Wait, what? Pope announces resignation

Pope Benedict XVI announces his resignation in the Vatican. Image from the Washington Post

Pope Benedict XVI announces his resignation in the Vatican. Image from the Washington Post

Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation today, stating “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of the papacy. He will step down on February 28.

To say this was a surprise is the understatement of the century. According to the BBC’s David Willey, only two other people probably knew this in advance: the Pope’s brother and his personal secretary. Father Federico Lombardi, speaking for the Vatican, said even the Pope’s closest aides were blown away by the news.

For thousands of years, the tradition has been for the Pope to serve until his death. However, it is not completely unprecedented. In December of 1294, Pope Celestine V declared that a pope has the ability to resign, and then did just that. The last time a pope used this power was in 1415, when there were three people claiming to be pope, each backed by their own faction, and all three gave up their claims so the Catholic Church could be reunited. To put that in perspective, that was before St. Joan of Arc famously led the French to victory against the English, before Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, and before Christopher Columbus’s fateful voyage. One Twitter user pointed out, “The gap [between] papal resignations is roughly equivalent to that [between] the [Declaration] of Independence and when Picard became captain of the Enterprise.”

With papal resignations being so rare, the first question to answer is, “why?” In his announcement, the Pope claimed it was because of his health. He said, “In order to steer the ship of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, 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.” It is true that he suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1991 and a broken wrist in 2009, but he recovered from both incidents. Then again, he is 86 years old and walks with a cane.

Pope Benedict XVI with a cane image from Patheos

As seen here. Image from Patheos

Of course, there is plenty of speculation that the resignation is in part a response to the criticism he has received for how he has governed the Catholic Church. He has been haunted by his past in the Hitler Youth during World War II, rocked by early P.R. disasters, struggling to contain the fallout from the child sex abuse scandal, cheated by his own butler who stole and released secret Vatican documents, and now watching the Vatican’s own bank is investigated for money laundering.

So, what’s life going to look like for an ex-Pope? This excellent report by L.V. Anderson for Slate discusses just that, explaining that even though he will no longer be Pope, Benedict XVI (who may still go by “Benedict”, or may choose to revert to his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger) will still be a bishop and will spend some time at the Castel Gandolfo in Italy before retiring to a monastery in the Vatican. He will also not play any direct role in the selection of the next Pope.

The new Pope will be chosen by the 117-member College of Cardinals, and speculation already abounds regarding who will be chosen. Among the names being floated are:

  • Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, the oldest potential candidate, and highly favored by bookies. A bishop since 1965, he has in recent years become a prolific public speaker and campaigner for inter-faith dialogue.
  • Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana, another prominent African cardinal who is far younger, at “only” 64. A former seminary professor, he has acted as a mediator in the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire.
  • Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, who is theologically very conservative and has criticized those who interpret the findings of the Second Vatican Council “too liberally”.
  • Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who has become an outspoken supporter of efforts to help the poor in Latin America as well as a critic of Hugo Chávez.
  • Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy, who has a reputation for openness; as Patriarch of Venice, he set aside Wednesday mornings for meetings with anyone who wanted to see him.

Interestingly, most of the potential candidates being discussed are not European. The last Pope who has not been from Europe was the Syrian-born Pope Gregory III, and the overwhelming majority of popes in history have been Italians. However, nearly half of all Catholics in the world today come from the Americas, and there has been tremendous growth in recent years of Catholicism in Africa, so the College of Cardinals may decide to elect a pope who reflects this new demographic shift.

However the College of Cardinal decides, the United States will for the first time have the second-largest share of votes. No fewer than 11 of the cardinals who will soon gather in the Vatican will be Americans. Only Italy, with 28 voting cardinals, has more.

Information from BBC News, CNN, NBC News, Fox News, Slate, and Wikipedia.