Public relations, public affairs & crisis

Pope’s resignation a test in stakeholder management

Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on Feb. 11 and concluded his papacy on Feb. 2

The image of Pope Benedict XVI making his final departure from the Vatican aboard a helicopter will live forever as the iconic moment of what is arguably one of the leading Roman Catholic news stories of the last century.

This Pope, unlike the last 71 popes before him, resigned. He announced his resignation on February 11, a mere 17 days before his papacy was set to conclude.

In our profession, we help people and organizations build relationships with their constituencies by mapping strategies for implementing and communicating—among many other things—major changes. There’s very few constituencies (more than one billion) larger than the Roman Catholic Church, and—for them—there’s probably no bigger change than the transition from one Pope to another.

So, from a strategic standpoint, how was that transitioned handled?

In my opinion, it was handled masterfully. The way Pope Benedict gracefully accepted the degree to which his ailing health compromised his ability to perform his job is a refreshing precedent for an organization oft-scrutinized for being stuck in ‘the’ old ways of doing things.

Also, condensing the lead-time to only 17 days saves the Church from a long, drawn-out and fatiguing process while simultaneously prompting a swift selection process. (This preparation should not go unnoticed)

Pope Benedict did exactly what we advise our clients to do during times of transition; he got out in front of the issue, and arrived at a solution that everyone will benefit from.

History teaches us that practically all Popes have held onto their papacy until death—sometimes through months, even years of failing health. During these unfortunate times, health issues will force surrogates in the Vatican to assume authority, an alienating concession of power that can harm the Vatican’s prominence and inspiration.

By preempting this possibility, Pope Benedict has gifted future Popes with the realization that it’s okay to be human, and ultimately, it’s for the betterment of the Church to have a strong and vigorous spiritual leader in the Vatican—a wonderful gift of humility for the Church.

This has also allowed him a non-voting voice in his successor—a shortlist he has most undoubtedly gotten close to in his near-eight years of service.

As will always be the case, gossip and rumors will suggest the Pope steps down amid pressure from scandals, but the official reasoning for his resignation belies this logic, and has positioned Pope Benedict to initiate beneficial change, even from beyond his distant post.

An historic transition of moral authority, not seen for more than 600 years in the Roman Catholic Church, strategically handled with dignity and humility.

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