The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI came as a surprise to many. The surprise was as much due to the rarity with which popes resign from office, and not just the sudden nature of the announcement.

Only a few popes have ever resigned. Several popes have been forced to resign, including Pope Gregory XII (c. 1326 – 18 October 1417), who resigned under political pressure to resolve the schism in the Church that had led to a succession of popes reigning simultaneously. But only one other pope has resigned voluntarily, and Benedict’s resignation has much in common with this case.

Pope Celestine V (1215 – 19 May 1296), who introduced the right for popes to resign voluntarily, became pope at the age of 79 years (Benedict XVI became pope at the age of 78 years). Celestine had served as Pope for only five months when poor administration and a longing to return to monastic life saw him step down. The reasons he cited were “The desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquillity of his former life.”

The reasons given by Benedict XVI for retiring are not all that dissimilar to those provided by Celestine V. Benedict XVI cited his “advanced age” and lack of both physical and mental strength in his retirement announcement. Benedict XVI also spoke of his desire to pursue a “life dedicated to prayer”. Further, although Benedict XVI made no mention of it during his statement, it is well known that he struggled with administrative control over the Vatican, particularly in his attempts to introduce greater transparency in the Vatican’s financial transactions.

Although Benedict XVI has come under some criticism for resigning by devout Catholics (who see the Papal office as divinely sanctioned), it is a sensible action by someone who has reached an age well past consideration for the retirement village. As Benedict XVI explains in his statement, the job of the Pope is a taxing one, and best suited for someone with mental and physical vigour.

But was the Pope’s resignation only about getting too old? It is fair to say that the Pope was not having a particularly successful record as Pope. Not only was he struggling to introduce transparency into Vatican administrative practices, it could be argued that his influence in providing moral leadership on major world issues was weak. Is it just a coincidence that he stepped down in the wake of the UK and France passing gay marriage laws? The Pope had only a few weeks previously denounced gay marriage as the worst issue facing mankind. Sure, his retirement was probably some time in the planning (he had tried to retire as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II, but his resignation was refused). But the timing of his retirement announcement is nonetheless interesting.

Perhaps there were other factors associated with the timing that we are not aware of. But certainly, the Pope’s health has been deteriorating for some time,  and at the ripe old age of 85 years, it was prudent for the Pope to step aside to allow someone younger to take the reigns. Can we expect the next pope to be more dynamic in reforming the Church along more liberal lines? Here is a sobering thought for those hoping to see a more progressive Pope installed by the conclave. Over half of the cardinals voting for the next Pope were appointed by Benedict, who has been loading up the senior positions with conservative-minded clergy like himself. The rest were appointed by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who was also a conservative.

The root of the problem with the Roman Catholic Church is the fundamentally traditional sensibility that permeates the Vatican cardinals and which will only be overcome – if ever – through successive generational change. Go listen to some of the younger, more dynamic Catholic priests at your local parish and you might find some with more dynamic and liberal ideas. But the higher one goes up the hierarchy, the more conservative the mindset becomes (and, not coincidentally, the older in age they are).

So am I hopeful that the next Pope will lead the faithful flock into a higher state of understanding and commitment to equality? Hardly. The disappointment for me is that while Benedict XVI has resigned, the throng of ignorant, intolerant, aged cardinals who voted him will still remain. The Church will continue to remain at least two centuries behind the modern world, holding up the progress of one billion Catholics who lack instruction in basic rationality and possess only a superficial liberal thought.