12/02/2013 16:47 GMT | Updated 13/04/2013 06:12 BST

The Pope's Resignation: Setting a Precedent?

First, they started electing Popes who weren't Italian. Now a Pope is resigning. Who says the Catholic church never moves with the times?

When Karol Wojtyła was elevated to the Papacy in 1978, he was the first non-Italian to become Pope since 1523. When Joseph Ratzinger announced that he intends to resign at the end of the month, he became the first Pope to stand down since 1415.

The Catholic church may not move quickly, but it does - sometimes - move.

There is surely a direct connection between the fact that John Paul II held the job for 27 years, and towards the end was clearly severely incapacitated by failing health, and Benedict XIII's decision to stand down of his own free will before he too became incapable of being an effective pontiff.

Just look at the comparisons: when John Paul was elected, he was a mere 58 years old and still a keen sportsman. When Benedict took over, he was already 78, which is old even for Popes.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, he had been one of the most powerful figures in the Vatican hierarchy, and he had seen at first hand the problems caused by a Pope no longer capable, either physically or mentally, to cope with the demands of the job.

But John Paul took the view that a job he had been given by God was not one he could decide to give up, even though the Code of Canon Law clearly lays down: "If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested ..."

It was with that provision clearly in mind that Benedict said in his resignation statement that he had reached his decision to stand down "with full freedom ..."

An important precedent was set today. My hunch is that in future, it will become much more common for Popes to resign on grounds of age or failing health. The arguments of John Paul II are far less powerful in the light of Benedict's decision.

And who would argue with his conclusion that "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 (boat) of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary"?