Rex Murphy talks about the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

Read a transcript of this Rex Murphy episode.

Call it history or call it literature: Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman empire is one of the greatest works of either kind. The inspiration to write it came on a visit to Rome - quotation -  "as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter…"   Amid the ruins of the Empire … Gibbon hears Catholic friars singing in a great temple of that vanished empire.   The city in which Nero burned Christians as living torches, was absorbed by the faith it persecuted. The Church far outlasted the Empire.   The news of Benedict the 16th resigning the Papacy this week has awakened even the secular world.   Amid shootouts, the US State of the Union, cruise ships lost and monkeys wandering around IKEA stores, an octogenarian in weak bodily health, attached to what progressive thought has long seen as a ponderous anachronism, claims headlines and news specials. The Papacy is the oldest and most venerable institution in the world, certainly in the Western World. Two thousand years old - its history is an unbelievably crowded tableau. The story of the West is intrinsically entwined with that of the papacy - in art, music, religious thought and habit.   It's worth an aside to remark how many who are not religious have thrown a blast at the 85 year old - chastening him for 'resigning' - implying that for a Pope he was being selfish or weak.   Of course not yet being 85 myself and, unfortunately not Pope either - I have a less clear idea than his critics, what might bring him to his decision. But I'm willing to guess the choice was the opposite of selfish - and probably more entangled with a mighty humility and strength of character than their opposites.   This Pope Benedict has, in other ways, been very strong indeed: just to assume the role after the most charismatic, most impressive Pope in centuries. Benedict knew he would never be John Paul II. The latter was - if the term will be allowed - a spiritual genius, who projected himself before great rallies and the cameras of the world - both in his days of strength…… and in his days of weakness and bodily decay.   The current Pope's gifts are of a different order, as his temperament is more inward and reserved. They, and he, deserve a moment of respect and something better than the tide of third-rate snark that seems to come so ready to some.   "Mock away" seems to be the rule here - do all the skits you will on Christians or the Pope, write slop like the da Vinci code or cheap pop songs.   In the West it's not unknown to respect every other religious tradition but our own. Benedict's decision is one more singular moment in a story that has taken 2000 years of telling. To do justice to the story, we need another Gibbon.   For The National, I'm Rex Murphy.