The Astonishing Resignation of the Roman Pope Benedict XVI
by Shaun Willcock
It stunned the world: the announcement on February 11, 2013 by the pope of Rome, Benedict XVI, that he would resign his office at the end of the month – the first to do so in almost 600 years.
Contrary to popular belief, Roman popes are permitted by canon law to resign, and some have indeed stepped down, while others have been forced to do so. The last one to resign was Gregory XII, in the year 1415.
Benedict gave ill health as the reason for his decision. In his announcement he said: “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… in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque [boat] of St 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. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of St Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.”
According to Robert Moynihan, the Roman Catholic founder and editor of Inside the Vatican magazine and The Moynihan Report, “Pope Benedict has not decided to ‘resign’ his office, but to renounce it. The distinction is important [even though Moynihan himself calls it a “resignation” in his article’s title, so it is really splitting hairs – S.W.]. He will not be a ‘retired Pope,’ but he will be, according to Vatican officials I spoke with today, simply ‘Cardinal Ratzinger’ once again. There will be no danger of ‘two Popes’ – this present Pope will no longer be a Pope, not even a retired one.” 
He has stated that he will retire to a convent in Vatican City itself, to spend the rest of his days in prayer. His decision to remain within the Vatican City State was a wise one on his part, for if he retired to another country this could expose him to potential legal claims, and even possible arrest and prosecution, in connection with the priestly sexual abuse cases worldwide! In 2010, as an example, he was named as a defendant in a lawsuit alleging that he failed to take action as a cardinal in 1995 when he was allegedly told about a priest who had abused boys long before. And there have been repeated calls for his arrest over the worldwide sexual abuse scandal. As a Vatican official said, speaking on condition of anonymity: “His continued presence in the Vatican is necessary, otherwise he might be defenceless. He wouldn’t have his immunity, his prerogatives, his security, if he is anywhere else.”
But were his advanced age and ill health the real (or only) reasons for Benedict’s sudden and unexpected announcement, which even caught most of the cardinals by surprise (although some within Vatican circles suspected it might happen)?
Certainly his age is great (he is 85) and his health is not good. He had already suffered a stroke by the time he became pope of Rome in 2005, and soon after taking office he suffered another one. He also took heart medication throughout his period in office. In recent months he was in such pain when he walked that he was transported up the aisle of St Peter’s Basilica on a wheeled platform. He had watched his predecessor, John Paul II, become frailer and frailer and suffer greatly, and yet continue on till his death even though he became increasingly unable to fulfil the duties of a Roman pope. It can be taken as highly likely that Benedict did not want to suffer the same fate. When he was elected he admitted that he had actually been looking forward to retirement. Three times, when he was a cardinal, he asked John Paul II to allow him to retire (cardinals usually retire at the age of 75), but he was turned down. Then in 2010 he said in an interview: “If a pope clearly realises 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.” And when the interviewer asked him whether he would ever consider resigning, he replied, “Yes.”