Pope Benedict XVI publically announced on Monday that he will resign on Feb. 28, citing poor health.
He is the first pope in 600 years to resign.
The resignation came as a shock to the Vatican and the wider Catholic world. The announcement is certain to plunge the Roman Catholic world into frenzied speculation about Benedict’s likely successor. By mid-March, it is expected that the Vatican will have a new pope. The next pope will be expected to strengthen a faltering Church rocked by sex scandal and membership decline. No longer is the Catholic Church the supreme religious and political entity that it has historically been, and the new pope will be forced to pull in a diverse congregation across Africa, Latin America, the West, and Asia, and do so by reframing the role of the Church in people's minds.
[Follow LIVE coverage of Pope Benedict's succession and analysis on potential candidates]
Pope Benedict, the former German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who took office in 2005 following the death of his predecessor, was a conservative pope who many criticized for not fighting the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Church over the last decade.
Why is Benedict resigning?
The pope said on Monday in Rome that after examining his conscience “before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are longer suited to an adequate exercise” of his position as head of the world’s Roman Catholics.
The 85-year-old pope announced his decision in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals on Sunday. The decision was confirmed by the Vatican on Monday.
In a statement in several languages, the pope said his “strength of mind and body” had “deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
Benedict XVI is the 265th Pope, a position in which he serves dual roles as Sovereign of the Vatican City State and leader of the Catholic Church. As Pope, he is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter the Apostle.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants.
Benedict called his choice "a decision of great importance for the life of the church."
Benedict's resignation sets the stage for the Vatican to hold a conclave to elect a new pope by mid-March, since the traditional mourning time that would follow the death of a pope doesn't have to be observed.
There are several papal contenders, but no obvious front-runner — the same situation when Benedict was elected pontiff in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II. It has been speculated that the Church wants to elect a pope that is more non-traditional this time around, possibly picking a cardinal from a nation which has never held the position. The next pope could 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.
Who will be the next pope?
Contenders include Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican's office for bishops.
Cardinal Scola looks to be the top candidate. Global Vatican watchers have tipped Milan Cardinal Angelo Scola as favorite to succeed Benedict. I guess yet another Italian pope is just what the Catholic Church needs.
[See 3 facts about the next potential pope, Angelo Scola]
Longshots include Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Although Dolan is popular and backs the pope's conservative line, the general thinking is that the Catholic Church doesn't need a pope from a "superpower."
Bookmaker Paddy Power is now taking bets on who will be the next pope, and Cardinal Turkson of Ghana is an early favorite to replace the 85-year-old pope, at odds 9/4. Turkson, though, may be far untraditional for the Church. A black could plunge the Catholic world into fierce (and likely racist) debate, and would be an extreme move by the Church.
All cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave, the secret meeting held in the Sistine Chapel where cardinals cast ballots to elect a new pope. As per tradition, the ballots are burned after each voting round; black smoke that snakes out of the chimney means no pope has been chosen, while white smoke means a pope has been elected.
Popes are allowed to resign; church law specifies only that the resignation be "freely made and properly manifested."
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.