In recent years, ‘shocking’ news from the Catholic Church has been terrible revelations about the actions of its members. On Monday morning, however, there was news that was just plain unexpected.
Speaking early in the morning before the “Concistory for the canonization of the martyrs of Otranto,” Pope Benedict XVI announced his intentions to resign from the papacy. Elected on April 19, 2005, the German will step down on February 28th. He will be the first pope to willingly give up power since Gregory XII in 1415, who resigned to end the Western Schism, a political disagreement which saw three different men claim they were the true pope.
While nearly unprecedented, papal resignation is perfectly acceptable under Cannon Law. Cannon 322, section 1 states that “Should it happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns from his office, it is required for validity that the resignation be freely made and properly manifested, but it is not necessary that it be accepted by anyone.” Benedict met those requirements by using the phrase “with full freedom” during his speech.
In that speech, he also explained the reason for his resignation: health. “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,” he said. “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.”
Again, this comes as a surprise, given recent church history. Catholics will remember the gradual deterioration of the previous pope, John Paul II. Spending nearly 30 years in office, he slowly transformed from an avid sportsman to an elderly man, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, rarely spoke more than a few sentences at a time and almost never walked in the public eye. Despite these ailments, he remained a public figure and continued his famous world-tours. While we do not know the extent of Benedict’s health concerns, he was the oldest pope to be elected at age 78 in 2005. While conspiracy theories will begin to swirl, one can only assume his reasons are legitimate.
As per NBC World News, German news agency DPA quoted the pontiff’s brother, Georg Ratzinger, as saying his brother was increasingly struggling to walk and had been contemplating stepping aside for several months. “His age is weighing on him,” he reportedly added.
So what happens next? Given that the current pope has not died, the traditional mourning practices do not have to be followed. Given this and the resignation date of February 28th, a new pope could be elected as soon as mid-March. The office will remain vacant until a successor is chosen.