03/01/2013 10:07 am ET Updated May 01, 2013

Now We Need a Pope Who Likes to Clean Up

As we all well know, the Vatican released a written statement on Feb. 11, 2013 that Pope Benedict XVI had read the evening before in Latin to a specially gathered consistory at the Vatican. It was then quickly translated into seven languages. This is what he said:

After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter ... and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Now he's retired, and speculation is rampant as to why. Should we take the Pope Emeritus fully at his word and accept that he quit simply because he is growing old and weak? Or, perhaps the omnipresent sexual abuse scandal has taken some new turns that the pilgrims in St. Peter's Square do not yet know about, and Benedict can't bear to face. Or, did Vatileaks have something to do with what has happened? Is the Church so corrupt among the Roman Curia that even an insider like Benedict cannot imagine how to clean it up? I don't have the answers, but I do know that we will hear plenty of speculation about it all over the coming months.

I know that something must be going on that goes deeper than the pope's read statement of Feb. 11. There is only one pope in history who willingly, and on his own accord, walked away from his job before this one. In 1294, Celestine V was elected by the College of Cardinals, ruled for 15 disastrous weeks, and then abdicated before Christmas. I tell the story of his life in my book published a year ago, "The Pope Who Quit."

If you take Benedict at his word, it all sounds so businesslike. He gave two weeks notice. He wants to relax, spend more time with his family. Now, the College of Cardinals can select a new pope. But that's not what popes do. And Benedict knows better.

You may remember that Benedict's predecessor, the incredibly popular Pope John Paul II, suffered famously and publicly from Parkinson's disease during his papacy. The Italian press periodically reported that his health was hanging by a thread, or that he was enduring near suffocation, or couldn't breathe fully on his own. On one occasion, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, responded to a reporter's question about whether or not John Paul II would ever consider resigning. Cardinal Sodano made headlines around the world when he responded: "We must have faith in the Pope. He knows what to do." Sodano left the door open. But of course, John Paul never quit.

Millions were calling JPII a saint before his death. They were calling Celestine V a saint, too, back in 1294. In our day, saintly qualities are expected of a pontiff, but similar traits did not fit the job description of a late medieval pope. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus praises virtues such as meekness, compassion, love. To be a saint as head of the Holy See in 1294 exhibiting these in abundance was the ipso facto equivalent of being a fool.

Celestine spent most of his time in private prayer instead of engaging with his responsibilities as a world leader, commander of armies, and keeper of the keys to vast treasuries. JPII was also accused of spending too little time focusing on administrative issues. There were many in the curia of both pontiffs who thought these men were dangerously negligent leaders. Looking back, JPII's biographer, George Weigel, characterized what happened during his papacy by saying, "[H]e was reinventing the papacy as an office of evangelical witness rather than bureaucratic management."

For his part, Celestine never had a chance to affect the world for good with an evangelical witness. There was no positive effect of a profound personal, spiritual witness in a pope in 1294 that could compare to the effect today when millions of faithful are able to witness the images of piety in their Holy Father every day, live, streaming on the Internet or broadcast on television. An angelic pope like Celestine had no hope of saving the world through piety alone 700 years ago.

Then came the signs that Benedict XVI could resign. We speculated about it after the 2006 Regensburg University speech, for instance, and again in 2010 as he failed to manage the growing sexual abuse scandal. Some people began to say that a lack of administrative and diplomatic skills -- the same sort of ineptitude shown by Celestine and JPII -- might be a sign that Benedict no longer had the "taste" for the job.

But most of all, there was this: Benedict chose to align his papacy with the memory of the only pope to freely quit when he was visiting Celestine's native L'Aquila, Italy after the major earthquake in April 2009. He quixotically removed the pallium, a primary sign of his episcopal authority, from around his shoulders and laid it on Celestine's tomb, never explaining what he meant by this to the puzzled media nearby.

So when Benedict issued his resignation a few weeks ago, those of us who know about Celestine immediately thought of the 1294 pope, and what happened to him. Celestine quit because he wanted nothing anymore to do with what he was required to do in the office. The See of Peter had sullied him. He felt powerless to effect change that was so clearly needed. He wanted to be a spiritual leader of a profoundly important spiritual institution, and that seemed impossible. Like Celestine from 700 years ago, I have to believe that Benedict, too, wanted to get out alive. And so, now, we need a pope who loves to clean things up.

Jon M. Sweeney's book, The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation was published a year ago and has been optioned by HBO, Inc.