy the rumors and speculation as well, and take them with a very large grain of salt.

Photo by Catholic Church of England and Wales under Creative Commons license