VATICAN CITY — Citing failing strength of “mind and body,” Pope Benedict XVI stunned his closest aides and more than 1 billion Catholics by resigning on Monday, becoming the first Pope to do so in nearly 600 years.
Keeping with his reputation as a traditionalist, Pope Benedict delivered his resignation — effective Feb. 28 — in Latin, to a private church body in Vatican City.
“I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” he said. “For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of bishop of Rome, successor of Saint Peter.”
The decision by the 85-year-old German Pontiff sets up a pivotal leadership contest in the Vatican that will occur sooner than observers expected.
The conclave to choose the next pope was expected to convene in mid-March, with a new pope in place in time to preside over Easter Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.
A shy, tough-minded theologian who seemed to relish writing books more than greeting stadium crowds, Pope Benedict, 85, was elected by fellow cardinals in 2005 after the death of John Paul II.
He spent much of his papacy in the shadow of his beloved predecessor.
Above all, Benedict’s papacy was overshadowed by clerical abuse scandals, a case involving documents leaked from within the Vatican, and tangles with Jews, Muslims, and Anglicans.
In his handling of the sexual abuse crisis, critics said his failures of governance were tantamount to moral failings.
In recent months, Pope Benedict had been showing signs of age.
He often seemed tired and even appeared to doze off during Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, after being taken to the altar of St. Peter’s on a wheeled platform.
But few expected the Pope to resign so suddenly, even though he had said in the past that he would consider the option.
“The Pope took us by surprise,” said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, expounding on one of the most dramatic moments in centuries of Vatican history.
He appeared at a hastily called news conference Monday, where he stood by himself at the lectern, with an unopened bottle of mineral water and a dog-eared copy of a Canon Law guide before him.
Father Lombardi said the Pope would continue to carry out his duties until Feb. 28 at 8 p.m., and that a successor would likely be elected by Easter, which falls on March 31.
He said the timing for an election of a new pope is “not an announcement, it’s a hypothesis.”
He said Pope Benedict did not display strong emotions as he made his announcement but spoke with “great dignity, great concentration, and great understanding of the significance of the moment.”
The announcement plunged the Roman Catholic world into speculation about Benedict’s successor and seemed likely to inspire many contrasting evaluations of a papacy seen as both traditionalist and contentious — though perhaps not so confrontational as many had feared of the man they called “God’s Rottweiler” for his tenacious defense of church doctrine.
Benedict was deeply distraught about the decline in religious belief in the West and he had spent the previous 25 years as the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
There, he had watched his beloved predecessor, John Paul II, slowly decline with Parkinson’s disease.
Father Lombardi noted that in a 2010 book-length interview with a German journalist, Benedict had said that, “if a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”
Benedict’s brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, said that the Pope’s weakening health had led him to step down.
“His age was taking its toll,” the 89-year-old told the German news agency Deutsche-Presse Agentur, adding that he had been aware of his brother’s plan for several months.
Father Lombardi said the Pope would retire first to his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, in the hills outside Rome, and later at a monastery in Vatican City.
Benedict, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected April 19, 2005.
Benedict was a popular choice within the college of 115 cardinals who chose him as a man who shared — and at times went beyond — 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.
The church’s 265th Pope, Benedict was the first German to hold the title in half a millennium. His election was a milestone toward Germany’s spiritual renewal 60 years after World War II and the Holocaust.
At 78, he was also the oldest new Pope since 1730.
But Benedict was seen as a weak manager and his papacy was troubled by debilitating scandals, most recently “Vatileaks,” in which his butler was convicted by a Vatican court in October of aggravated theft after he admitted stealing confidential documents, many of which wound up in a tell-all book that showed behind-the-scenes Vatican intrigue.
Above all, Benedict’s tenure was entangled 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 the 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.
For his supporters, it was a painful paradox that the long-gathering abuse scandal finally hit the Vatican with a vengeance under Benedict.
As the church’s doctrinal leader, he had been ahead of many of his peers in recognizing how deeply the institution had been damaged. As early as 2005, he obliquely referred to priestly abuse as a “filth in the church.”
He went on to apologize for the abuse and met with victims, a first for the papacy.
But he could not escape the reality that the church had shielded priests accused of molesting, minimized behavior it would have otherwise deemed immoral, and kept it secret from the civil authorities, forestalling criminal prosecution.
“Having wielded power so aggressively in an intellectual sphere, he became Pope and shrank from the full power of the office, refusing to prosecute guilty cardinals and bishops who recycled predators in the abuse crisis,” said Jason Berry, the author of Render Unto Rome, about the Vatican’s finances, and books on the abuse crisis.
“He approved an investigation of nuns for straying from doctrine, yet failed to confront the antiquated tribunal system that gives men in the highest offices of the church de facto immunity from justice,” Mr. Berry added.
Born April 16, 1927, in Bavaria, he grew up 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 Vatican document “Dominus Jesus,” asserting the truth of Catholic belief over others.
Benedict also faced questioning by some critics about what he and others have said was his conscription into the Hitler Youth and the German army during the Nazi era.
He also faced accusations that he displayed reticence and insensitivity about the Holocaust.
In a book-length interview in 1997, Benedict said, “As a seminarian, I was registered in the Hitler Youth.” He added, “As soon as I was out of the seminary, I never went back.” As Pope, he visited Auschwitz in 2006 as a gesture of atonement.
Benedict “centered his papacy on giving faith to Christians, focusing on the essence of what it means to be a Christian, and he managed to do it in spite of the fact that his communicative capacities weren’t so brilliant,” the Vatican expert Sandro Magister said. “Most common people, I don’t mean intellectuals, saw him as a disinterested man who spent all his life for a high cause, which was to revive the faith.”