Pope Benedict XVI announced today during a meeting of Vatican cardinals that he will resign the papacy effective Feb. 28. In a statement issued at noon today Vatican time (6 a.m. Eastern Time), the pope wrote, "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." Benedict XVI is the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years; the last pope to do so was Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 to end the Western Schism.
NPR reports that news of the pope's resignation took the Vatican, including members of the pope's inner circle, by surprise. One reason may be that, as the National Catholic Reporter points out, the consensus among most modern popes is that resignation is unacceptable. Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, famously refused to resign even as his body was being ravaged by Parkinson's disease and osteoarthritis. Pope Paul VI said that paternity cannot be resigned, concluding that a pope "could not resign the apostolic mandate except in the presence of an incurable illness or an impediment that would prevent the exercise of the functions of the successor of Peter."
I must confess that what shocks me most about the whole matter (in addition to the utter lack of modern precedent for the action Pope Benedict is taking) is the abruptness of his exit: Feb. 28 is just seventeen days away. It seems odd, and I wonder if there isn't perhaps more to the story, either that he's much closer to death's door than any of us is aware of, or that he's resigning swiftly to avoid some as-yet-unknown scandal. Only time will tell.
Finally, the expressions of joy I'm seeing from many in the LGBT community about Benedict XVI's impending departure from the Chair of Peter strike me, sadly, as rather misplaced. Without a doubt, the current pope is notoriously homophobic. However, Benedict has appointed a majority of the cardinals who will elect his successor, and the vast majority of bishops around the world were named by either Benedict or his equally anti-gay predecessor, John Paul II. Given the fact that popes tend to appoint prelates who share their views, institutional homophobia in the Roman Catholic Church isn't likely to go away anytime soon, even as Catholics in Western countries continue to drift further away from the church on these and other issues.