Pope Benedict XVI is to resign from his office at the end of this month. The Pontiff says he is too old to continue at the age of 85.
The move has come as a shock, but in theory, there has never been anything stopping Pope Benedict XVI – or any of his predecessors – taking a piece of paper out of his writing desk and drafting a letter of resignation to hand to the College of Cardinals, the supreme electoral body of the Catholic Church.
Under Canon Law, the only conditions for the validity of such a resignation are that it be made freely and be properly published.
But no pope has done this in modern times, until now.
In 2005, it was revealed that Pope John Paul II had considered resigning five years previously, when he was 80. In his will and testament, he had said he hoped God “would help me to recognize how long I must continue this service”.
There has also been persistent speculation by historians that during World War II, Pope Pius XII drew up a document stating that if he were to be kidnapped by the Nazis he was to be considered to have resigned, and a successor should be chosen.
As the Vatican has delayed the full release of its archives relating to Pius’s pontificate, because of a dispute over his reaction to the Nazi Holocaust, there is no means of verifying whether this is true.
Going back further in time, the last case of a pope resigning dates back a further five centuries. Pope Gregory XII – who reigned from 1406 to 1415 – did so to end what was called the Western Schism.
There were three rival claimants to the papal throne at that time – the Roman Pope Gregory XII, the Avignon Pope Benedict XIII, and the Antipope John XXIII. Before resigning, Gregory XII formally convened a Church Council and authorized it to elect his successor.
Pope Benedict XVI is to resign from his office at the end of this month
The only other significant example of a papal resignation dates back even further in time.
In 1294, Pope Celestine V, only five months after his election, issued a solemn decree declaring it permissible for a pope to resign and then did so.
He lived for two further years as a hermit, and was later declared a saint. The decree that he issued ended any doubt among canon lawyers about the validity of a papal resignation.
But Pope Benedict’s decision to lay down his high office will come as a genuine shock to Catholics all over the world.
He has presided over the Catholic Church during a period when repeated accusations of sex abuse were made against the clergy.
But throughout that time, the Vatican vigorously defended Benedict’s papacy and his record during the period when he was Cardinal Archbishop of Munich and subsequently head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the watchdog Vatican department responsible for disciplining priests guilty of bad conduct.
Some earlier popes who stood down
Martin I (649-655): Exiled to Crimea by Roman emperor Constans II, where he was imprisoned and tortured – after his death he was made a saint
Benedict V (964): Forced to stand down by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, who had another preferred candidate
Benedict IX (1032-45): Sold papacy to his godfather, then had change of mind and tried to seize it back – he was later excommunicated
Pope Benedict XVI will not interfere in choosing his successor after his shock decision to resign at the end of the month, the pontiff’s brother has said.
Georg Ratzinger said the Pope would only “make himself available” if he were needed.
Pope Benedict XVI said on Monday he would resign after nearly eight years as the head of the Catholic Church because he was too old to continue at the age of 85.
The Vatican now says it expects a new Pope to be elected before Easter.
The unexpected development – the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years – surprised governments, Vatican-watchers and even Benedict’s closest aides.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 after John Paul II’s death.
In theory there has never been anything stopping Pope Benedict or any of his predecessors from stepping aside.
Under the Catholic Church’s governing code, Canon Law, the only conditions for the validity of such a resignation are that it be made freely and be properly published.
But resignation is extremely rare: the last Pope to step aside was Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415 amid a schism within the Church.
Georg Ratzinger said his brother had been advised by his doctor not to take any more transatlantic trips and had been considering stepping down for months.
He said the resignation therefore was part of a “natural process”.
And he added: “Where he’s needed he will make himself available, but he will not want to want to intervene in the affairs of his successor.”
The next Pope will be chosen by members of a 117-strong conclave held in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.
Analysts say Europeans are still among the favorites, including the current Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Scola, and Christoph Schoenbron – a former Austrian student of Benedict.
But strong candidates could emerge from Africa and Latin America, which both have very large Catholic populations. Among the names being mentioned are Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson and Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria.
Pope Benedict XVI will not interfere in choosing his successor after his shock decision to resign at the end of the month
Pope Benedict XVI was to retire to the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo when he leaves office, the Vatican said, before moving into a renovated monastery used by cloistered nuns for “a period of prayer and reflection”.
At 78, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was one of the oldest popes in history at his election.
He took the helm as one of the fiercest storms the Catholic Church has faced in decades – the scandal of child sex abuse by priests – was breaking.
The pontiff said in his Monday’s statement: “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.”
A theological conservative before and during his time as Pope, he has taken traditional positions on homosexuality and women priests, while urging abstinence and continuing opposition to the use of contraceptives.
His attempts at inter-faith relations were mixed, with Muslims, Jews and Protestants all taking offence at various times, despite his efforts to reach out and make visits to key holy sites, including those in Jerusalem.
Pope Benedict XVI
At 78, one of the oldest new popes in history when elected in 2005
Born in Germany in 1927, joined Hitler Youth during WWII and was conscripted as an anti-aircraft gunner but deserted
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spent 24 years in charge of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – once known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition
A theological conservative, with uncompromising views on homosexuality and women priests
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, 64
Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, 68
Archbishop Angelo Scola of Milan, 71
Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, 80
Archbishop Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, 67
Archbishop Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paulo, 63
Gianfranco Ravasi – President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, 70
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, 55