In what is almost definitely an historical first, the Pope has taken an idea from a monarch of the Netherlands and announced that he’ll be resigning. Not because of any scandals, but because he believes that his age and health “are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
A thought that came to mind after Queen Beatrix had announced her abdication was that the Dutch appear to be very sensible on this issues. Both her mother and grandmother had abdicated when they felt they were too old to continue doing the role properly, and there doesn’t appear to have been any widespread objection in the Netherlands to her actions.
Obviously, the papacy is somewhat different, but it and monarchies share a similar function of being positions that were created as jobs for life when life tended to be a lot shorter than it is for many people in the 21st century. Even leaving aside the fact that the roles were much more dangerous to hold in the past – monarchs aren’t marching into battle and Popes aren’t waking up to find invading armies at the gates of Rome – it’s only historically recently that living well past your 70th birthday has become common, even in the aristocracy.
Given the level of medical care available to popes and monarchs, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that they’re living for a lot longer than they used to. However, will that extra longevity then create more situations like that of the Pope where he ends up feeling too old to continue in the role? And while the papacy has tended in recent centuries to be held solely by older men, will we come to a situation where being a monarch is seen as something a person does at the end of their life? While the Dutch seem to have perfect the sensible succession, how many other of Europe’s next monarchs are likely to come to the throne in their mid-40s and how many will find themselves at retirement age, still waiting for their turn?