In nearly eight years as pope, Benedict XVI embraced a traditionalist — and to many critics, authoritarian — view of both the papacy and of church teaching. So it's ironic that he will be remembered for his revolutionary decision to relinquish the Chair of St. Peter rather than die in office, the first such abdication in nearly 600 years.
Benedict's announcement Monday that he will retire at 85 because his "strength of mind and body" had deteriorated reflects an admirable acknowledgment of the reality of physical decline. But it also will discomfit conservative Roman Catholics, who worry that the existence of a former pope might dilute the mystique of the office. It is liberal Catholics who have argued that bishops of Rome, like other bishops, should resign when their duties become a burden.
Early in his career as a theologian, Joseph Ratzinger could have plausibly been described as a liberal Catholic. But in the years after the Second Vatican Council, in which he participated as theological advisor, he became disenchanted with the results of the council's call for an engagement with the modern world. As pope, Benedict continued to rein in dissident theologians, revived the widespread use of the Mass in Latin and rescinded the excommunications of bishops from a breakaway Catholic sect that rejected the teachings of the Vatican Council. In an initiative that strained relations with Anglican churches, he made special provision for the reception into the Roman Catholic Church of groups of conservative Anglicans (including married priests). The pope's reverence for the traditional authority of the church may also have figured in his failure to respond forcefully to the church's child sex abuse scandal.