I've had opportunity to read a few reports in the newspapers about the pope's resignation, and predictably enough, attempts are being made to tell the story out of a 'conservative vs. liberal' framework; i.e., how will liberal/conservative Catholics react to the resignation of a 'conservative' pope?
I'm not a Vatican insider. I don't know Pope Benedict personally, nor do I have any dealings with the Roman curia. But I have read much of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI's works, and it seems to me that Pope Benedict is far too complex a thinker to be classified so easily as a 'conservative'. Yes, there are issues on which he is immovable (or appears to be), and some people simply dismiss him as a thinker and as a leader because of these issues. But to do so, I think, would be to miss out on a man of profound insight and depth, whose theology is worth exploring. Similarly, 'conservatives' who think Benedict is entirely of their ilk need to delve more carefully into his thought.
To take but one issue as an example of Benedict's complexity of thought, James Alison, an openly gay Roman Catholic priest, is a somewhat controversial figure who has called on the church to articulate its understanding of homosexuality differently. But interestingly enough, he is also a huge fan of Pope Benedict XVI. And in an interview with Commonweal published on his website, Alison makes a compelling argument that Pope Benedict XVI has done more than any previous pope to bring about broader acceptance of same-sex relationships within a global church in which change does not, for good reasons, occur quickly (see part II, questions 10-11 of the interview).
However, Benedict's subtlety and complexity on this and on a whole host of issues and topics, doesn't make for good copy, nor does it make for easy exploration. Those who tend simply to label don't usually want to have to explore someone's thought so diligently.
But my (admittedly limited) experience has been that most people, and particularly those in positions of authority, deserve more courtesy than simply to be labelled, whether positively or negatively. Most people are far more complex than such labels admit, and while labels may help one digest and make sense of our world, labels often do little more than degrade.
Pope Benedict's decision was courageous and humble. I pray for him as he seeks, in his words, to "devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer." I pray as well for the cardinals tasked with the job of choosing a leader for our church.
P.S. For those wondering about the canon law surrounding papal resignation (given that this is the first time a pope in modern history has resigned) the folks at America - and specifically Dan Horan, O.F.M. - very helpfully wrote this:
For those who are interested, perhaps the best-known example of a pope resigning was in 1294 when Pope Celestine V (d. 1296) resigned from his office. Benedict XVI is the first in several centuries. According to the Code of Canon Law (CIC) this right of the Roman Pontiff falls under Canon 332, no. 2, which reads: "If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone." This helps to explain the timing of the Pope's decision, which is an act that can only take place when he is still of sound mind and body.
As for the delivery of this news to the cardinals in attendance this morning, some canon law scholars believe this is essential in assuring the legitimacy of the resignation. According to canonist Knut Walf, "The resignation from office of the pope must be sufficiently manifested and requires no acceptance 'by anyone.' The recipient of the 'manifestation' is not specified. Some commentators are of the opinion that the college of cardinals or its dean as the competent electoral body must be informed of the resignation" (New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law , eds. J. Beal, J. Coriden, and T. Green  p. 438). Needless to say, this is a very important announcement of great historical significance.P.S.S. Some have asked me what the pope is going to do after he resigns. According to National Catholic Reporter, the Vatican has provided the following answers regarding his resignation and life post-resignation. Joshua J. McElwee from NCR writes:
Following his resignation, Pope Benedict XVI will move to a monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican, the Vatican spokesperson has stated.
Four clarifications about the pope's resignation were sent this morning by Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson:
Pope Benedict XVI has given his resignation freely, in accordance with Canon 332 §2 of the Code of Canon Law.Pope Benedict XVI will not take part in the Conclave for the election of his successor.Pope Benedict XVI will move to the Papal residence in Castel Gandolfo when his resignation shall become effective.When renovation work on the monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican is complete, the Holy Father will move there for a period of prayer and reflection.