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.Continued...