In this fast-moving world, it is not every day that something happens that has not happened for almost six centuries. Yet when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation yesterday, he was the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII, who left office in quite different circumstances, to end a schism. In his letter, Pope Benedict said that he was departing because of his age and declining health.
In deciding to call it a day at the age of 85 after almost eight years as pontiff, Benedict has taken a course, and shown an approach to his job, quite different from that of his predecessor. Pope John Paul II, the charismatic Pope from Poland, struggled on until the bitter end, visibly and audibly debilitated by the attempt on his life and by chronic illness as well as by age. He saw it as his duty to remain at the helm of the Church until he breathed his last – as indeed had all previous popes since Gregory XII.
Benedict, the Bavarian professor-theologian who made no secret of his sense that the papacy was a great weight that had been thrust upon him, concluded that the interests of the Church were better served by his departure. Such were the demands of life today, he said, that strength of mind and body were necessary "to steer the boat of St Peter and proclaim the Gospel". And future popes may well thank him, as may the Church. In accepting his limitations with grace, he has made a brave move and one that advances the Roman Catholic Church a little further into the world of today.
There will be those who discern other motives in Benedict's departure. His has been a chequered papacy and one likely to be defined by the multiple scandals of child sex abuse that came to light during those years. It remains to be seen whether he will go down in history as the senior Vatican official who helped to keep the shame under wraps, or credited, as Pope, with his acknowledgement of collective guilt, the apologies he offered in the Church's name, and the tentative opening of the Church to greater scrutiny. Never one for administration, his resignation also amounted to an acceptance that a 21st-century universal Church needs more active management than he could exert.
As a German who joined the Hitler Youth in his teens, Benedict was always conscious of carrying a particular burden, which may have dictated his wide cultural interests in later life. His unexpectedly successful visit to Britain in 2010, which marked a rapprochement with the Church of England, showed him at his modest and scholarly best. But as an academic and priest in Cold War West Germany, he developed an aversion to radicalism that dictated his doctrinal conservatism.
In this, he was more a successor to John Paul II than any sort of pioneer, despite flickers of human understanding that suggested a less doctrinaire approach, for instance, to the use of condoms. And his conservatism only deepened divisions with would-be reformers. A Church that refuses to countenance a married priesthood, or women priests, or same-sex partnerships, or whose ban on "artificial" birth control is widely flouted, is a Church doomed to continue its decline. Benedict's successor will need the leadership capacity and vision to bring Catholicism into this new century. And the challenge, even if he has these qualities, will be to effect reform, without provoking a schism as profound as the one which the last papal resignation was intended to end.