By the announcement of his resignation on Monday, Pope Benedict XVI has shown both his modesty – his awareness of his limits – and the degree to which he has very much a mind of his own. Retirement rumours had not been circulating; his own spokesperson was taken by surprise.
Indeed, at the beginning of his papacy, Benedict was slow to realize that he needed a great deal of help from communications staffers, as if his undoubted articulateness and lucidity were enough for the leader of such a large and complex organization.
If one may borrow a phrase from accountancy, Benedict has been a good CEO “on a going-forward basis.” He established reasonably solid reforms to prevent any recurrences of priests’ sexual abuse of children or of financial improprieties, but he has been less effective in holding individuals accountable for past wrongdoing.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was mainly known to the world as a doctrinal enforcer. As soon as he became Pope, however, he emerged as a prolific author, starting with his encyclical on love, Deus Caritas Est (God is love) in 2005, which was well received even by his long-time colleague and antagonist Hans Kung.
He has continued to publish books of real freshness, writing with a clarity that has not always been characteristic of German intellectuals. By comparison, his predecessor’s style was dense.
In short, Benedict has successfully fulfilled the teaching function of his office, however mixed his record as an administrator may be.
His stylistic sense also appeared in his ear for liturgy. Without reverting to the remote ritual of the 16th century, his reforms in this area deftly retouched the sometimes flat, leaden wording of the new mass of the 1970s, restoring a certain mystery and sublimity.
By the manner of his leaving office, Pope Benedict XVI revealed himself as an innovator. He has turned out to be someone very conscious that, in an age of longevity, death is no longer the best time to retire from a major job. This highly self-aware, humble but independent decision offers much hope that the departing Pope will continue to contribute much to the world as a writer, philosopher and theologian.