This morning was a reminder that world events move at their own pace, and still have the capacity to surprise us. After all, a pope hasn't resigned in almost six centuries, and that was to end a crisis in the church when more than one man claimed the throne of St. Peter. There is all manner of speculation about Benedict's motives, but won't indulge in that exercise, since divining the internals of the Vatican is a hardy task for even the most dogged pope-watcher.
I'd rather speculate about the church's future. Joseph Ratzinger, whether as pope or cardinal, has been a dominant -if not THE dominant- figure in the Roman Catholic church's turn back towards doctrinal conservatism. He has been the Metternich of the clerical counter-revolution against the changes brought by Vatican II, striving to turn back the clock at every turn. Under him the church has forced an inelegant and literalist liturgy on its lay parishioners, has revived the Tridentine Latin mass, has waged war on nuns for their lack of ideological fervor, has cracked down on theology departments at Catholic institutions, and has generally favored the enforcement of narrow church teachings over emphasizing the diversity and catholicity (in the literal sense) that has long been the church's great strength.
This has all happened at a time when membership is dropping, even in former strongholds like Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Latin America. Benedict has also been in power at a time when the full reality of abuse by clerics has come to light. Benedict is an organization man, and I think he understands that the church's current crisis is so great that it needs a leader with the energy and confidence to confront it. The fact that he plans on retiring to a cloister within the Vatican itself indicates that Benedict might be planning on having influence over his successor. This is all unprecedented, since the other popes who retired did so for explicitly political reasons, not health, and got out of the way. (Although, who knows, this resignation might be political in that it's a response to the abuse scandal.)
I see one of two directions for the church, which is obviously at a crossroads. It could keep moving in its current direction, but to do so would mean having a more charismatic conservative at the helm who could gain the trust and affection of the faithful. John Paul II was such a man, but I do not think we will see the likes of him again in our lifetimes. If another strict doctrinal conservative takes the papal crown, he, like Benedict, will have his work cut out for him. On the other hand, I could also see a little surprise, and the possibility of a quiet, careful reformer becoming pope. With any luck, the church could get another John XXIII, and get itself back on the modern track it had been on after Vatican II and before the current counter-revolution. Don't hold your breath, though.
I don't see that happening, mostly because the church has already alienated and lost the Catholics who would be receptive to major reforms or who would push for them in the first place. For example, ex-Catholic is now the second-largest denomination in this country (and one I belong to), and I doubt that will change much. It is an institution that is becoming more and more focused on doctrinal rigidity and ideological purity, driving out adherents and making those that have stayed more rigid than ever before. (I have witnessed this change of events with members of my family and their circle, who went from being devout Catholics to religious fanatics.) Perhaps the next will merely confirm this new reality, or even embrace it, rather than follow John XXIII's sage advice to "throw open the windows of the church." Joseph Ratzinger has done a good job in the last decades to make sure they stay shut, which will be his ultimate legacy.