I’m not a Roman Catholic, so any thoughts I have about the remarkable resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, his legacy, or his successor are gratuitous if unavoidable. It is clear that his papal reign has been full of surprises. His election as Pope in 2005 seemed destined to mark the most decisive confirmation possible of the traditionalist (some would say reactionary) path of the Church laid out by his celebrated predecessor. I’ll never forget the shocked expression on the face of one of my Catholic work colleagues back in 2005 when Joseph Ratzinger walked into camera range above St. Peter’s Square; it was, for Catholic liberals in this country (and presumably elsewhere) a deeply shocking development. That it now seems likely he will be most remembered as having presided rather feebly over the full explosion of a global clerical child abuse scandal is no less surprising than his rise to the papacy in the first place.

I presume no particular knowledge over what the brief, intense process of the next papal election will produce. At National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters suggests Benedict will have little or no influence over the succession despite his living relinquishment of the papal throne since that is the prerogative the Cardinals hold onto most fiercely. And while we’ll hear the usual arguments over whether the Church should move “left” or “right,” seek “continuity” or finally choose a non-European pontiff, the unsettled legacy of the Ratzinger papacy makes such positioning talk seem anachronistic–much like the arcane rituals that Rome will again deploy in a papal election that will be co-extensive with the penitential season of Lent.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.