Pope sets example for other aging leaders: Our View

Pope sets example for other aging leaders: Our View

USA Today Editorial

One of Benedict’s greatest legacies might be leaving by his own accord.

It’s not often than anyone gets to shatter 600 years of precedent, but in announcing his resignation Monday, Pope Benedict XVI, did that and much more.

By retiring at 85, he gave other aging leaders — in the church and outside of it — a lot to think about. “Both strength of mind and body are necessary” to govern, the pope said in his official statement, adding that his strength was deteriorating. He no longer believes he could “adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

So how old is too old? It depends on the individual and his or her role.

With the faithful fleeing the Church in the U.S. (immigrants excluded), secularism rising and an assortment of complex problems on the agenda, the Church seems certain to benefit from an infusion of youth at the top.

But leaders in other fields might take Benedict’s cue as well.

In the 1950s and 1960s, most Supreme Court justices retired in their 60s and 70s. More recently, justices have stayed on, often into their mid-80s and until they are quite ill. The most recent retiree, John Paul Stevens, was 90 years old. Among current justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will turn 80 next month; two others — Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy — are 76, not necessarily too old to bring their skills to bear but old enough to sense their decline and weigh the consequences.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan, at 69, was the oldest president ever elected, and in his first term he was extraordinarily effective. But by the end of his second term, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, disclosed only after he left office. The late senator Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., was still in office at 100, the oldest senator ever to serve. By then he was in a wheelchair and constantly tended by aides. Did that really best serve the people of South Carolina?

On Capitol Hill, leaders, at least, seem to be trending younger. Former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and now the minority leader, is 72. Speaker John Boehner is 63.

There is no magic age for retirement. Companies that make it mandatory at 65 throw away a lot of talent. But when someone passes 80 and a job requires world travel or 12-hour days or little or no time off, it might be time to think about slowing down.

The pontiff’s predecessor, the widely admired John Paul II, was elected pope at the vigorous age of 58. But in his final years, he was plagued by Parkinson’s disease and knee and hip ailments. Together, they made it difficult for him to walk or stand or speak properly and drained his energy.

One of Benedict’s greatest legacies might be the precedent he has set by leaving of his own accord, making retirement an acceptable word in the Vatican’s vocabulary.