Recognizing what he described as the failing strength of his “mind and body,” Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would step down as head of the Catholic Church, the first pontiff to give up his duties since 1415.
“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,” Benedict said in a statement.
Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, said Benedict will move to the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo following his abdication Feb. 28, then return to Rome to live in a monastery of cloistered nuns inside the Vatican for a period of prayer and reflection.
In Washington, President Obama said he and first lady Michelle Obama, “on behalf of Americans everywhere,” extend their “appreciation and prayers” to Benedict.
“Michelle and I warmly remember our meeting with the Holy Father in 2009, and I have appreciated our work together over these last four years,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House. “The Church plays a critical role in the United States and the world, and I wish the best to those who will soon gather to choose His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s successor.”
In the past 1,000 years, only four other popes have resigned. Max Fisher reports their unusual stories:
Pope Benedict IX, in 1045: At age 33 and about 10 years into his tumultuous term, the Rome-born pope resigned so that he could get married – and to collect some cash from his godfather, also Roman, who paid Benedict IX to step down so that he might replace him, according to British historian Reginald L. Poole’s definitive and much-cited history of the 11th century.
Pope Gregory VI, in 1046: The same man who had bribed and replaced his godson ended up leaving the office himself only a year later, according to Poole’s account. The trouble began when Benedict IX failed to secure the bride he’d resigned for, leading him to change his mind and return to the Vatican. Both popes remained in the city, both claiming to rule the Catholic church, for several months. That fall, the increasingly despondent clergy called on the German Emperor Henry III, of the Holy Roman Empire, to invade Rome and remove them both. When Henry III arrived, he treated Gregory VI as the rightful pope but urged him to stand before a council of fellow church leaders. The bishops urged Gregory VI to resign for bribing his way into office. Though the fresh new pope argued that he had done nothing wrong in buying the papacy, he stepped down anyway.
Pope Celestine V, in 1294:After only five months in office, the somber Sicilian pope formally decreed that popes now had the right to resign, which he immediately used, according to a report in the Guardian. He wrote, referring to himself in the third person, that he had resigned out of “the desire for humility, for a purer life, for a stainless conscience, the deficiencies of his own physical strength, his ignorance, the perverseness of the people, his longing for the tranquility of his former life.” He became a hermit, but two years later was dragged out of solitude by his successor, who locked him up in an Italian castle. Celestine died 10 months later.
Benedict’s resignation brings up the discussion of what happens next, including what the procedure is for replacing him. Dylan Matthews writes:
The last resignation, in 1415, occurred when Gregory XII stepped down to end the Western Schism in the Catholic Church, in which rival popes and antipopes, each recognized by a different set of secular governments in Europe, claimed sovereignty over the church.
Which is to say that this is a pretty strange occurrence. But, as with normal papal successions, it will prompt the vote of the College of Cardinals, a group of up to 120 church leaders (current estimates put the number around 118) below the age limit of 80 who convene to elect new popes. Exactly how that process works, however, changes frequently, and indeed has changed since the election that elevated Benedict in 2005.
NYU political scientist Joshua Tucker and PM at Duck of Minerva have compiled a good set of political science research into papal elections. It’s a sensitive subject because, as GWU professors Forrest Maltzman, Melissa Schwartzberg and the late Lee Sigelman put it in their paper on Benedict’s election, “Officially, Ratzinger’s selection was attributed to the will of God, a force not amenable to any empirical test that is in our power to conduct.”
But unofficially, Benedict was selected in accordance with the wishes of his predecessor, John Paul II. For most of John Paul’s tenure, papal elections were subject to a supermajority requirement, with a two-thirds majority required to finalize a selection. As Maltzman et al show, by the middle of 1990, John Paul had already appointed two-thirds of voting cardinals. Assuming his appointees all agreed on a candidate, they could have outvoted any previous appointees from 1990 until John Paul’s death in 2005 and installed a candidate along John Paul’s preferred lines.
... if a voting paradox arises, the church could be in for considerable gridlock.