The outgoing pope, who has largely been seen as conservative, has changed forever the role of the pope, removed some of the mystery of it abdicating as he has while hes still of sound body and mind.

HOW does one explain why the conservative Pope Benedict XVI finishes his papacy with an almost radically liberal act of abdication, something not done for almost 600 years?

Without dismissing politics entirely, I would observe that the Roman Catholic Church has endured for millennia partly because it can subordinate ideological issues to make paramount the survival of the church. Pope Benedict XVI, I believe, announced his retirement from the papacy for the good of Catholicism.

The Roman saying goes: “The pope is only sick when he is dead,” and Benedict is not the first to demonstrate failing health while in office. He is, however, the first one in centuries to retire voluntarily.

Even as the church legislated bishops retire at age 75 and excluded cardinals over 80 from papal elections, the papacy was not treated like these other hierarchical positions. Michael Sean Winters, at the National Catholic Reporter, writes: “In a single moment, the pope has removed some of the aura of the papacy, the idea that it was a vocation rather than a ministry, something that cannot be abandoned without somehow affronting the Holy Spirit.”

I translate that beautifully constructed sentence into a question: “From now on, will popes serve terms of office?”

It is a most modern idea to view the pope as chief executive of a global corporation, rather than as a living saint chosen by God. This perspective defines church authority according to the modernising influences of the II Vatican Council (1962-1964) and breaks with the feudal traditions of medieval Christendom, when popes – like emperors – ruled until they died.

I predict that Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy will be remembered more as a progressive step towards modernity rather than a pontificate with very conservative pronouncements.

A scholar and promoter of change at the II Vatican Council where as a young cleric he was afforded the status of peritus or “expert”, Joseph Ratzinger was sometimes liberal and sometimes conservative but always thoughtful. Unlike a purely pragmatic administrator, his papacy demonstrated an academic’s sensitivity to human history and theological nuance. Consider how his encyclical (a letter by the pope to the bishops but, in this case, to everyone) Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) was chock-full of nuance for both sides of every issue.

Predictably, some decided to attribute to Pope Benedict only the parts that were conservative and reject what was liberal, and the website of the Catholic League lists, much like a cafeteria menu, mostly his conservative stances, omitting papal statements for redistribution of wealth and concern for the environment.

Thus, as a complex thinker, Benedict knows the future church requires more intellectual and physical vigour than he could have mustered. Moreover, the deterioration in the health of his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, during the paedophilia crisis probably influenced his thinking about papal abdication.

I suspect the issue of whether all popes shall abdicate on health and age premises will be part of the next papal conclave. Certainly, the official line delivered to the press makes this a single decision that imposes no obligation on future popes. Except that it does.

Benedict’s initiative forces examination of the papacy as a ministry like other offices of the hierarchy. Perhaps the tradition of pope-until-death will be extended for another pontificate, but questions about its inevitability won’t vanish. The question of tenure is also a theological one.

It indirectly affects whether the pope is viewed as the quasi-divine “Vicar of Christ on Earth” who possesses infallibility in doctrinal decisions or simply as the temporary head of a global institution, relying on organisational and pastoral skills to lead Catholicism.

Reality forces the forthcoming conclave to recognise that the church is a withering institution in Europe, and the same fate hangs over the organisational vitality in the US.

In contrast, Catholicism is growing in Africa and much of Latin America. Which is more important to the church’s future: to restore the old Catholicism in Europe and North America or press on with a new institution in the rest of the world? Whatever the answer to that dilemma, a younger and more vigorous pope will have to do the leading.

l Stevens-Arroyo is director of the Research Centre for Religion in Society and Culture in the US and Professor Emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York.