02/11/2013 11:51 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

The Orphans Pope Benedict Leaves Behind

Pope Benedict XVI resigned, an unprecedented event in modern papal history. It's not clear if his move will set a precedent, contrary to the few papal resignations that occurred during the Medieval period.

The Church is not a dictatorship in which the pope is a sovereign acting in an "exceptional state": Canon 332 of the canonical code of rights provides for this possibility. But there's another way to interpret his resignation, one suggested by the formula Benedict XVI used to explain his decision: ingravescentem aetatem. This Latin formula is used not only to explain the weight of years, but echoes word for word the personal motto of Pope Paul VI, the Ingravescentem aetatem, which in 1970 introduced a 75-year-old age limit for cardinals joining the Roman Curia (and 80 for those entering the conclave to elect a new pope), after a document from the second Vatican council had introduced a 75-year-old age limit for Diocesan bishops in 1965.

There's also a personal element in this resignation: Observers would not have been surprised to see Pope Benedict XVI resign during the first years of the papacy, especially between 2006 and the beginning of 2009. They were the most difficult, characterized by diplomatic incidents in the Regensburg speech and anti-Semite Lefebvrian priest Williamson. Then, in 2010, the scandals surrounding sexual abuse in America and Europe began to swirl, elevating Pope Benedict XVI to primary target (in some cases even in courts of justice). A pope elected almost seven years ago, already sporting a very precise conservative "brand" found himself forced to fight headwinds that no pope in the modern media era ever had to face before him, either inside or outside the church. Added to this were several examples of gross mismanagement in the Roman Curia by members of his inner circle, which further complicated a situation produced by a conclave that had elected a theologian as eminent as he is divisive.

There is also a functional interpretation for this resignation, which in a certain sense testifies to Joseph Ratzinger's conciliatory experience. The second Vatican council marked the beginning of a redefinition of "job descriptions" for all the church's ministers, and especially for Catholic bishops all over the world: an increasingly complex job that requires typical leadership skills, an ability to mediate, expert media communication abilities and the acumen of a CEO -- but always subject to the Vatican and with a mandate that always ends at 75 -- for each bishop. From today forward, in papal theology and canonistic science, one could claim without fear of denial that that church law concerning bishop resignations is applicable to the pope as well, the bishop of Rome. But lots of questions remain. Especially when it comes to the conclave: What role will the pope play in it and in its preparation? And what about the future where Joseph Ratzinger is concerned -- already Benedict XVI, the first Pope emeritus? What about Ratzinger's agenda... will it remain valid for the conclave and the future pope?

Theologically, spiritually and politically speaking, the resignation leaves a great number of Catholics, ecclesiastics and lay people orphaned at the moment: In the Roman Curia, among the bishops and theologians, and last but not least among Italian and American neo-conservatives (as well as among a few ex-Marxists now-turned Ratzingerians).

As far as Italy is concerned, this pope chose right from the outset not to get too involved in Italian politics, brushing dangerously close to omission on more than one occasion. Italy's 2013 elections, which will be held with the papal offices essentially vacant, are the epigraph of a pope who -- it must be pointed out -- always viewed the political and juridical dimension of the church and the papacy as elements that were more a nuisance than help for the church. In this sense, a papacy more post-conciliatory than conciliatory, and in Ratzinger's case this is pure irony. One can't help but wonder to what extent the Roman Catholic Church can allow itself, today, such a supremely spiritual view of itself.