|Video: The Vatican announced on Monday that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning at the end of February. The 85-year-old pontiff said he can no longer keep up with his responsibilities.|
Feb 11, 2013 01:10 PM EST
Feb 11, 2013 01:10 PM EST
His decision to step down Feb. 28 means that for the first time in almost six centuries, there will be a living former pope looking on as his successor leads the Catholic church.
During a tumultuous eight-year tenure, Benedict guided the church through sexual abuse and financial scandals while seeking to reinforce Conservative doctrine among the global ranks of more than 1 billion faithful.
Quiet and soft-spoken, especially in comparison to his gregarious predecessor Pope John Paul II, Benedict nevertheless maintained a vigorous travel and speaking schedule, visiting Lebanon as recently as September and, in December, launching the first ever papal Twitter account.
He was 78 when he was elected pope in 2005, the oldest person chosen to head the church since the 18th century.
The resignation decision, announced at a time when the Vatican is wracked by allegations of internal power struggles, ignited a flurry of speculation about the selection of the next pontiff. At a time when the church is declining in its former stronghold of Europe, but gaining strength its in Africa, Asia and Latin America, pressure is growing on the college of cardinals – the global princes of the church – to break with tradition by electing a non-European pope.
The conclave of cardinals that will choose the next pope is expected to convene in mid-March. Analysts immediately began predicting a turbulent debate between reformers and conservatives.
In keeping with his reputation as a traditionalist, Pope Benedict made his extraordinary announcement in Latin, to a private gathering of cardinals inside Vatican City. The news was then transmitted via official Vatican media, with Benedict citing his age and failing health as the key factors in his decision.
“I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” Benedict said. “For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter.”
The pontiff’s efforts to reinforce conservative teachings have sparked broad debate within the church as well as outside it. He departs amid a sense of crisis in the halls of a Vatican still reeling from a litany of scandals, and at a time when questions of reform are dividing Roman Catholics worldwide.
The most recent problems facing the church involve a bevy of documents leaked by the pope’s personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, to Italian journalists and alleging corruption and heated disputes within the marbled Vatican walls.
The church has also faced criticism over efforts to comply with international rules governing money laundering at the institution’s internal bank. Earlier this year, the Vatican’s financial troubles escalated to the point where international banks temporarily suspended credit card links at the Sistine Chapel, forcing tourists to use cash.
In a visit to Washington in 2008, three years after becoming pope, Benedict was welcomed at the White House by President Bush and cheered by thousands of flag-waving spectators as he visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington.
He officiated at a Mass for tens of thousands of Catholic faithful at Nats Park, and addressed Catholic college presidents at Catholic University.
During his visit to Washington, Benedict addressed the sexual abuse of minors scandal that has rocked the U.S. Catholic church in recent decades. He said the abuse of minors by members of the clergy was “evil” and “immoral” but had to be eradicated in a broader attack on the degradation of modern-day sexuality.
Most modern popes have felt that resignation is unacceptable except in cases of an incurable or debilitating disease — that paternity, in the words of Paul IV, cannot be resigned, said Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center. Church leaders feared that the option of papal resignation could open the door for competing factions within the church to pressure popes to resign prematurely.
Still, Reese said, the code of canon law does allow for the resignation of a pope.