Bookmaker Paddy Power is now taking bets on who will be the next pope, and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is an early favorite to replace the 85-year-old pope, at odds 9/4.
The next pope may be a historic pick, coming from a unprecedented background. Some analysts argue that the Catholic Church should pick a New World pope (from Africa, South America, or North America) to stay relevant and reaffirm the Church's global power. A European pope would fail to do that.
Still, nobody knows who will replace the pope, as this move came as a complete surprise to all. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, in a first reaction, said, "I'm greatly shaken by this unexpected news."
This is the first pope to resign in centuries.
The papacy will be vacant until a successor is chosen. Normally, a pope dies while serving in office.
Pope Benedict announced his decision during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, in Latin.
"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.
The pope also 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 recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me."
Editor of the Telegraph Blogs, Damian Thompson, paid tribute to Benedict XVI in a blog post, saying that although Catholics will be deeply shocked and, in most cases, dismayed by this decision, this is "An act of self-sacrifice by a man not prepared to see the Church suffer as a result of his increasing frailty."
The next pope will be expected to reaffirm the strength of the Catholic Church across the world.
Papal influence on macro-level politics began its decline when the first regents in medieval Europe stood in opposition to the will of the Holy See during the reformation, and continued its decline until the Papal States fell in 1870. While some leaders today still hold respect and swear fealty to the pope, even the most ardently Catholic politician in a democratic country would likely choose to follow the prescriptions of their electorate over those of the pope. Excommunication is no longer the ultimate punishment that a leader can face, and popes in the modern age issue “advice” and “guidance” to leaders, as opposed to the “edicts” and “commands” of old.
Even on a micro-level, the reformation had a strongly negative impact on papal authority. As viable alternatives to the Catholic Church became available, the pope’s political influence waned among the people. With the tide of scientific advance and the liberalization of information, the church has seen its role in the lives of its own adherents wither further. Sex abuse scandals and controversy over the church’s antiquated views on homosexuality, contraception, and the role of women (among others) have largely discredited the church and made ecumenical opinion less relevant in the minds of the average Catholic. The concepts of infallibility and divine authority are increasingly less accepted by a public that has been brought up with deeply ingrained ideas of democratic choice, rational examination, and human equality.