In many ways Pope Benedict XVI has not been as influential as his predecessor Pope John Paul II. John Paul II was highly loved and good at playing with the media. Benedict XVI, not so much.
Yet if Benedict XVI sets a precedent with his resignation, it may be he who is more remembered by history. Future popes may choose to follow his path, handing the reigns to another rather than holding office until death. In fact, this seems like an eminently sensible thing. A person who’s dying probably would be unable to uphold and fulfill the momentous responsibilities of the papacy. It leaves a chasm in the Catholic Church. It’s actually kind of a mystery why it hasn’t been done before.
The counterargument is that politics may eventually come into play. Popes may be pressured to resign by their detractors or internal enemies. This is a good argument. Yet I think that the benefits outweigh the negatives when a Pope unable to fulfill his duties resigns.
Finally, it has been somewhat shocking to hear the criticism of Pope Benedict XVI by news organizations such as the New York Times. Of course Pope Benedict XVI is a very conservative person; in many ways his views are the exact opposite of your typical journalist. So journalists inherently don’t like him, nor the Catholic Church as an institution. For instance, there’s been a lot of criticism of the Pope with respect to child sex abuse scandals. Yet the Pope has apologized and the local churches have handed out compensation; what more do you want him to do? The Catholic Church is vast, and Rome often has very little control or knowledge about much of what happens in faraway countries like the United States. One ought to give more respect for the Pope during this time. After all, this is a very brave decision for him to make. It’s deserving of respect, not criticism.