The sudden end to his papacy presents the Vatican with a delicate choice: to elect a new pope who will represent continuity or one who will represent change. With the church declining in its former stronghold of Europe but finding its future in Latin America, Africa and Asia, pressure already was growing on the College of Cardinals — the global princes of the church — to break tradition by elevating a non-European pope.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, who last saw Benedict in Rome in October, said the announcement came as an “enormous surprise,’’ a statement that echoed sentiments worldwide.
“He presided at meeting after meeting after meeting,” Wuerl said. “There was no doubt that he was in full possession of his faculties.”
Benedict’s decision “says to me he is a very humble and honest person,” Wuerl added. “His love for the church is such that he has concluded it would be better not to try to lead this huge flock without the full strength of all of his energies.”
Some observers contend that the influence of the Vatican has receded under Benedict, in part because of his age but also because he operated in the shadow of his beloved and charismatic predecessor, John Paul II.
“He had a hard act to follow in John Paul, who was bigger than life,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Catholic writer and former editor of America, a Catholic magazine. “Benedict suffered by comparison because he was much more shy, he wasn’t an actor, he preferred to write books and issue encyclicals rather than travel.”
Liberal Catholics have bemoaned his promotion of a generation of conservative bishops who believe that the church will hold together best if its teachings are communicated as black and white. A symbol to them has been the crackdown on the largest group of U.S. nuns, who the Vatican said were straying too far in their writings and lectures about homosexuality and contraception.
Traditional Catholics, however, celebrated his focus on orthodoxy.
“If you don’t sell full-throttle Catholicism, people are not going to buy it,” said George Weigel, who has written books about the church and the pope. “Everyone knows the whole package is more compelling and interesting than some sort of Catholic hors d’oeuvres that leave you hungry.”
Boorstein reported from Washington. Michael Birnbaum and Petra Krischok in Berlin, Eliza Mackintosh in London and James Arkin in Washington contributed to this report.