ROME â€” 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.
A profoundly conservative figure whose papacy was overshadowed by sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, the pope, 85, said that after examining his conscience â€œbefore God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exerciseâ€ of his position as head of the worldâ€™s Roman Catholics.
While there had been questioning about his health and advancing years, his announcement â€” even by the Vaticanâ€™s official account â€” stunned many. â€œThe pope took us by surprise,â€ said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, who explained that many cardinals were in Rome on Monday for a ceremony at the Vatican and heard the popeâ€™s address
The announcement plunged 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 â€œstrength of mind and bodyâ€ had â€œdeteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.â€
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 â€” and at times went beyond â€” 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 Benedictâ€™s well-known stands included the assertion that Catholicism is â€œtrueâ€ and other religions are â€œdeficient;â€ 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 â€œâ€™Dominus Jesus,â€ 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.
Benedictâ€™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 secular and liberal Catholic 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 priestâ€™s relative youth but also the good of the church.Â Vatican officials and experts who follow the papacy closely dismissed the idea of stepping down at the time. â€œThere is no objective motive to think in terms of resignation, absolutely no motive,â€ said the Rev. Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. â€œItâ€™s a completely unfounded idea.â€