Crispin Rovere previously undertook academic research at the Vatican on Australia's political relations with the Holy See, and is now a PhD candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

'Reforming progressive' is not a phrase frequently cited to describe Pope Benedict XVI. Repeated over and over are terms like 'conservative', 'hardliner' and 'enforcer'. These depictions were never accurate, though on balance it served Ratzinger's agenda to have these labels. On doctrinal issues he may have been genuinely conservative, but on the bureaucratic and political traditions of the Vatican, he couldn't have been more radical.

First, one cannot separate Benedict XVI's legacy from the manner of his departure; he will go down in history as 'the Pope who retired'. Six hundred years ago in the midst of crises involving multiple claimants, Gregory XII resigned and effectively became the exception that proves the rule. And the rule is: popes die in office, or at worst are forced out by some calamity; they never just 'retire'. Ratzinger is all too aware of the gravity of this decision, something he made clear during his resignation address. This is Ratzinger's radical way of saying 'the Church has to change.'

Most immediate is the need to convene a papal conclave to elect the new pope. There is some speculation that the next pope may come from an emerging country outside Europe. Without completely discounting it as a possibility, on this occasion I find it unlikely. Of the 118 or so cardinals eligible to vote in this conclave, most are still European. The Vatican remains concerned about declining religiosity in Europe, so electing a pope who can grapple with this issue will be highly prized.

Given that, up to now, popes always died in office, few cardinals vote for candidates younger than themselves, as it reduces the probability of participating in future elections. As most cardinals from emerging countries have been raised comparatively recently, there aren't many from these nations in the field of likely candidates.

It is often asked why the Catholic Church is not more responsive to change. The truth is there is quite vibrant debate within the College of Cardinals on a whole range of issues, from contraception and abortion to the ordination of women priests, priesthood celibacy and same-sex marriage.

Yet what keeps everything in check is the perpetual and collective fear of the 'schism'. Two main schisms have shaped world history and left a permanent scar on the Church's power and memory: the permanent split between Rome and Constantinople of 1054, and the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther's ninety-five theses of 1517. The Vatican will go to any lengths to avoid a third, and this creates a strong gravitational pull toward liturgical orthodoxy. Ratzinger, like most others in the Curia across the traditionalist-reformist divide, are more fearful of division than irrelevancy.

It is not hard to see why. There is a general belief in Western Europe and Australia that the influence of the Catholic Church is waning. This is a serious error. While church attendance is low in these places, in the developing world the numbers of devout Catholics are exploding. In most of the emerging economies in South America, for instance, those who identify as 'Catholic' sit at around 80-90% or more. Across Africa, the number of those converting to Catholicism is growing faster than even Africa's rapidly growing population.

Moreover, coming from parts of the world where the supernatural is more readily accepted, African converts tend to be much more conservative than their European counterparts — doctrines regarding sin and hellfire are taken literally. Rapid movement toward social reform by the Vatican is therefore thought to be risky, potentially leading to another great schism, this time along geographical and ethnic lines. 

In Asia, on the other hand, far from being associated with conservatism, Christianity as a whole is viewed as a symbol of modernity, progressiveness and social mobility. This is largely due to the spectacular success of evangelical forms of Christianity exported from the US. In China, for example, there are now more Christians than members of the Communist Party.

Indeed, Ratzinger's greatest foreign policy initiative as pope was the abortive attempt to secure a rapprochement with China. Faced with the viral spread of underground conversion, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) grew concerned about the potentially subversive nature of these groups. Some Chinese leaders felt that giving a traditionalist and hierarchical Catholic Church preferential treatment may help to curtail this phenomenon, and support rather than undermine the legitimacy of the CCP.

Quiet diplomacy on both sides almost resulted in a major deal: the Holy See would move its embassy from Taiwan to Beijing, avoid embroiling itself in domestic political matters and cooperate broadly with the CCP. In exchange, the Catholic Church would be assisted by the Chinese state in connecting with Chinese Christians.

The details ultimately cooled the relationship to a point where a deal could not be finalised. China's leaders insisted on being able to veto bishops appointed by the pope, something completely unacceptable to the Vatican. The Vatican, for its part, wanted the Chinese Government to end the one-child policy and be able to lobby openly on social issues such as abortion, a bridge too far for the Chinese leadership. Still, the hallmarks of a grand bargain now exist, and future leaders on both sides may in the future implement it.

The other major political legacy of Pope Benedict XVI is possibly accidental: the increasingly strained relations with the Muslim world, particularly in contrast to his predecessor, John Paul II. As part of a lecture delivered at the University of Regensburg in Germany, Benedict quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who saw Islam as 'evil and inhuman', and this was interpreted by some to reflect his personal views. Violent reprisals against Catholics in some areas ensued, and this helped to polarise views between Christians and Muslims, especially in the West.

Of course, Ratzinger's lecture is just one page in a much larger post-911 story, and he cannot be held personally responsible for the broader trend. Nevertheless, Ratzinger has conveyed the impression that, while he wanted good relations with peoples of other faiths, he himself is a champion of a form of Christianity that is essentially exclusive.

On the critical issue of child sex abuse, Ratzinger was highly controversial within the Church, not because he was resistant to reform but because he was so aggressively radical.

In late 2002 then-Cardinal Ratzinger threw his full weight behind the 'zero tolerance' policy, a reform that was hotly contested. Since then, horrific details have emerged whereby protection of the accused resulted in priests being moved from parish to parish to escape justice entirely. This has resulted in a Royal Commission being launched here in Australia, and is a clear demonstration for the need for a zero tolerance approach. Victims of abuse have so far given mixed verdicts on Ratzinger's legacy, with some commentators holding him responsible for the culture of secrecy that has so infuriatingly obstructed justice. This charge cannot be sustained by the facts and history will judge him far more kindly.

Nevertheless, Ratzinger's inability to restore the Church as a source of moral authority, particularly in the Western world, has no doubt led him to conclude that major changes are required, beginning with his own historic resignation.

Photo by Flickr user Catholic Church (England and Wales).