I just finished two TV interviews about the papal resignation in which I tried to suggest that this was not a total surprise to those who have read Joseph Ratzinger closely and known him to be a man who, very quietly, nonetheless insists on doing things his way where possible. He has never been one to go with the crowd; he has long been a man who refutes expectations; he has been a man of surprises who has often done things in a unique fashion. He was, e.g., the first prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to continue to publish under his own name and to contribute unofficially to debate and dialogue quite outside his official role as prefect. He was the first prefect to give multiple book-length interviews (e.g., Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium- An Interview With Peter Seewald; or, more famously, and the book that started this unique "genre," The Ratzinger Report). He was the first, in those interviews and elsewhere, to voice very frank public criticism of the state of the Catholic Church in our time, and even to suggest that his predecessor had allowed himself to be turned into a "superstar," a prospect and status about which Ratzinger was palpably uneasy. He was the first sitting prefect to publish an autobiography in his wonderful 1997 book Milestones: Memoirs, 1927-1977.
In his memoirs, he makes no secret of his desire to leave Rome for a quiet scholarly retirement, a request his papal predecessor refused on several occasions. Now that he has no boss (except God of course) to constrain him, he has recognized that his energies are failing and his ability to do the job is suffering. So he has made the right decision not only for him but, typically, for the good of the Church which he has always tried to serve.
I think this decision is commendable for those two reasons, and also because it might help in a still desperately needed demythologization of the office, a process to which he himself has tried to contribute over the years. By resigning, is he not sending the message: "Catholic bishops the world over are expected to retire at 75. I am a Catholic bishop like them, and a human being also, not some superstar. So I will retire quietly as so many others do." He made it clear in interviews over the years--and in scholarly writings before that, dating back to the Second Vatican Council--that there was far too much focus on "Rome" and the pope, and that the Catholic Church very much needed some kind of decentralization and even perhaps the creation of regional patriarchates within the Latin Church to assist in her governance. In line with this thinking, he took another surprising step: in 2006 he deleted the title "Patriarch of the West" from the Annuario Pontificio, a surprise that was rather considerable and rather shocking in fact to many. But as I tried to argue in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity,
the decision to delete the title was in fact in line with his previous thinking, and was not a retrenchment or a re-centralization of a re-assertion of papal power. It was, I thought hopefully, part of a long-term plan to begin that decentralization he had written and spoken of, and to begin the creation of regional patriarchates. We could yet see both developments--the Church, after all, moves slowly ("we think in centuries here"). Whether we need those developments is a matter for fair argument. I think we do if unity with Orthodoxy is to be taken seriously--hence my book. And since I also think that there is no greater priority than unity with Orthodoxy, for the health of both, then we need to find ways to make that happen. And in fact the papacy is far more flexible than is often imagined, so we could achieve unity if we had the will to make those changes. To paraphrase Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, the aristocracy hasn't gotten where it is by intransigence but by knowing how to change with the times. The Catholic Church is the same.
As for what types of changes in the papal office itself--read my book. As for what type of pope we should hope to see, stay tuned for more thoughts later.