POPE Benedict stunned the Catholic Church, including his closest advisers, when he announced yesterday he would stand down in the first papal abdication in 600 years.
He said he no longer had the mental and physical strength to run the church, which has 1.2-billion members, through a period of major crisis.
Officials tried to relay a climate of calm confidence in the running of a 2 000-year-old institution but the decision could lead to further uncertainties in a church besieged by scandal and defections.
Several popes in the past, including Benedict’s predecessor John Paul, refrained from stepping down even when severely ill, precisely because of the confusion and division that could be caused by having an "ex-pope” and a reigning pope living at the same time.
This could create a particularly difficult problem if the next pope is a progressive who influences such teachings as the ban on women priests, artificial birth control and insistence on a celibate priesthood.
The church has been rocked during Benedict’s nearly eightyear papacy by child sexual abuse crises and Muslim anger after the pope compared Islam to violence. Jews were upset over the rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier and there was scandal over the leaking of the pope’s private papers by his personal butler.
The pope, 85, known for his conservative doctrine, stepped up the church’s opposition to gay marriage and underscored its resistance to a female priesthood and embryonic stem cell research.
But chief Vatican spokesman Father Frederico Lombardi said Benedict, who was expected to go into isolation for at least a while after his resignation, did not intend to influence the decision of cardinals electing his successor.
Lombardi said Benedict’s stepping aside showed "great courage” and ruled out any specific illness or depression. The decision was made "without outside pressure”. – Reuters