Pope Benedict XVI's resignation shocked the Catholic world and triggered a behind-the-scenes election battle among the cardinals that will pit conservatives against liberals and Europeans against non-Europeans as the world's most enduring institution seeks to remain relevant in the modern world.
A Canadian cardinal, Marc Ouellet, the former archbishop of Quebec and a rising star in the Vatican, is said to be among the leading candidates to succeed Benedict.
But the cardinals who will elect the next pope will come under enormous pressure to choose a candidate from the regions – Africa and Latin America, where the Catholic church is not in retreat, as it is in Europe. A pope from Ghana, Brazil or Honduras, to name three countries with top candidates, is not out of the question. The Vatican could see its first black pope next month if the popular Ghanaian, Peter Turkson, nails two-thirds of the cardinals' vote in the secretive Sistine Chapel conclave.
Speaking in Latin, Pope Benedict, 85, revealed Monday morning that he would step down on Feb. 28 because of frailty and weakness – he had been walking with a cane in recent months. The announcement, which unleashed a flurry of speculation about whether he was terminally ill or simply burnt out because of the string of scandals that have battered his eight-year reign, made him only the second pope in the nearly 2,000-year life of the Church known to have resigned (a few others may have, but the records are not clear).
"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 news came as a complete surprise, even to Vatican insiders. Popes are expected to die on the job – the last papal resignation came 600 years ago.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said at a later press conference that "the Pope took us by surprise," adding that "if a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign."
Benedict, the former Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich, apparently did not want to go through what his predecessor, John Paul II, endured in the last year of his long papacy, even though there was no confirmation that he is gravely ill.
John Paul was felled by Parkinson's disease, which essentially made him unable to function in the last few months of his life. A priest in Rome who knows Benedict, but did not want to be quoted by name, said: "The Church suffered because of John Paul's condition. Benedict lived through John Paul's illness and I think he did not want to go through that."
Pope Benedict was a bookish scholar who was admired as a teacher and a man of letters. His writings, including an encyclical called "Charity of Truth," which called for a new world financial order as the banking system was collapsing, received global praise. He also tried to heal wounds with Jews and Muslims, with decidedly mixed results.
But he will be forever associated with, and somewhat tainted by, the sexual abuse scandals which handed the church its greatest crisis since the Second World War. Most of the abuse cases happened before he was pope, but his clean-up effort, while more extensive than any previous pope's, was widely considered less aggressive than it should have been. He stance on condom use was bizarre; he said their use made the HIV problem worse.
Benedict's resignation triggered a race to find a successor. The Vatican promised that a new pope would be elected by the College of Cardinals – which has 118 eligible electors – by Easter, on March 31.
Latin America, along with Africa, are considered key regions for the Vatican because they are high-growth areas for the church, in marked contrast to Europe, where the religion, along with church attendance, are on the wane. Pope Benedict acknowledged the rising power of the church outside of Europe by appointing last year half a dozen new cardinals, none of whom was European.
Bookmakers have tipped Cardinals Ouellet, Francis Arinze of Nigeria, Peter Turkson of Ghana, Angelo Scola of Italy and Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras as favourites to succeed Benedict.
Cardinal Arinze, however, is 80 and, given the rigours of the job and the endless travel demands, the cardinals may be tempted to select a younger man. Cardinal Ouellet is 68 and in robust health. The African cardinals will strongly support Cardinal Turkson, who is 64, and, if elected, would become the first African and first black pope.
At a press conference in 2009, Cardinal Turkson acknowledged the possibility of a black pope just as a black U.S. president was elected. "And now it is Obama of the United States," he said. "And if by divine providence, because the church belongs to God, if God would wish to see a black man also as pope, thanks be to God."
The Italian cardinals will no doubt push for an Italian pope after 35 years of Polish and German popes. Almost one-quarter of the cardinals eligible to vote are Italians, though there is no suggestion they would vote as a bloc. "I think the cardinals will vote for the needs of the church," said Anne Leahy, the former Canadian ambassador to the Holy See. "I think we need a pope who brings unity to the church, who brings everyone together."
Pope Benedict, born in Bavaria, in the south of Germany, in 1927, was a member of the Hitler Youth at the end of the war and trained as an academic theologian. During the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), the effort to reform and modernize the church in the early 1960s, he was known as a liberal and a reformer. He became more conservative in later years, to the point that one bishop, in 1999, charged that his writings were "more or less in effect a reversal" of Vatican II, according to John Cornwell, the author several bestsellers on the popes.
His big break came in 1981, when Pope John Paul appointed him head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was there that he was put in charge of the sex abuse cases that are still rattling the church.
His record on that file is mixed. While he cracked down on some cases – he essentially took over a conservative religious order called the Legionnaires of Christ, whose founder, Mexican Marciel Maciel, was a serial sexual abuser. Rev. Maciel was sentenced to a lifetime of penance.
But no bishop was punished even though there was ample evidence of cover-ups, and a 2001 letter issued to dioceses around the world was criticized for not making it absolutely clear that bishops had to inform the police about suspected abuse cases.
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