Pope Benedict's abdication of the papacy on February 28th is historic. It is the first occurrence of such an event in 700 years and leads the Roman Church through charted but still unfamiliar seas. It is also the symbolic consummation of the theological generation responsible for the Second Vatican Council and, indeed, the ultimate closing of the Council itself.
Whatever one's estimation of Vatican II, it was a watershed event. The past fifty years have been spent warring over what the Council really did or didn't do, what the Council intended versus distortions. The generation of bishops and theologians who actually participated in the Council's proceedings, who were on the ground floor of all the thinking, debates and actions, is passing. The bishops who presided at the Council are largely deceased and the theologians who played such an active role have similarly ventured into the great beyond and met whatever awaits them. There are very few left who were there and who were, more importantly, involved in shaping the Council's theological perspective.
As Pope Benedict XVI prepared to resign and, presumably, walk away from the "business" of the Roman Church, he becomes something of an incarnation of a theological generation reaching into the deepest shadows of its twilight. As the sun sets on Benedict's papacy, so too the generation responsible for the product of the Second Vatican Council similarly declines into darkness. The numbers of those remaining who can speak on the authority of having been in the midst of the theological debates and formation of conciliar documents grows perilously low. John Paul II was a young bishop during the Council's sessions. When he died, it was the death of arguably the most well known Council Father. Benedict is one of the last remaining theologians who exerted influence on the Council documents. Benedict could speak with some authority when discussing the theological intentions of the Council's documents. Upon his resignation, there will be no theologian who was active at the Council's proceedings influencing the doctrinal expression of the Roman Church. From here on in, any invocation of the Second Vatican Council and its teaching authority will be an interpretation based on secondary or tertiary knowledge, not primary experience of the Council. A recent discussion with a colleague has convinced me that the magnitude of this shift in the quality of interpretative knowledge. At best, we will have interpretations of a given theologian's thought. The Council itself will become increasingly distant. Eventually, the Council's relevance will come into question. This, I believe, is inevitable.
Benedict's papacy represents, in many respects, the last ditch effort to establish the proper implementation and interpretation of the Second Vatican Council and thereby solidify its standing in the tradition. The immediate "liberal" over reaction coincided with the rapid decline the Roman Church in the West. Benedict attempted to apply a "conservative" corrective to the previous excess. Benedict's papacy implemented many of the aspirations for the Second Vatican Council held by the more so-called "conservative" elements in the Roman Church, most notably in areas of doctrinal clarification, liturgy and Catholic identity. How successful this was remains to be seen - one could argue these moves were too late. The famous "hermeneutic of continuity" speech, though perhaps factually accurate, needed to be delivered many years prior. While ecclesiastical appointments since this speech have favored candidates that see the problem in similar terms, it is uncertain how well placed Benedict's hermeneutic of continuity is in the Roman Church as a whole. Is this concept popular among an eclectic conservative few or is has it become a common place idea within the Church? It is, in my estimation, too soon to tell.
What is certain is that we will no longer have the voice of a primary player in formation of the theology of the Second Vatican Council. We will not have a pontiff who is able to present the teaching of the Council with the authority of such intimate experience in the development of its doctrine.