Pope Benedict XVI abruptly announced Monday that he would resign the papacy at the end of February. The 85-year-old, who cited his declining health as the reason for stepping down, will become the first pope to resign since 1415.
In a written statement, the pope said that “both strength of mind and body are necessary strength” to perform his duties, but that his health “has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” (Read the full statement here).
The former Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II, sought to “strengthen the Catholic Church’s core beliefs” as its leader.
However, as The Guardian’s John Hooper noted, whatever messages Pope Benedict tried to convey during his tenure were “drowned out” by the child abuse scandal and other controversies that rocked the Vatican during his reign.
The abuse scandals dominated his nearly eight years as leader of the world’s Catholics. Before his accession, there had been scandals in the US and Ireland. But in 2010, evidence of clerical sexual abuse was made public in a succession of countries in continental Europe, notably Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Germany.
The pope was personally affected by one of these scandals. It emerged that, while he was archbishop of Munich, a known molester was quietly reassigned, allowing him in time to return to pastoral duties and make contact with young people.
The flood of allegations represented a vast setback for the project at the heart of Benedict’s papacy. The goal he had set for himself, and for which he was elected, was to launch the re-evangelisation of Europe, Catholicism’s heartland: it was why he adopted as his papal name that of the continent’s patron saint, Benedict of Nursia. But if the numbers of the faithful in Europe as the pope leaves office are fewer than when he was elected, then – surveys repeatedly indicated – it is in large part because of anger and despair in the Catholic laity over the sex abuse scandals.