John Paul II used to be known as the pope of surprises, forever doing things Roman pontiffs simply hadn't done before. With the election of Benedict XVI, many believed the era of papal novelties had drawn to a close, since Benedict has always been a man of tradition and the main lines of his papacy were fairly predictable from the theological and cultural concerns he had expressed over a long public life, writes John Allen in NCR Online.
In the end, however, Benedict XVI proved to be capable of a true stunner, becoming the first pope to voluntarily resign his office in centuries and the first to do in the modern media-saturated age. Acknowledging what he called his "incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," Benedict has announced he will step down effective 8 pm Rome time February 28.
Immediately, Benedict's decision has both won wide praise as a responsible and humble act and raised a whole rafter of questions. Chief among them: What exactly will be the role of a retired pope? And, naturally, many have already begun to speculate about who might capture the two-thirds support in the College of Cardinals necessary to take over the church's top job.
Benedict's decision also means the debate over his legacy is now officially open, and as with all things, it's likely to draw widely different verdicts depending on who's performing the evaluation.
Regarded as among the most accomplished Catholic theologians of his generation, Benedict XVI was what church historians call a "teaching pope" as opposed to a governor. His passion was invested in his teaching documents, his speeches on foreign trips, his regular catechesis at the Vatican, and the three books on the life of Christ he published. This teaching often struck people as profound and surprisingly free of ideological edge.
Even some of the pope's fiercest critics on other fronts expressed admiration.
When Benedict released his encyclical Deus Caritas Est in 2005 on human love, applause came from Swiss theologian Hans Küng, an erstwhile colleague of Joseph Ratzinger and a leading voice for liberal Catholic dissent.
"Papa Ratzinger takes on with his inimitable theological style a richness of themes of eros and agape, of love and charity," Küng said. He called the encyclical "a good sign" and expressed hope that it would be "received warmly, with respect."
FULL STORY Benedict leaves behind legacy full of ups and downs (NCR)