I f Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's election as Pope in 2005 was largely unanticipated, so too was the manner of his passing nearly eight years on. Resignations have been extremely rare in the nearly two millennia of the papacy, and unforced departures even more so. Dying on the job has always been preferred to retirement, a reflection of papal tradition and the absolutist nature of the office.

Benedict XVI's public appearances and utterances in the past few months are now being combed for signs that he was actively contemplating resignation. Certainly there are indications his brother and members of his entourage knew this was on his mind. But for most of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, the news has come as a shock, the more so because while Benedict exhibits some of the physical frailties common to 85-year-olds, his intellect appears undiminished. Perhaps close attendance of John-Paul II when he was in the throes of Parkinson's disease convinced Benedict that a long and public death was not for him. It may even be that his resignation was prompted by the diagnosis of a similarly debilitating medical condition, as yet unpublicised. Regardless of motivation, most broad-minded Catholics will concede that having devoted 68 years of his life to the church, including service in the world's highest-profile religious post at a tumultuous time, Benedict is fully entitled to live out the rest of his days behind cloistered walls if he chooses.

As is always the case, judgments of Benedict's record will only become clearer over time. For the moment, those running the rule over his papacy appear to agree that his record was mixed. Noted Vatican watcher and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter John L. Allen put it thus: "Benedict XVI was a magnificent public intellectual, a mixed bag as CEO, withdrawn as a statesman, and a church leader whose 'politics of identity' cheered some and horrified others''.

Joseph Ratzinger's reputation as a Vatican prelate of firmly held conservative opinions and strong belief in traditional Christian teaching was established well before his elevation to the papacy in 2005, and most progressive Catholics held little faith that he would initiate the reforms they believed were necessary to reflect the liberal shift in Western society. That proved to be the case. Indeed, with his reintroduction of the Latin Mass, his attempt to advance the sanctification of the controversial wartime Pope Pius XII, and his efforts to reach out to ultra-traditionalists, Benedict often gave the impression of being a counter-reformist. Liberal theologians (and orders) were subject to disciplinary action, with some (including bishop Bill Morris of Toowoomba) being forced out of office or excommunicated. He denounced gay marriage and feminism, while warning of "aggressive secularism'' in Europe. Yet Benedict surprised Catholics when he appeared to condone the use of condoms in "certain cases'' to help prevent the spread of AIDS in the Third World. Moreover, his encyclicals were considered to be both profound and, in the words of John Allen, "surprisingly free of ideological edge''.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Benedict's record was his response to the massive sexual abuse scandals that beset the church during (and before) his pontificate. Critics have charged him with a conspicuous failure to adequately deal with bishops who protected paedophile priests, and indeed there were allegations that he conspired to cover up a child sexual-abuse case while archbishop of Munich and Freising. That said, Benedict was not afraid to meet victims and their families, to apologise to them, and to put new guidelines in place to prevent future clerical sexual abuse. Some observers also give Benedict credit for reforming Vatican finances and introducing greater transparency, but a leak of secret Vatican documents last year suggests financial corruption and cronyism remains a troublingly stubborn aspect of the corporate church.

The modern church is so large and diverse - and so deeply conservative - that no individual Pope can ever hope to successfully bridge its many divides. However, that salient fact will not stop liberal Catholics from hoping that the 255th successor to St Peter can guide it back to relevance in a rapidly changing world. The selection of a candidate from the developing world (where the church is prospering rather more than it is in Europe) by the College of Cardinals would certainly boost such hopes. Whether the college is made of such radical stuff, however, remains to be seen.