Pope Benedict XVI, whose reign was hobbled by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, as well as internal Vatican scandals and external controversies, announced Monday that he would relinquish the post he has held for barely eight years.
The surprise announcement, which the pontiff attributed to increasing physical and mental frailty, instantly transformed the study of the Vatican’s internal workings from an esoteric obsession of a few hundred journalists, Catholic bloggers, and prelates into a global preoccupation. Benedict is the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years.
With Benedict’s departure scheduled for Feb. 28, a new pope could be in place before Easter. The dean of the College of Cardinals will probably summon the papal electors to Rome for a conclave to choose a pope in early March. The election could happen quickly; Benedict was chosen after just a day and a half of voting.
Several papal scholars said an American pontiff is very unlikely because the United States already holds such vast geopolitical power. A more relevant question is whether the next pope could be the first from the Southern Hemisphere, where the church is growing. Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz of Brazil, who heads the Vatican department in charge of religious orders, is one possibility. Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, who heads the Vatican office that names bishops, is a contender from North America.
“It will probably be a very bitter period of discerning the next pope, because the higher administration in the Vatican is in great disarray. . . . They’ve lost credibility,” said the Rev. James Weiss, professor of church history at Boston College.
Benedict’s announcement, which came at the end of a talk to a gathering of cardinals in Rome, stunned the Roman Catholic world. The 85-year-old pontiff is the first to willingly resign in centuries, said Kenneth Pennington, a scholar of church history and canon law at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
But to close watchers of the Vatican, the announcement was not altogether unexpected. Benedict, who as a top Vatican official saw up close John Paul II’s slow and painful surrender to Parkinson’s disease, has previously indicated that resignation could be a possibility.
Benedict, according to a translation on the Vatican website of his remarks regarding resignation, said that in today’s rapidly changing and secularizing world, “both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, in 1415, amid great conflict. The only other pope who resigned of his own free will was Celestine V, who stepped down in 1294 after a reign of just a few months, said Pennington .
In early church history, a living former pope raised the specter of chaos, as the resigned pope could try to revoke his resignation or influence the choice of his successor. Like Benedict, Celestine was in his 80s and concluded that he lacked the strength to do the job, Pennington said. Dante Alighieri, the great Italian poet of the Middle Ages, consigned Celestine to hell in his “Divine Comedy” because Alighieri despised his successor, Boniface VIII.
Several scholars of the papacy said Monday that offering a model for retirement may be one of Benedict’s greatest contributions to the theology of the church.
“It sets a precedent that other popes can follow,” said the Rev. Thomas W. Worcester, a historian at the College of the Holy Cross who has written about the papacy. “It is something that can be healthy for the papacy and for the church.”
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters that Benedict will not take part in the conclave for his successor, which will be called by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals.
Benedict will move to the papal residence in Castel Gondalfo and then retire to a cloistered monastery inside the Vatican once its renovation is complete, Lombardi said.
Where John Paul’s legendary charisma and dramatic role in hastening the fall of the Iron Curtain made him beloved even to many who disagreed with his traditional views, Benedict was an introvert who wrote prolifically and, many Catholic theologians say, brilliantly. But he could appear stiff and removed and seemed to constantly be alienating or offending someone.
His passion was theology, and he sought to use the pontificate as a platform to teach. He issued three encyclicals and published a number of books. He decried secularization and moral relativism, and he emphasized the importance of church tradition.
“I think he was actually the greatest theological mind to become pope since Gregory the Great in the 600s,” said Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. “He was a terrific, powerful theologian. He took [the pontificate] as a burden that he himself did not desire.”
Cunningham said Benedict saw his task as pope as maintaining the unity of the church at a time of turmoil because of the abuse scandals, the rise of secularism in the west, and the growth of the church in Africa and Latin America.
“His instincts were traditional, and you expect that in a pope,” Cunningham said. “The whole idea of Catholicism is all the bishops of the world in union with the bishop of Rome, and he wanted to be a steadying force after the long papacy of John Paul II.
John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, recalled how, at the end of a trip to the United Kingdom in 2010, a cameraman came up to the pontiff afterward and said, “Holy Father, you made us sit up and think.”
“He wanted to lead this worldwide graduate seminar in the relationship between faith and reason in the post-modern secular world, and he did in many ways pull it off,” Allen said. “But that graduate seminar kept getting interrupted by the fires he was struggling to put out.”
The largest of these was the sexual abuse crisis, which he had dealt with firsthand as the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office in charge of protecting church doctrine, where he served from 1981 until he became pope.
