Opinion: What Hugo Chavez Can Learn From the Pope

PHOTO:  Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessing as he arrives for an audience the with Roman clergy.lessandra Tarantino/AP Photo
Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessing as he arrives for an audience the with Roman clergy.

One of the reasons that Pope Benedict XVI's resignation was so unexpected was that it is so rare for powerful leaders to step aside because they are not up to the job.

On Monday there was a striking honesty in the Pope's statement, particularly when he said, "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…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."

He is resigning because he doesn't feel his health will allow him to do what he needs to do to lead the Catholic Church through the many complex challenges it faces ahead.

Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, should take note. The head of the Episcopal Conference of Bishops in Venezuela made a thinly veiled reference to this when he said the Pope's resignation served "as a good example" for having shown that it is best to resign in the face of mental and physical incapacity.

Both men have important jobs. The Pope leads the world's 1.2 billion Catholics while Chavez leads a nation with the highest proven oil reserves in the world. If the Pope were in Chavez's shoes, he would have likely resigned already.

Meanwhile, Chavez hasn't been seen in public since traveling to Cuba for cancer treatment more than two months ago. He hasn't given any speeches, and he was not even able to attend his own inauguration last month.

While Chavez continues to recuperate, Venezuela is in the midst of a political and economic crisis, and in need of leadership and renewal. Venezuela's public finances were depleted during last year's presidential elections, inflation is sky high (at more than 22%) and the economic outlook is uncertain. The government is trying to manage a messy devaluation of the currency that will likely add further fuel to inflation and require stringent price controls. Given the disparity between the new weaker rate and the black market value of the bolivar fuerte (the Venezuelan currency) many economists expect another devaluation before too long. In other words, the Venezuelan economy is a rudderless ship and the captain is nowhere to be found.

The Catholic Church is facing a completely different set of challenges but like Venezuela the Church requires a dedicated, active and engaged leader. More than anything, it continues to deal with lingering aftershocks from the child abuse crisis while trying to reverse the decline of membership in developed countries and maintain the growth in developing regions like Latin America and Africa. The centuries old Church hierarchy must also find a way to adapt to the 21st century and remain relevant among a younger, more diverse and global constituency. Pope Benedict appears to have hinted at this during his resignation statement.

If we take the Pope at his word, his stepping down to make way for renewal, is indeed a remarkable thing. The Pope must have confidence that the next generation of Church leaders are up to the job. His resignation may in turn provide just what the Church needs to renew itself: new, younger and more dynamic leadership.

Leaders like Hugo Chavez who have tried to perpetuate themselves in power could learn a thing or two from Benedict. Sometimes you need to step aside and let those who are more capable take the lead.