The stunning news today that Benedict XVI is abdicating his office as pope is probably the most enlightened and important thing he has done since taking office; it is, sadly, the thing for which he will be remembered.
His election in 2005 struck me as unwise and unimaginative: a shy intellectual and theologian who wanted to retire to Germany to write was instead installed as the head of a vast institution that required the leadership of someone younger, stronger, and more enlightened,who could begin to streamline its royal trappings and elaborate bureaucracy and continue the work of the Second Vatican Council.
That council and the events that followed in 1968 seemed to frighten Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was then known; he retreated into conservative mindset that did not serve the church well. He must have watched in horror as his predecessor grew older and more infirm, refusing to resign even when everyone could see his inability to function. I suspect his alarm was increased by the sexual scandals of the past two decades and the official cover-up in which he was involved. He felt embarrassed by various mis-steps during his pontificate that suggested that the job was too big for his frail shoulders. Resigning was, no doubt, a great relief.
What effect this decision, and he, will have on his successor remains to be seen. Things change with uncommon slowness in the gilded world of the Vatican, so we cannot expect some of the changes I would like to see in the priesthood and in the role of women in the church.
But at least Pope Benedict ended on a positive, realistic note. That itself is a change.