Story from the New York Times:
ROME — Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who took office in 2005 following the death of his predecessor, said on Monday that he will resign on Feb. 28, the first pope to do so in six centuries.
Regarded as a doctrinal conservative, the pope, 85, said 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 announcement is certain to plunge the Roman Catholic world into frenzied speculation about his likely successor and to evaluations of a papacy that was seen as both conservative and contentious.
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.”
Elected on April 19, 2005, Pope Benedict said his papacy would end on Feb. 28.
He was a popular choice within the college of 115 cardinals who elected him as a man who shared — and at times went beyond — the conservative theology of his predecessor and mentor, John Paul II, and seemed ready to take over the job after serving beside him for more than two decades.
When he took office, Pope Benedict’s well-known stands included the assertion that Catholicism is “true” and other religions are “deficient;” that the modern, secular world, especially in Europe, is spiritually weak; and that Catholicism is in competition with Islam. He had also strongly opposed homosexuality, the ordination of women priests and stem cell research.
Born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, in Bavaria, he was the son of a police officer. He was ordained in 1951, at age 24, and began his career as a liberal academic and theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council, supporting many efforts to make the church more open.
But he moved theologically and politically to the right. Pope Paul VI named him bishop of Munich in 1977 and appointed him a cardinal within three months. Taking the chief doctrinal job at the Vatican in 1981, he moved with vigor to quash liberation theology in Latin America, cracked down on liberal theologians and in 2000 wrote the contentious Vatican document “’Dominus Jesus,” asserting the truth of Catholic belief over others.
The last pope to resign was Gregory XII, who left the papacy in 1415 to end what was known as the Western Schism among several competitors for the papacy.
Benedict’s papacy was caught up in growing sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church that crept ever closer to the Vatican itself.
In 2010, as outrage built over clerical abuses, some voices called for his resignation, their demands fueled by reports that laid part of blame at his doorstep, citing his response both as a bishop long ago in Germany and as a cardinal heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles such cases.
In one disclosure, news emerged that in 1985, when Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger, he signed a letter putting off efforts to defrock a convicted child-molesting priest. He cited the priest’s relative youth but also the good of the church.
Vatican officials and experts who follow the papacy closely dismissed the idea of stepping down at the time. “There is no objective motive to think in terms of resignation, absolutely no motive,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. “It’s a completely unfounded idea.”
In the final years of John Paul II’s papacy, which were dogged by illness, Cardinal Ratzinger had spoken in favor of the resignation of incapacitated popes. If John Paul “sees that he absolutely cannot do it anymore, then certainly he will resign,” he said at the time.
In 2006, less than two years into his papacy, Benedict also stirred ire across the Muslim world, referring in a long, scholarly address to a conversation on the truths of Christianity and Islam that took place between a 14th-century Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, and a Persian scholar.
“The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war,” the pope said. “He said, I quote, ‘Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’”
While making clear that he was quoting someone else, Benedict did not say whether he agreed or not. He also briefly discussed the Islamic concept of jihad, which he defined as “holy war,” and said that violence in the name of religion is contrary to God’s nature and to reason.
Elisabetta Povoledo reported from Rome, and Alan Cowell from London.
Photo from the New York Times, February 11, 2013.