As would be the case when any well-known CEO suddenly steps down "for health reasons," we are immediately suspicious.
Was he, like the last pope to step down voluntarily more than 700 years ago, simply the wrong man for the job? A shy and aging scholar overwhelmed by the demands of guiding the church through the scandals of sex abuse and money laundering, who was happier in the library than on the balcony at St. Peter's?
Or was there some dark conspiracy to put him in place just long enough for another prince of the church to be maneuvered into the role?
Or perhaps he is just a humble and decent man who had the grace to step aside when he became too old and ill to do the job properly?
I'd like to believe that is the case. That Pope Benedict has set an example for popes and others in power who stay too long at the fair: judges, senators, athletes. Those who keep a firm grip on the power and the glory instead of yielding to the inevitability of time.
Many of us thought pope was a job you stayed in until God decided on a change in leadership.
Certainly that was the example Pope John Paul II set. Terribly ill and crippled by Parkinson's, we watched him fade and die. But he saw his public suffering as testimony to his faith and devotion to the church, not as a hindrance to his job performance.
Pope Benedict was a reluctant inheritor of St. Peter's keys to begin with. He said he prayed during the conclave nine years ago that he not be chosen. He looked forward to a quiet retirement in his native Bavaria, where he would pray and write.
He will get a chance at the contemplative life now. A monastery is being refurbished at the Vatican where he will live in seclusion. But he is not simply quitting a job he never wanted in the first place.
He told an interviewer that a pope should never quit just because the job got to be too difficult. He should never flee controversy and leave it for the next guy to resolve. Instead, he said that the leader of the faith must be mindful when he can no longer call on body and spirit to help him bear the burdens of his office.
We need to recognize the example he is setting — not just as pope but as a man aging in office. No one knows better than we, ourselves, what it takes to do the jobs we do. He had the clarity of vision to see himself as he truly was, and the humility to admit he no longer had the strength or the desire to do what it takes.
Resignation or retirement are difficult transitions to manage from the inside.
Nobody asked Hillary Clinton to leave her post as secretary of state. In fact, I am pretty sure the president would have been glad for her to stay. But she was burned out and exhausted, and she stepped aside.
No one wanted Cal Ripken to retire, either. Even those who saw his skills erode with age would have wished to still watch him play. But he left the Orioles under his own speed. Barry Sanders left the Detroit Lions just shy of all-time rushing records, but he said his heart just wasn't in it anymore.
Queen Elizabeth has been on the British throne for 60 years and believes that death is her only out. Meanwhile, the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix, who just turned 75, abdicated, saying it was time for a new generation.
Indeed, only one U.S. Supreme Court justice — William Rehnquist — has died in office in the last half-century. Seventeen others have chosen to retire. Twenty-one U.S. senators are 70 or older. And 10 senators, if we elected presidents the way the Vatican elects popes, wouldn't be eligible to vote in 2016 because they would be 80 or older.
I am certain the Catholic Church would not like to see popes resign at the first sign of trouble or after some kind of no-confidence vote among the faithful. But Pope Benedict has provided future popes (and perhaps some others) an example of how to leave the stage gracefully and honestly.