Pope Benedict's resignation shocked the Church and the world. A papal resignation has not occurred in almost 600 years. Benedict did something that was considered 'not done'. It was not against the rules, but it has changed the institution of the Church.
It makes him look like a radical in the tradition of Christian radicalism. Biblical commentators note that the term radical 'is derived from the Latin word radixmeaning 'root', referring to the need for perpetual re-orientation towards the root truths of Christian discipleship', and that 'one way Christians achieve this is to revisit the Sermon on the Mount or the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the canonical gospels'.
Such re-orientation is informed by conscience. Accordingly, Benedict wrote in his statement last week: 'After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry ... In order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.'
The logic of what Benedict did implies that his successor could choose to overlook practices that are arguably no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the ministry of Jesus Christ in general, such as priestly celibacy.
It is true that relaxing the celibacy requirement would involve revising laws in addition to overturning modern tradition. But Benedict has established the principle of the Pope 'examin[ing his] conscience before God', in order to promote the primacy of the exercise of the ministry for which the Church was founded. Accordingly, laws that fail to uphold primary principles can and should be changed.
Those of us who have hung in must now pray for a new direction, a return to the spirit of the Second Council, a Pope of reform after an era of often irrational reaction and concealment of some of the worst evil imaginable. It can happen. Perhaps Benedict XVI finally grasped that. And finally did what he was never ever capable of doing before: let go and let God take over.
Moreover it would do no harm for the reverberations of Benedict's radical and conscientious action to be felt beyond the Church, inside institutions such as political parties and unions, where more attention is often given to particular rules and conventions than the purposes for which they were founded.