Not since Gregory XII resigned as Pope in 1415 to end a schism between competitors for the office, has the Roman Catholic leader voluntarily ended his tenure on the throne of St. Peter. But, that is just what Benedict XVI did Monday morning: announcing that on Feb. 28, he would resign as pope, and, in the process, astonishing the world.
Whoever becomes pope is always of great interest to the secular world powers. The international contacts of the Vatican as well as the influence of the pope among practicing Catholics, make who holds the position as important to the U.S. as who holds power in Moscow, Beijing, or any Western European capital. Pope John Paul II was considered as much a player in the downfall of the old Soviet Union as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Pope Pius XII was an important fixture in thwarting the Axis powers during World War II.
Under church rules, the 120 cardinals under the age of 80 will meet in a secluded conclave in the Vatican next month and vote until a pope is elected. The world‚??s press will gather outside the Sistine Chapel, waiting for the white smoke from its chimney that signals a candidate has won a majority of the cardinals and ‚??we have a Pope.‚?Ě
But, where Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was one of John Paul‚??s closest associates and secured the papacy on the third ballot of the conclave in 2005, there is no ‚??heir apparent‚?Ě to Benedict. All of the voting cardinals have been named by Benedict or John Paul and most are considered conservative and traditionalist in the mold of the outgoing pope: strongly in favor of priestly celibacy, supportive and encouraging of traditional reforms to the Mass, and a heightened and renewed evangelization.
U.S. cardinals in particular are considered more conservative than they were before Benedict assumed his throne. Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York and Raymond Burke (formerly of St. Louis and now at the Vatican’s Supreme Court) are two noted orthodox prelates who will be selecting Benedict‚??s successor.
Speculation is rampant as to why the former Josef Cardinal Ratzinger would resign the papacy he has held since he succeeded John Paul II in 2005. Some Vatican-watchers say it is his age (85) and signs of failing health. Others say that a string of scandals‚??including the leaking of inside information by the pope‚??s own butler‚??had taken their toll on the first German to lead the Roman Catholic Church in 600 years. One conservative possibility is 68-year-old Christoph Cardinal Sch√∂nburn of Vienna, Austria, who is close to Benedict.
As to who will be the next pope and what nationality he will be, no one can say at this point. In 1921, the Vatican‚??s Secretary of State Merry Del Val was considered a shoo-in for the papacy, but the cardinals instead chose Achille Ratti, librarian and diplomat, who became Pope Pius XI. This conclave spawned a phrase that stands to this day as a warning about betting on the next pontiff: ‚??He who goes into the conclave a pope comes out a cardinal.‚?Ě