Benedict was the first pope to officially meet with victims of abuse. In a visit to Washington arranged by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, he met privately with victims and accepted a gift of a book of names of victims in the Archdiocese of Boston. He declined, however, the invitation to travel to Boston, center of the scandal in the United States.
“At that meeting, the Holy Father’s pastoral care for the survivors was clearly evident, as was his commitment and determination to heal the wounds of all persons impacted by the abuse crisis and to ensure that the church continues to do all that is possible to provide for the protection of children,” O’Malley said in a statement Monday.
But as another great wave of the abuse crisis swept Europe in 2010, calls for his resignation escalated. Benedict himself came under scrutiny for his oversight of an abusive priest when he was serving as bishop of Munich in the early 1980s.
Benedict spoke out forcefully against abuse, offered pointed words of contrition, and took some symbolic actions, such as sending a delegation of foreign prelates, including O’Malley, to review the church’s response to the scandal in Ireland. He also revived an investigation of the Legionaries of Christ, a religious congregation dear to the heart of John Paul II, whose founder, Marcial Maciel, was a notorious abuser, and eventually consigned Maciel to a life of prayer and penance.
But as the clergy sexual abuse scandal has continued to burn across the globe, Benedict has declined to punish bishops who failed to remove abusive priests, including, for example, Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City, who in September was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of failing to report a priest who had taken hundreds of pornographic pictures of young girls. He is the first American bishop convicted of failing to report abuse.
David Clohessy of the Survivors Networks of Those Abused by Priests decried Benedict’s record and said he should not get credit for merely talking about the scandal more than his predecessor. But he said the pope’s resignation may raise the possibility that he could take unprecedented actions in the days before he steps down.
“It would have a tremendous effect were he to discipline even a handful of the hundreds of complicit bishops,” he said. “He could turn over, right now, thousands of pages of church records about abusers to local law enforcement and international criminal courts. He could instruct bishops around the world to do what 30 American bishops have done, which is post the names of predators on websites.”
Internal Vatican scandals and gaffes also frustrated Benedict’s papacy. Last year, in a captivating intrigue covered breathlessly by the Italian press, the pope’s personal butler was found to have leaked private papal documents to an Italian television station, revealing suspicions of a Vatican financial corruption scandal.
Despite Benedict’s many efforts to improve interfaith relations — he visited the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp and prayed alongside Muslim clerics at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul — he has fumbled in that realm as well.
In 2009, after he lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, one of whom denied that the Nazis used gas chambers to kill Jews, the Vatican was forced into damage-control mode. Benedict’s top adviser on Catholic-Jewish relations traveled to Boston to meet with Jewish leaders and rededicate a Holocaust memorial.
In a speech early in his papacy, he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who said Mohammed brought evil “such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The context was complicated, but the out-of-context remark set off street protests throughout the Islamic world, and Benedict later apologized for the reaction.
Benedicts was an important intellectual figure throughout the papacy of John Paul II. His greatest theological concern has been with maintaining the continuity of the contemporary church with church tradition, said the Rev. Francis X. Clooney, a professor of divinity and comparative theology at Harvard Divinity School.
Benedict, who grew up Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria amid World War II, was ordained in 1951 and became known as a liberal theologian. He was a theological adviser to Vatican II, the worldwide gathering of bishops in the early 1960s in which the church sought to open itself to the modern world.
In what some saw as a reversal of the progress made during Vatican II, Benedict approved the use of the Tridentine Mass. Some saw this as a move away from the populism of Vatican II, but Clooney said Benedict did not view it that way.
“He would not see himself as antireformer or reactionary,” Clooney said.
But his critics do, particularly with respect to his firm opposition to the ordination of women. In 2010, the Vatican issued new rules that simultaneously labeled abusing children and ordaining women as “grave crimes” against the church.
In the United States, the Vatican’s condemnation of several Catholic theologians and its crackdown on American nuns caused outcries among many mainstream Catholics. And he has repeatedly denounced same-sex relationships.
“I think it would be difficult to think of a religious figure who has a more damaging legacy for LGBT people than Benedict,” said Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, an advocacy group for gay Catholics
Benedict has also carried forward John Paul II’s legacy of moving the worldwide church hierarchy in a conservative or traditionalist direction, said Francis Schussler Fiorenza, a professor of Roman Catholic theological studies at Harvard Divinity School.
“If you look at 50 years ago — the American hierarchy at the time of Vatican II — you had a lot more progressive bishops who were more pastorally inclined, with a much stronger social orientation,” he said.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.