Pope Benedict XVI

So the big news right now (at least if we leave aside Horsemeatgate and the detonation of nuclear devices by Stalinist rogue states) is that Pope Benedict XVI is to retire at the end of February.

Considering the avalanche of words produced by the media in the 24 hours since the news broke, there isn't a great deal that this website can really add, but I will say this – it's testament to the archaic nature of the Catholic Church that it is perhaps the only institution (with the exception of hereditary monarchies and possibly Manchester United football club) for which the announcement that an ageing man plans to retire from the top job can be considered highly unusual news.

Because, really, Benedict XVI's decision makes perfect sense. He's 85 and, whatever you think of the institution or the job he's done (more on that below), his retirement will set a sensible precedent – it was grisly to see Benedict's XVI's predecessor John Paul II wheeled out for special occasions long after he was capable of conducting them, and the current Pope's decision will eliminate the need for such grim spectacles in the future.

Beyond that, what to say? Benedict XVI was always an antagonist for rationalism, but that was hardly a surprise given that he was the Pope. Looking back over our archive, Benedict XVI pops up frequently following his election in 2005. For instance, here's a 2007 piece by the late Fred Halliday, arguing that the Vatican needs to be abolished (alongside a characteristic Martin Rowson image of Benedict snuffing out the flames of Enlightenment). The outgoing Pope went on to win our Bad Faith Award in 2009, and became a household name in Britain when he visited in 2010.

The media and political establishment fell over themselves to express their admiration, but commentators in New Humanist weren't so sure. Here's National Secular Society chief executive Keith Porteous-Wood promising him a "warm" welcome ahead of the visit, and here are some high-profile humanists, including Richard Dawkins, Peter Tatchell and Philip Pullman, telling us what they would have liked to have said to him (spoiler: most of it wasn't cordial).

When Benedict XVI did finally arrive in September 2010, thousands turned out to register their objections in a "Protest the Pope" march in central London. (I wrote at the time about how I wasn't convinced by the tone of the anti-Pope campaign, causing a few minor ripples in the atheist/secularist pool – perhaps we can have that argument again if/when the next Pope swings by the UK.)

No doubt there will be plenty written appraising Benedict's performance in the top job in the weeks to come, but to close this post I think I'll link to a piece in today's Independent by the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson. As someone who published a book in 2010 entitled The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse. it may not surprise you to learn that Robertson is not joining the chorus of commentators wishing Pope Benedict XVI a long and happy retirement. On the contrary, he argues that he has "command responsibility" for crimes against humanity, and suggests that in retirement his time may be best spent before the courts.