Pope Benedict XVI, 85, released a statement this morning announcing his intention to resign at the end of the month. It reads, in part:
After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark 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. 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, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.
He is the first pope to resign in six centuries. The New York Times writes:
While there had been questions about Benedict’s health and infirmity, the timing of his announcement — even by the Vatican’s official account — sent shock waves across the globe, even though Benedict had in the past endorsed the notion that an incapacitated pope could resign.
“The pope took us by surprise,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, who explained that many cardinals were in Rome on Monday for a ceremony at the Vatican and heard the pope’s address. Italy’s outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti said he was “very shaken by the unexpected news.”
The announcement plunged the Roman Catholic world into frenzied speculation about his likely successor and seemed likely to inspire many contrasting evaluations of a papacy that was seen as both conservative and contentious.
Paul Owen to the Guardian is keeping an excellent live blog of global reaction to the news, which includes speculation that Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is among the favorites to succeed Benedict. Here is a short excerpt from a profile that Owen quotes:
Cardinal Peter Turkson, a Ghanaian, is president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He has been considered 'papabile' since he was appointed to this post by Benedict XVI in 2009 amid speculation that the next pope would probably be from Africa as part of the Catholic church's attempts to modernise and reach out to a huge Catholic congregation from the Sahel southwards.
Peter Turkson was born in western Ghana to a Methodist mother and Catholic father. As a boy in the seminary he was considered far too boisterous to be content in a contemplative, solemn career in the church.
But he was reportedly begged by his mother to knuckle down and study hard to become a priest, and he did so well he was chosen to move to the US to study at St Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer, New York, and he was ordained as a priest in 1975.
Evaluations of Benedict's papacy are just being written, but the Times article includes this:
When he took office, Pope Benedict’s well-known stands included the assertion that Catholicism is “true” and other religions are “deficient;” that the modern, secular world, especially in Europe, is spiritually weak; and that Catholicism is in competition with Islam. He had also strongly opposed homosexuality, the ordination of women priests and stem cell research.
Born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, in Bavaria, he was the son of a police officer. He was ordained in 1951, at age 24, and began his career as a liberal academic and theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council, supporting many efforts to make the church more open.
But he moved theologically and politically to the right. Pope Paul VI named him bishop of Munich in 1977 and appointed him a cardinal within three months. Taking the chief doctrinal job at the Vatican in 1981, he moved with vigor to quash liberation theology in Latin America, cracked down on liberal theologians and in 2000 wrote the contentious Vatican document “’Dominus Jesus,” asserting the truth of Catholic belief over others.
Andrew Brown of the Guardian reports, intriguingly, that the pope's pan to resign was know in some circles for several months, and that Rowan Williams was informed of it before Christmas. Brown writes:
Benedict leaves a church battered in the west by child abuse scandals and a shortage of priests but still growing fast in the south. In the Middle East, its historic homeland, Christianity is now persecuted with almost unprecedented savagery.
In the US, Germany and Australia, there is an endless and bitter struggle within both clergy and laity between liberals and conservatives. For Benedict, western Europe had been largely lost to Christianity, and was once more a mission field which would have to be reconverted. But it's hard to see any signs of either planning or success in this task, despite the unexpected triumph of his visit to Britain in 2010. He stood on the side of reaction, and for many of his opponents epitomised it. But he did not manage to damp down the rebellions against compulsory celibacy in the priesthood, which have shaken the church in German-speaking countries. In fact, by his personal support of special arrangements for former Anglican clergy, he may have weakened the tradition of clerical celibacy.
He maintained his predecessor's hostility to capitalism, and to the sexual revolution. Neither of these things are likely to change under a new pope.
Paddy Power has already set odds on just who the new pope might be. Some sources are suggesting an election could occur before Easter, March 31.