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The Papacy of benedict XVI will likely pale in comparison to that of his predecessor, the charismatic John Paul II--the Polish-born Pontiff who faced down the communist bloc and contributed to its collapse and whose global travels revitalized the appeal of the Catholic Church. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI helped his friend John Paul run the Vatican as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith--the historical successor to the Holy Office of the Inquisition. As John Paul's successor, the German-born Pope inherited the great Pontiff's messes, including, most significantly, the cover-ups of the priestly molestation cases that continue to haunt the church around the world. He quickly caused a few rumbles of his own: verbal gaffes that riled Muslims and Jews, a declaration that condoms would not help counter the AIDS crisis in Africa. But Benedict's reputation was based on erudition and efficiency, and his papacy has managed to clarify and anchor many of John Paul's beliefs in carefully thought-out encyclicals and policies--including conservative doctrines on contraception and the role of women in the church that have alienated liberal Catholics in the U.S. and Europe. Still, Benedict's departure may be his--and John Paul's--greatest legacy, a fundamental change to the succession of St. Peter.
Ratzinger ran a critical sector of the Vatican hierarchy while John Paul, who died on April 2, 2005, lingered in extremis as the absolute ruler of the Catholic Church. His last years were excruciating, as the once athletic Pontiff slowly and publicly withered away in the throes of what was believed to be Parkinson's disease. Since then, Benedict has emphatically asserted that a Pope may resign if, as he said in Light of the World, a collection of his wide-ranging interviews with the journalist Peter Seewald published in 2010, "he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office." In that case, Benedict said, "he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign." But he added, "One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say someone else should do it."
Benedict is stepping down, but it is quite possible that he is entering a phase of even greater influence without having to deal with the onerous duties and hazards of the papacy. Past discussions of papal resignation presumed a Pontiff with serious health problems--as John Paul II painfully exemplified. But while Benedict has been slowed by age, he has not been incapacitated by it. And even after resigning, he is likely to exude, if not exert, influence by virtue of prestige. It will be a rare moment in history when a Pope has to share the stage with a Pope emeritus--one with a reputation for intellectual acuity, daunting scholarship and, most intimidating of all, the ultimate insider's knowledge of the bureaucracy.