In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI's stunning announcement that he'll retire at the end of the month, a useful starting place for discussion is the phrase from Exodus 21:24: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
To modern readers, the biblical quote may seem cruel and rigid, but the Old Testament sentiment actually reflected revolutionary flexibility and progress in Western religion.
Ancient warfare involved unrestrained killing and pillaging. By contrast, this Hebrew law codified proportionality and restraint, rejecting annihilation. Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church historically represents humanitarian progress. Historically, the church has been a force for restraint in war, reflecting the proportionality cited in Exodus.
The essential Christian message emphasizes compassion, and the church over centuries has played a vital role in relief of hunger, poverty and other human misery. The cumulative positive impact has been profound -- among and well beyond the approximately one billion Catholics on the planet.
Today, hunger and poverty are gone for the majority of people in industrialized nations, and lifestyle and personal preferences have emerged as sources of major political controversies.
Reflecting enormous weight of tradition, the church maintains an essentially medieval structure and outlook, drastically at odds with popular contemporary culture. Vatican opposition to gay marriage and abortion has generated sustained, often acrimonious, public debate.
Benedict, who has led the church since April 2005, is both admired and condemned because he has pursued a strictly traditional interpretation of Catholic precepts. His rigid adherence to conservative Catholicism, along with a sometimes-clumsy public style, has fueled controversy.
Last April, he harshly criticized American nuns seeking greater equality within the church. His attack was unfair and politically unwise. In a 2006 lecture at Germany's Regensburg University, the pope caused an uproar by seeming to accuse Islam of promoting violence. The Vatican quickly denied that was the intent, but having to mobilize damage control underscored the leader's misstep.
During Benedict's eight years in office, he has lived in the shadow of his charismatic, personable mentor and predecessor, Pope John Paul II. John Paul provided dramatic leadership in foreign policy. He supported Solidarity, the successful trade-union-based reform movement in his native Poland, which in turn contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union. By contrast, Benedict is relatively reticent, with the outlook and demeanor of a reclusive scholar.
On the positive side of the ledger, he is the first pope publicly to acknowledge widespread shocking criminal sexual abuse by priests and the associated cover-ups. As pope, he has met with victims and has apologized publicly for the church's lapses of enforcement.
This German pope also was notably effective, indeed inspiring, during a 2006 visit to Auschwitz. He candidly confessed the limitations of language in trying to describe the Holocaust.
Ethics and military strategy continue to be analyzed by contemporary Catholic scholars such as J. Bryan Hehir, a priest and senior faculty member at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
During the Cold War, Hehir guided the U.S. Catholic Bishops' influential report on the use of nuclear weapons. Such work remains essential after the Cold War. Hehir also publicly criticized his church's mishandling of its sex-abuse scandals.
Benedict's retirement decision represents a drastic departure from tradition. For six centuries, popes have died in office.
Even traditionalists can see, and implement, progress.
(Arthur Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.)