Pope Benedict has announced his plans to resign at the end of February and a Vatican spokesperson insists that there will be a new Pope selected by Easter.
The betting has already begun on who the next Pope will be, but it is worthwhile considering what a complex legacy Pope Benedict will leave. Catholics may be surprised at how closely non-Catholics follow these very public moments in their Church, and how invested other Christians, and people of other faith and no faith are in the machinations of the Catholic Church.
Our interest lies in the reality that the papacy holds immense power not only to form Catholic spirituality and morality but also to influence policy on issues that affect Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We all have some stake in who the leader of over a billion humans will be because we have seen how influential the past Popes have been.
When Pope Benedict was elevated to Pope, I along with many Catholics, assumed that the then Cardinal Ratzinger, who had been the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was going to continue the more conservative course charted by John Paul II.
Nowhere has this been more true and distressing than in Pope Benedict's seemingly continuous attacks on the LGBT community and in the crackdown on the American nuns.
In the past year, the Vatican has released a barrage of attacks on same sex marriage saying that gay people are 'destroying the very "essence of the human creature"; and saying that gay people adopting children was an 'attack' on the traditional family. While a majority of Catholics in the pews support same sex marriage, at least in America, the head of the Catholic Church and many of his American bishops have became more entrenched in harmful anti-gay rhetoric and leaving the LGBT community feeling that our lives are devalued by this supposedly pro-life Vatican.
Likewise, over the past year and a half the Vatican has cracked down on American nuns by putting a bishop supervisor over the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR). The Vatican's demeaning approach to these devoted women was made plain when they accused them of promoting 'radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.' The attack on the nuns further alienated American Catholics as well as many of us non-Catholics who had looked to these justice seeking nuns as role models and mentors.
That said, Benedict has been something of an equal opportunity offender. In his approximately eight years as Pope, he has also flummoxed conservatives by taking progressive stances on other crucial issues of the day.
While at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger had been an effective opponent of Liberation Theology and its social justice emphasis. But in his first Encyclical called Caritas In Veritate, the Pope critiqued unregulated capitalism and called for ethics within economics. Recently in his New Year's World Day of Peace address in which he denounced "the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated capitalism, various forms of terrorism and criminality".
Also, Pope Benedict was dubbed the Green Pope for his consistant message on fighting climate change and his connection of environmental concerns with the need of the poor. In 2008 at World Youth Day he said: "My dear friends, God's creation is one and it is good. The concerns for nonviolence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity."
Recently the Pope also weighed in on President Obama's gun control efforts after Newtown by saying that they were a "step in a right direction."
Pope Benedict's interfaith record was more mixed. He has been praised by Jewish leaders for his outreach to the Jewish community in Rome, his visit to Auschwitz and his theological exoneration of the Jewish people for any connection to the death of Jesus within his writing. However, he made a major misstep in his infamous Regensburg lecture in 2006 when he quoted a Byzantine emperor's insulting remarks about Islam, which needlessly caused more Christian/Muslim tension. And Jews were made uncomfortable by his continued outreach to the break away traditionalist sect Society of Saint Pius X which has a history of anti-Semitism and holocaust denial.
In the end, the most troublesome part of Benedict's time as Pope has been the response to the revelation of horrible abuse of young boys and girls within the Catholic Church. Certainly we all know that Pope Benedict is horrified by what transpired. However, the perception from the wider world was of a church, led by a man who never fully grasped how much damage had been done by the Priests and those who covered up their actions.
The choosing of the next Pope will come during the season of Lent which is a Holy time of repentance, solidarity with those who suffer and consideration of new life both for the individual and for society. I pray that Pope Benedict finds a blessing in his decision and that the Holy Spirit will guide those choosing the next Pope to make him a blessing to all of the world.