This is the first time any Pope has resigned in six hundred years. And it is the first time I think any Pope has resigned of his own free will. I think Ratzinger learned a few things from the last years of John-Paul II. Karol Wojtyla in his twilight years was not really running the Church. His infirmities had so wasted him that he could barely celebrate Mass. Without the vigorous man Wojtyla had been, the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church drifted. It was quite tragic to see both the man and the Church waiting for death’s release.
I also think Ratzinger found out that the job of Pope was not all he had envisioned. Don’t believe the hype, Ratzinger wanted the office. His sermon to the Cardinals just before the vote was a naked bid for the Holy See. In the beginning Ratzinger loved the job, but later found out what a burden it truly is. The Pope is the last Absolute Monarch standing, and as such he is responsible for the one billion souls attached to the Roman Catholic Church.
Being such an Absolute Monarch is an administrative burden that no other world leader can contemplate. Not even the President Of The United States has that kind of administrative case load. The Irony of the office is that it has so much power that it leaves its occupant a slave to that office. The awful illogic of centralized power is that the Pope cannot devolve power, be more collegial, the Curia has its own agenda.
The agenda of the Curia is to gather even more power to itself, to become ever more powerful. Thus the reality of the Papal See is that it is a daily grind of paperwork with no break. The Pope does not get Sundays off after all. Benedict had enough of that. He wisely decided that he wanted the last years of his life just being an ordinary man. He also understood the precedent he was setting. I find it interesting that this very reactionary Pope made this radical choice.
Again I think it has a lot to do with the precedent set by John Paul II. Benedict XVI is saying “no, you do not have to hold on to the last gasp. If the Holy See becomes too much of a burden, lay your burden down. Lay down the burden and let Holy Mother Church have a strong and vigorous leader.”