Well this is something you don’t see every day, or even every 500 years. When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope after the passing of Pope John Paul II his age at the time led some to speculate that he was a caretaker figure while younger possible successors were vetted. It appears that such speculation was correct.
As an ex-Catholic my feelings towards the Papacy are… complicated as one might expect. On one hand the position stands in opposition to everything I believe in: transparency, accountability, morality, the corrupt nature of power. On the other hand the Church didn’t prevent me from turning away from it, leading me to the opinion that it’s dogma isn’t a buffet: you either accept that abortion is murder, divorce is wrong and gay sex is sinful or you do as I and countless others have done and quit the Church. I’d like to see the concentration of power in Rome spread out to the individual parishes, but at the same time I recognize that such centralization may have contributed to the overall longevity of the Church since decentralization would lead to the factionalization that bedevils Protestantism and Islam today. But it also contributed to the sexual abuses scandals throughout the Church, far outweighing the good the Church has done for the laity. Still, I would like to see the Church reform itself in a way that brought it in line closer to Christ’s teachings and made it more responsive to the needs of the Faithful without falling prey to fickle changes in morality as some protestant sects have done, selling out their core beliefs to match the politically correct ideas du jour.
To that end I have been pleased with the conservative pontiff’s approach, providing firm and principled opposition to abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia even as Western societies gradually accept and expand their practices. If you think it’s okay to whack people like Terry Schiavo or Timothy McVeigh then the Catholic Church isn’t for you and you shouldn’t expect or demand that a 2,000 year old institution bend to the prominent ideas of the day. After all it wasn’t very long ago that forced sterilization of the handicapped or the enslavement of African-Americans was considered morally acceptable. The Church should provide a moral compass for its believers and by its very nature should resist change longer than the society it operates in. The short reign of Pope Benedict XVI has followed that precept well.
That doesn’t mean that the Church shouldn’t change, especially when it comes to issues lacking a moral dimension. The prohibition of married priests is not rooted in apostolic life and wasn’t codified until hundreds of years after Christ’s death. While I don’t expect the Church to allow priests to marry after ordination as is currently prohibited, such a change would have much less impact on the core beliefs of the Church than say, removing the prohibition on euthanasia. Church teaching is explicit that life begins and ends with God, and that mucking about with the beginning and end of human life has a much greater moral dimension than married priests.
Likewise there is no moral justification for the slow pace of rooting out sex abuse in the ranks of the clergy; in fact morality demands a complete and thorough investigation of all incidents, acceptance of responsibility and full attempts at redress before the Pontiff prostrates himself before all 1 billion Roman Catholics and begs forgiveness for the heinous acts millions of innocents suffered under the Church’s authority. Such an unprecedented action would heal the damage caused by the abuse and contribute to the continued long-term health and relevance of the institution. Again, likely to happen? I doubt it, but then again, there are many reasons why I’m an ex-Catholic.
Pope Benedict XVI has served the Church well enough given the situation. While never as popular as Pope John Paul II, he has presided over a tumultuous period within the Church and has acquitted himself well in the protection of its core teachings. But the time has come for a younger face to continue the work of changing the Church to better serve its faithful while remaining true to the fundamental beliefs in the sanctity of life and the relationship between Man and the Divine. By resigning Benedict XVI has helped make the transition smooth and filled with hope for a laity that has suffered shock and despair from the moral failure of the Church.