For an 85 year old man with absolute power over millions of people voluntarily to resign tells us that Pope Benedict XVI’s mental faculties are probably in good shape.

One of the less commonly recognized effects of age on the brain is a diminished ability to recognize your own errors, leading to an impaired ability to be aware of your own reduced capacities, research by Siobhan Harty, Redmond O’Connell and I [i]  showed recently.   

The fact that Pope Benedict has chosen to stand down suggests to me that his mental acuity remains high and that he, whatever the criticisms of his theological, administrative and social stances, has not succumbed to the corrupting effects on mental and emotional life which unfettered power almost inevitably produces in anyone who is given great power over others.   

The last time a pope resigned voluntarily was in 1415, when Pope Gregory XII did so to try to stop a civil war over competing claims as to who was the real pope. And this is not surprising, because it is incredibly difficult for anyone who is given power without constraints of a fixed term, election or re-appointment process to avoid the trap of believing themselves to be indispensible.

President Charles de Gaulle of France famously warned “Après moi, le deluge!”  - after me, the flood!  Eleven years as president made him convinced of his indispensability to the country and you can see the same sort of thing happening in most people who hold power over long periods, whether over a country, a company or a church. UK Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both had to be chiseled from office and both were convinced of their own indispensability.

The problem is particularly acute as the power-holders get older, because age, unfortunately, increases the threat to brain function: between 20 and 40% of 85 year olds, for instance, will show signs of significant mental decline and one of the earliest casualties of decline is the capacity for realistic self-appraisal of one’s abilities.

This presents an enormous problem to absolutist bodies such as the Catholic Church, to some companies and to nations with no or weak democratic controls. Power is an enormously potent and brain-distorting drug which can only safely be prescribed where there are strict constraints of that type that human democratic movements have invented over the centuries.  

It is also a huge problem for judges who are appointed for life, such as is the case for US Supreme Court justices. The judicial system is part of a set of democratic checks and balances on power, but the problem is that the power they are given is largely unconstrained once they are in office, as is the case for popes.  It is also the case for Iran’s supreme leader since 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He has final say over all matters including military, legal and media, a degree of power far greater than any democratic head of state or any modern pope.

All this makes it all the more remarkable that Pope Benedict should have voluntarily relinquished power, albeit because of limitations of physical health. Whatever anyone thinks about his decisions, policies and views, his action in resigning today is a remarkable exercise in self-control in the face of enormous psychological, social and biological pressures to keep hold on power.


[i] Harty S, Robertson IH and O’Connell RM (2012) Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Ameliorates Awareness Deficits in Normal Aging. Poster Presented at the Society for Neuroscience, New Orleans, October 2012.

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