In a move without precedent since the Middle Ages, Pope Benedict announced his resignation today.
The 85-year-old Pontiff will step down at the end of this month and the College of Cardinals will elect his successor. Benedict is the first pope to relinquish the Chair of St. Peter by his own decision since 1415. That last resignation was part of a deal to end a schism in the Catholic Church involving three men, each claiming to be pope.
He said, in his announcement, that, "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 bark 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 recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
Benedict has had many challenges to deal with during his eight-year reign, which began in 2005.
The beginning of that reign was taken up by the pedophile priest scandal, during which the Pontiff was criticized by some for not using the power of the Church to adequately punish offenders. Later there were stories dubbed "VatiLeaks" after confidential papal documents were leaked to the media by disgruntled cardinals. The stories included tales of shady dealings at the Vatican Bank, a claim that one cardinal believed the pope was about to be assassinated and rumors that still another cardinal thought Satan was loose in the halls of the Vatican.
A much more serious challenge for the Pontiff, however, were the disagreements between conservative and progressive clerics around the world on a host of issues, with the pope often siding with the conservatives.
In the United States, for example, bishops held a "Fortnight for Freedom" last year, from June 21 to July 4. The fortnight observance called for prayer, fasting, education and action to preserve religious liberty in the face of a government mandate that all employers provide insurance coverage for drugs used in contraception and abortion. The Pope sided with the bishops on the matter.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious on the other hand, which represents 80 percent of American nuns, supported the mandate. The Nuns on the Bus tour was organized on the same days as the bishops' observance. It appealed to millions of Catholics in support of programs for the poor, and was seen by them as a vibrant alternative to the narrow politicking the bishops were doing on the issue of health insurance.
On matters of political economy Benedict clearly favored market capitalism over mixed or socialist economic models. In his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, he affirmed the "advantages" of the market and the "essential role of business." He was careful to appear "balanced," however and also wrote, "There is a growing conviction that business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of business - the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community."
The same encyclical, which reaffirms the official support of the Church for labor unions, says that unions should "work for the common good in a globalized world, turning their attention to workers in developing countries where social rights are often violated."
The encyclical saw the wealth gap and growing joblessness as problematic: "The demands of justice, particularly today, are that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner, and that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone."
There are several papal contenders in the wings, but no obvious front-runner.
They include Cardinal Angelo Scota, archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the archbishop of Vienna, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian head of the Vatican 's office for bishops. All three are strict doctrinal conservatives and would not be expected to depart dramatically from positions taken by Pope Benedict.
Among the less likely candidates is Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Although popular he backs the pope's very conservative line and the thinking is that the Catholic Church will not go for a pope from a "superpower."
While a pope from Latin America, Africa or Asia is a possibility, especially since there are hundreds of millions of Catholics on those continents and they are where the church is experiencing most of its growth, the decline of the Church in Europe can, itself, be a reason for going with another European pope.
All cardinals under age 80 are allowed to vote in the conclave, the secret meeting held in the Sistine Chapel where cardinals cast ballots to elect a new pope. Ballots are burned after each voting round; black smoke out of the chimney means no pope has been chosen, white smoke means a pope has been elected.
Photo: Catholic groups like Nuns on the Bus interpret Catholic doctrine broadly, seeing it as a call to fight for social justice. Pope Benedict, concerned that U.S. nuns may be going too far, has tried to put nuns under more direct Vatican control.