The implications of abdication
The first thing is to say that I really don't think we are in a position to make a judgment on the Pope's decision.
The pope abdicates: he does not offer his resignation to any earthly authority, not even those who elected him. His reasons must necessarily be between himself and God.
Moreover, there are likely to be very good reasons indeed why he doesn't want to share fully with the world the thinking that led up to this decision at this time, not least to give his successor appropriate room to move.
Accordingly, this is one on which we need to refrain from judging and accept that Rome has spoken!
That said, Pope Benedict XVI's actions obviously do have an impact on us all, and so we are entitled to reflect on the messages, implicit and explicit, he is sending in this process.
The role of the Pope is to govern
The most explicit of the messages the Pope has sent is that the role of the Pope is to govern the Church, and when he can no longer do that effectively, by virtue of age or infirmity, he should resign.
That the Office of Pope is above all about governing is reflected in the current Code of Canon Law (Canon 331). The code also provides for a Pope to resign his office (Canon 332).
We don't expect the other successors of the apostles to continue in office indefinitely or when they become infirm, so why should our expectation of Popes be any different?
We have to remember that Pope Benedict XVI is the fourth oldest Pope in history, and the issue is likely to come up more often in future as life expectancy continue to increase, even though disability free years of life have not shown similar happy progress (indeed, quite the reverse has occurred in some countries).
It is true of course that the Pope has a special charism by virtue of his Office, over and above that which applies to other bishops. But we should surely guard against thinking that makes him somehow superhuman.
And it is true of course that in the first few centuries of the Church most Popes laid down their office through martyrdom, providing a great witness to the faithful in doing so.
Perhaps Pope John Paul II's battle with infirmity was inspiring to some.
But personally I agree with the implicit judgment of the current Pope that it would have been better if the late John Paul II had resigned earlier so that the clean up of the Church in the wake of the sex abuse scandal, not to mention years of tolerance of heterodoxy and heteropraxis could have started earlier.
Indeed, were it not for the fact that he has been beatified, one could equally make the argument that Pope John Paul II's refusal to step down from Office even after being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease (with its risk of cogitative problems and dementia) reflects a positive lack of humility and fostering of that cult of personality disliked by many traditionalists (myself included).
Nor is it practical, in the current day and age for, as some have suggested, the pope to simply cease travelling and work behind the scenes in the Vatican. The travel and public audiences, I agree, while a valuable source of public witness to the faith are perhaps an optional extra that is not absolutely essential.
What is essential though, is someone who can make good decisions and get them translated into action. A Pope who worries his decision-making powers are declining, or he otherwise lacks the strength to do what needs to be done must indeed consider his position.
Faithfulness to vocation?
The problem that many I think are struggling with though, is the notion that the Pope is rejecting his vocation, something God-given that he himself has acknowledged is not about our own preferences, and must be followed regardless of our own assessments of our own capacities.
For all the talk on the Pope's humility in renouncing a position of great power and status, the reality is that Pope Benedict has made it clear on many occasions that he didn't want to be Pope (or Prefect of the CDF for that matter), hasn't liked the job that much, and is happiest playing the piano and writing books on theology.
In those circumstances, it is hard for us not to suspect in our hearts, whether or not we say it aloud as some have, that he is running away, choosing what he wants rather than what he should do. And of course endless stories have pointed to the reasons why one would run: the seeming impossibility of getting the Roman Curia to get with and stay on the program; the continuing horrors of the sexual abuse scandal; his own ill-health; and the list goes on.
Yet ultimately we have to trust that the Pope has made a properly discerned judgment for the good of the Church.
As Pope, Benedict XVI has set in train a number of radical reforms and set a number of radical precedents. He has worked to resacralize the liturgy; reassert the importance of orthodoxy and clarify some important doctrinal issues magisterially; and he hasn't been afraid to depose bishops who posed a danger to their flocks.
Whether we agree with his prudential judgments or not, the reality is that he seems to have felt constrained in how far he could go by the desire not to precipitate a formal schism with the liberal wing of the Church.
The next Pope, though, could build on what he has done, and go a lot further.
It seems to me that Pope Benedict XVI has made some judgments about where things are at and believes that the time has come for someone else - perhaps someone with no history that can be held over his head when it comes to the handling of the various crises in the Church at the moment, a 'cleanskin' if you will - to assess where things are really at, and take the things to the next level.
Looking to the future
Is that too optimistic a view? We shall see. I'm not suggesting that the next Pope will be a traditionalist (given that only a dozen of the cardinal electors have even celebrated a TLM that would be too much to expect!) or even a conservative (though he likely will be).
Still, the reality is that the balance of the numbers of the faithful is changing rapidly and radically, and that matters.
A century ago, most Catholics lived in Europe.
The Church in Europe and the West though, continues to implode under the weight of widespread heresy, moral turpitude, sloth, and outright indifference.
Maybe things can be turned around to some degree with a 'new evangelization' but so far at least there isn't much evidence to support that. The best we can hope for, in this country (and elsewhere), I suspect, is that the conservatism of young priests and younger people will eventually result in the emergence of that 'smaller, purer church'.
Yet Catholicism is still a growing, dynamic religion. According to the wikipedia, on 31 December 2011, membership was 1.196 billion, an increase of 11.54% over the same date in 2000. Numbers in Europe grew by 1.2% in that period; in Africa they grew by 33%.
Today's Catholics mostly live in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
And while those countries are not necessarily conservative liturgically, they certainly are when it comes to morality and doctrine.
We may or may not get an African or Asian Pope this time around, but we surely will get one who is conscious of and sensitive to this changing dynamic.
I don't personally think we have to worry about the demise of Summorum Pontificum: thanks to the SSPX's intransigence, devotees of the Traditional Latin Mass within the Church remain a tiny, nonthreatening minority (even of active Church goers), concentrated largely in the declining West. Perhaps over time it will become more important as many hope, but just for now it seems to me that the new Pope will have bigger things to worry about, and is unlikely to want to be seen to unwinding relatively harmless seeming legislation put in place by his still living predecessor.
All the same, we must pray hard for the Cardinal-electors to truly listen to the Holy Spirit and select the right pope, and keep the current Pope in our prayers, while thanking him for the great service he has given the Church.
***PS For a nice demolition of the assorted conspiracy theories doing the rounds, have a read of this piece in the UK Daily Telegraph.