Pope Benedict XVI has tried to make his mark on history by repeated and varied attempts to draw the Catholic Church back to its past.
So, it is ironic that Benedict’s place in the history books will probably be ensured not by those attempts, but by his going back in history to do what no pope has done since Gregory XII abdicated in 1415.
Pope Benedict’s announcement that he will retire at dinner time on February 28 was not a total surprise. During the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about the possibility, even the necessity, of papal resignations.
As pope, he also spoke about the possibility of retirement in a 2010 interview. Observers of recent events had speculated that the pope might soon step aside.
Clearly, one of the dreams that Benedict brought to his papacy was the welcoming back to the fold of the schismatic Society of St Pius X that had rejected the most recent ecumenical council, Vatican II.
Toward that end, he had lifted excommunications on four bishops of the group, only to have the move turn into an international scandal when almost immediately it became known that one of the four is a Holocaust denier.
The fact that Joseph Ratzinger is a German, was a member of the Hitler Youth and was drafted into the German military in World War II made the embarrassment especially painful.
Not only did the pope give the SSPX and its ilk permission to use the form of the Mass that had been superseded by the liturgical reform after Vatican II, but he mandated that bishops and priests cooperate with such groups to an unprecedented degree.
At the same time, he oversaw a uniform re-Latinization of liturgical translations throughout the world that has been especially unpopular among English-speaking clergy.
The archbishop that the pope appointed to deal with the SSPX said that Pope Benedict had "bent over backwards" to accommodate the group. And the result? Continued rejection of his overtures that in the past few months made it clear that none of the pope’s efforts would ever succeed in drawing the ultra-traditionalists back.
Pope Benedict’s dream that a return to elements of "the good old days" might lead to a restoration of European Catholicism backfired.
Former bastions of Catholicism such as Austria, Ireland and Poland have experienced mass defections during his papacy. Outside Europe but still in the West, "former Catholic" has become one of the largest religious identifications in the United States.
Even the diocese that Cardinal Ratzinger once led has become a leading locus of departures in Germany.
Benedict’s big hope has shattered, and at 85 it is too late to find a new dream. Months ago, observers began to speculate that saddened by the realization that his project was a failure the pope might step aside.
Speculation increased when last December Benedict suddenly created new cardinals outside the usual schedule for such appointments. He seemed anxious to bring the number of cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave up to the full number without waiting a few extra months.
Had his doctors told him something that made filling the electors’ seats something that could not wait? Was he planning to resign? Or both?
It is still early to know what Benedict XVI’s legacy will be, but already it is clear that several elements will be part of it.
Most likely the first will be the fact that the scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up that festered during the papacy of John Paul II blew up under Benedict.
He made laudable attempts to respond pastorally, as when he met with victims in several countries. But by then, the world and the Church wanted and needed more.
People wanted to see bishops who had covered up abuse or who had themselves been abusers made to suffer the consequences of their sins of omission and commission. It did not happen. Anger, disillusion and defection followed.
In an age where ecumenism and interreligious dialogue have assumed great importance, Benedict did a service in outlining at least part of the Catholic position on various issues, since dialogue is only possible between parties who know what they really believe and who know where their differences lie.
But his assertions that often ignored the breadth and nuances of Catholic teaching and thought alienated would-be dialogue partners instead of inviting them into deeper exploration of points of agreement and disagreement.
Benedict’s academic style of presentation did not always work in the marketplace. Lacking pastoral experience (his only parish assignment was for six months following his ordination in 1951), the pope never seemed able to speak in ways that could get his ideas across to the masses, even though he was the first pope in history to include a joke in an encyclical.
Even before Vatican II, there had been calls for a lessening of the concentration of power in the Vatican curia. No pope since the council has been successful at responding to those calls. In fact, under John Paul II and Benedict XVI the centralization increased.
Then, "Vatileaks" paraded before the world the corruption, infighting and pettiness in the Vatican that are the inevitable accompaniment of non-accountability.
Benedict’s seeming intransigence on matters of reproduction, sex, gender and women in the Church alienated more and more people rather than inviting them into dialogue.
There is tragedy in the papacy of Benedict XVI. He hoped to restore a style of being Church for the world. Whatever one thinks of the adequacy of his vision, it is sad for someone to reach the end of his career with the realization that he did not achieve what he set out to do.
And so, it is likely that in a century, when papal retirement may be the norm, the papacy of Benedict XVI will be remembered not for any long-lasting achievements, but for its innovative end.
Fr Bill Grimm MM is the publisher of ucanews.com based in Tokyo