John Paul did not step down in part out of concern that some Catholics would follow him and cause a schism. His decision was seen as a brave witness to human suffering. But his weakened condition also fueled fears that the church was effectively leaderless.
"If a pope is disabled, different people will be vying for power or trying to take over," Thompson said. "Or nobody takes over and therefore it just drifts. People don't feel it's their place to make decisions for the pontiff. You don't want the church just to drift."
Many Catholics have argued that Benedict's decision has only underscored the importance of the pontificate. He put the spotlight where it belongs, on the church, not on the man, and sent a message that the job is so important it cannot be carried out in a weakened state, they argue. Thompson compared the impact to when George Washington gave up the presidency after two terms, setting a precedent for future presidents.
According to Stephen White, a Catholic studies fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think-tank, Benedict has powerfully demonstrated that the pope's primary role is one of service.
"The papacy, in other words, was not given him for his sake, but for the sake of the church's mission," White wrote on The Huffington Post.
A week after Benedict's announcement, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said he was only just starting to grasp the significance of the pope leaving. Still, Dolan dismissed worries that pontiffs would now be newly vulnerable to pressure to step down, either from a disgruntled public or factions within the church armed with opinion polls or questions about a pope's health.
Dolan argued modern-day popes in many ways have been facing that challenge for years. And moving ahead, he argued they would have two strong models of how to approach the papacy: John Paul's decision to stay until the end and Benedict's choice to leave.
"I think we need to say this is extraordinary. This is exceptional. This is a once in a three- or four-century phenomenon," Dolan said, discussing the abdication on his radio show on SiriusXM's "The Catholic Channel." ''It's not going to become something that every pope feels obliged to do."
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