Pope Benedict XVI made worldwide headlines when he became the first pope to resign from office since 1415.
This particular Pope has an interesting background, especially considering the ongoing battle throughout the Western world between the forces of religious belief and those of government-enforced aggressive amoral secular humanism.
As Cardinal John Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict was appointed to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by John Paul II. This appointment made Cardinal Ratzinger responsible for maintaining doctrinal purity throughout the entire Catholic Church - in effect, putting him in charge of church-wide quality control. He was so zealous in rooting out deviance from approved doctrine that he became known as the "Pope's rottweiler." His wholehearted promotion of John Paul's adherence to longstanding doctrines about the role of women in the church, married clergy, sodomy, and birth control have alienated liberal Catholics in America and in Europe where allegiance to the church has declined sharply.
American religious institutions like the Catholic church often seem to act as if their professed beliefs and doctrines don't matter. Catholics teach that abortion is murder, and that the Pope has the authority to send people to hell by throwing them out of the church. If the so-called "mortal sin" of abortion is truly that important, why doesn't the Pope excommunicate supposedly Catholic politicians such as Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden who advocate government-paid abortions? By acting as if doctrines don't matter, the Catholic leadership acts like parents who give kids Christmas presents regardless of behavior.
When Lyndon Johnson was promoting the "Great Society" where poverty would be abolished, Catholic authorities argued that government should take care of poor people because only government could raise enough money to cure poverty. They advocated unconditional welfare payments even though the Bible commands that people who will not work shouldn't eat (II Thessalonians 3:10).
These same leaders advocated paying child support to unmarried mothers in spite of Biblical commands not to support women who weren't married (I Timothy 5:9-10). By abandoning core doctrines of a book they claim to revere, most Christian denominations undermined their moral authority, and the resulting unconditional entitlements made work unnecessary for more and more layabouts.
The Catholic Church is the oldest multinational organization in the world. It endured English King Henry II murdering an archbishop, and King Henry VIII confiscating all church property in England because the church wouldn't let him divorce his wife. Through the centuries, it's survived the collapse of Rome, wars, depressions, and other disasters great and small.
It's also seen other societies collapse. The Vatican archives go back as far as the archives Confucius drew on when he stated his laws of how successful societies operated.
What if the Pope is right in warning against free love, gay "marriage," money for no work, and a host of modern societal ideas? The church has seen them all and knows that they don't work in the long term. America has existed as a nation for only a little more than two hundred years and as an idea for maybe three hundred; Western culture as generally classified doesn't go back further than half a millennium. The Catholics have been operating as a continuous entity for more than four times as long; we should at least the consider the possibility that this accumulated perspective gives them relevant insights.
Pope Paul VI warned against the misuse of birth control in his encyclical Humane Vitae by saying, "The transmission of human life is a most serious role in which married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator." He went on to explain the responsibilities of married parenthood and warn that birth control would make it possible for couples to abuse sex irresponsibly without suffering the traditional consequences. This is exactly what we've seen in modern society, most recently illustrated by the notorious Sandra Fluke who expects all taxpayers to pay for whatever sexual hijinks may strike her fancy.
Pope Benedict also saw that his church had become too involved with government, a mistake it's often made in the past. Although Catholic support helped get Obamacare passed, for example, the Obama administration repaid this help by commanding the Church to abandon its core principles. The Church is insisting on its right under the US Constitution to practice core Catholic beliefs against abortion and contraception, but that position may not prevail in court. If the court rules against the Church, Catholic traditionalists will be in direct conflict with the American government.
Pope Benedict is surely aware of Cardinal George's warning:
I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.
Cardinal George ended with a note of either optimism or pessimism as you prefer:
His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.
Pope Benedict knows how his predecessor John Paul II helped destroy the abomination of Communism. He knows how Catholic monasteries kept the flame of learning alive during the Dark Ages between the fall of Rome and emergence of European nations some thousand years later. He sees Catholic doctrines of individual responsibility, marital fidelity, and striving to create wealth for society at large under catastrophic decline as they come under society-wide attack. As a highly intelligent student of history, he knows where this will lead.
Pope Benedict did what he could to combat the tendency of American and European societies to abandon the core social principles that made them what they are, but he realized that, at 85, he wouldn't live long enough either to see the coming collapse or to help pick up the pieces.
As the leader of an institution far greater than himself, the Pope's first priority has to be to put his church in a position where it can weather the coming disaster. That way his successors can say, "We told you so," without being laughed at. He's doubtless read King Solomon's lament:
Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity. Ecclesiastes 2:18-19
He knows that Solomon's son ruled so incompetently that the kingdom split in two shortly after Solomon died; the Catholic Church has been through several similar splits from which it has still not recovered.
For his church to survive and retain any moral power, Pope Benedict has to make sure that his successor holds to doctrinal purity as he has done. Traditional Catholic positions on marriage, sexuality, individual responsibility, hard word, education, and sodomy are known to work and should be urged in an attempt to put off the crash. What's more, if things do fall apart, what credibility would a church have that's abandoned beliefs it's held for two thousand years?
He knows that many Catholics are tempted to get in line with what they think are new social theories but are in fact modern resurrections of old ideas which he knows won't work. He doesn't want the church to be caught in the collapse; it has to get back to its roots, and when the truth becomes obvious it'll be in the ideal position to be listened to once again.
In restoring the fundamentals, the Pope declared that the church should proclaim the Gospel "to those regions awaiting the the first evangelization and to those regions where the roots of Christianity are deep but who have experienced a serious crisis of faith due to secularization." He wants to preserve the church as a future voice for social policies that are known to work. We're going to need many such voices.
By retiring, this most traditional and orthodox of Popes will have a most unusual advantage: a voice during the process of choosing the next Pope, and the ability to privately confer from time to time with his successor.
His retirement may stretch Pope John Paul II's efforts to return the church to its historical foundations through yet another Pope's time in office. This is a worthy goal, and Pope Benedict's giving up his position to save his church is much to be admired.