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Tradition, novelty and the pope

13 February 2013 By Edward Hadas

Institutions need to evolve over time. Institutions must rely on their traditions. These two statements may sound irreconcilable, but institutions – companies, hospitals, government agencies, schools, political systems, churches – can only thrive if they manage both to change and to remain true to their principles. In his surprising resignation, Pope Benedict XVI has given an example of the right balance.

Of course, the Catholic Church is special. It is especially large, especially ancient and especially international, as well as theologically presumptuous about its relations with an unseen heavenly power. The Church on earth, however, faces the same challenges as any long-standing organisation. Others can learn from Benedict’s decision to break with a tradition of nearly 600 years.

By Catholic standards, the tradition that popes always die in office was relatively new. There were several resignations during the Church’s first 14 centuries, and long after the last pope stepped down, in 1415, papal non-retirement was not so much a hallowed tradition as a fact of life. Official retirements were rare in all occupations, and almost unheard of among kings, who were considered roughly the secular equivalents of the pope.

Times change. Retirement is now standard, even obligatory, in developed countries. Democracy, with its limited terms of office, has become the standard form of government. To some extent, the Vatican changed with the times. A bishop is now required to offer his resignation on his 75th birthday. The pope usually accepts the offer.

But until Monday, the Bishop of Rome was in a special category. Over the last two centuries, the once accidental tradition of a life sentence had become a quasi-doctrine. While the pope’s unique position as Vicar of Christ, able to speak infallibly under certain circumstances, did not preclude the retirement of individual popes, a retreat from the grand and great office seemed somehow unimaginable.

Benedict has used his papal authority to declare this quasi-doctrine null and void. Catholics will debate the ecclesiological meaning of his decision, but everyone can learn from his willingness to break with a well-established tradition.

For the history of the papal non-retirement is all too typical of institutions. What begins unconsciously becomes a tradition, and the tradition eventually takes on a meaning of it its own. It takes a bold leader to discern when the practice has outlived its usefulness.

I see three institutional lessons.

First, leaders need to look to the heart of their institutions. Which traditions are crucial? Which principles are inviolable?

There are no obvious answers to such questions. It is hard to determine what is truly important, and harder to know what to do about it. Sometimes bold decisions are needed, but something essential may be lost when a tradition is boldly abandoned. If Benedict’s resignation makes the papacy look like just another job, Catholics may eventually judge his decision harshly.

Or, to take an example from a quite different sort of institution, it is too early to judge the effect of the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to accept capitalists as members. The redefinition of the ruling CCP’s nature – from revolutionary vanguard to political elite – may have made the country stronger, or it may have emptied the party of the purity of intent that keeps leaders honest.

Second, humility is helpful. If Benedict had criticised his predecessors or complained that the burden of the job was unfairly hard, many Catholics schooled in the old ways would have judged his decision arbitrary or self-serving. By presenting himself as weak and the Church as in need of strength, he made it clear that his only concern was the good of the entire institution.

Such humility rarely comes easily to politicians and corporate leaders, who are usually much happier to think of management in heroic terms, with themselves in the roles of heroes. Aggressively charismatic leadership is sometimes helpful, but leaders are supposed to serve institutions. Runaway egos get in the way, since decisions made out of pride and overconfidence often undermine rather than strengthen.

Finally, a leader’s small gesture can have a large effect on a large institution. Benedict’s retirement is small; it does not alter the theology of the papacy, let alone the Church’s many controversial teachings. But his act has undercut the notion, held by many critics of the Roman Church, that popes are dictators who cling to their personal power. Truly, a sincere gesture can be worth a thousand words.

I have a suggestion for the secular world. Let corporate leaders demonstrate the power of the gesture by demanding sharp pay cuts for themselves. Reductions of 50 or even 80 percent would have little effect on either corporate profit or executives’ spending power. But the unilateral decision to give up some measure of financial power would garner great respect, both inside and outside the corporate world. Call it a Benedict-manoeuvre.


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