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. It is liberal Catholics, after all, who have argued that bishops of Rome, like other bishops, should resign when their duties become a burden.
As pope, Benedict continued to rein in dissident theologians, revived the widespread use of the Mass in Latin and rescinded the excommunications of bishops from a breakaway Catholic sect that rejected the teachings of the Vatican Council.
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.
Those controversial actions didn’t completely define his papacy But the central theme of this papacy was the importance of holding fast to ancient beliefs, not an openness to the new insights that Catholics believe represent the workings of the Holy Spirit.
In choosing his successor, the College of Cardinals is not about to elect a pope who believes abortion is moral, that women should be ordained priests or that the church should bless same-sex marriages.
But the cardinals might conclude that the next pope, even as he affirms the basic teachings of the faith, should be less doctrinaire and more pastoral than Benedict, and more willing to decentralize authority in the church.