Well, this news has positively exploded. Pope Benedict XVI will resign February 28th, 2013. You can read Benedict's address to the Cardinals here and here.
Many questions are circulating in response to Benedict's decision: why now? are there any other motivations? who is the probable successor? what shape has Benedict's pontificate left the church on the eve of electing his successor? These questions loom in the background. Benedict, whether he intended to or not, took the Roman Church in a more rightwing direction. Will an ideologue assume the papacy? If so, the ideological trends which sprung up in recent years will be solidified for the near future. Yet, recent years have also demonstrated the weaknesses in the current pontificate. It is equally possible that another direction could be charted.
Benedict's papacy, though cast in the shadow of his predecessor, began with some shades of expectation. Ratzinger's comments about the filth in the Church had many thinking some program of reform would be launched and vigorous campaign to address the pedophilia problem in the Catholic Church would be undertaken. Liturgical conservatives hoped for a strenuous reform of the reform of the Roman liturgy. Theologians were divided between those hoping for more intellectual rigor and those fearing a new inquisition. His it was hoped his one major social encycliccal would address the world economic crisis in strong terms and provide some point of orientation for the Church. To what degree any of this was accomplished is debatable.
Many commentators are now reviewing Benedict's most recent cardinals in the hope of discovering whether or not he had some sense that this announcement was forthcoming and had taken steps to set the stage for the new conclave. Such inquiry requires more reflection. Certainly, Benedict was aware of the precarious situation in which the Roman Church finds itself at this moment in its history. Cardinal Martini addressed Benedict in very frank terms regarding the state of the Roman Church in the weeks leading to his death. Under Benedict's pontificate, the decline of the Roman Church in Europe has continued and shows no signs of abating. As a young theologian, Ratzinger was well aware of the decline facing Christianity in the west and he was willing to propose some extraordinary methods to address it in the hope of reinvigorating the Roman Church. His papacy, by contrast, was tame, the man seemingly frozen in place in the face of an expansive decline in the west.
In the coming weeks, there will be more analysis of Benedict's pontificate and more predictions of what the future holds. In the moment, however, there is the sense that the Roman Church has been forced into a moment of history, one in which a complex mixture of crises, currents and concerns pose to influence Catholicism's future.