Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he will resign Feb. 28, ending eight years as head of the world's Catholics because the 85-year-old pontiff is too infirm to carry on. He is the first pope to resign in 600 years.
The pope made the announcement in Latin during a meeting of cardinals in Rome.
"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," he told the cardinals. "I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only by words and deeds but no less with prayer and suffering."
This is a rather curious instance, to be sure, if the "600 years since it last happened" wasn't enough to arouse your suspicions. The Office of the Pontiff is the highest one that a Catholic can aspire to. This is even bigger than resigning as President of the United States, because the PoTUS can go into private industry and exploit his Rolodex.
Pope John XVIII, for instance, became a monk. The last Pope to resign, Gregory XII, did so as a political move. There were three claimants to the office, so in order to end the "Western Schism," Gregory offered up his mitre, ironically as an inducement to Benedict XIII, the so-called Antipope of Avignon.
So are there any political issues at stake here? Well, there is the small matter of sexual abuse within the church itself. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict was in charge of investigating and prosecuting cases, but his record is not without its inconsistencies. It is conceivable that there's is pretty damning evidence of complicity, as a best case scenario, in cases of child abuse, but it remains speculation.
In fairness to Benedict, however, we should note that prior to his election as Pope, he had submitted his resignation for health reasons, but stayed on when his predecessor, John Paul II, asked him to stay on. Benedict has suffered from some cardiovascular issues, notably a stroke and a heart condition.
It may be as simple as seeing the writing on the wall and deciding to give his church the chance to prepare for an orderly succession.
Still...it's pretty damned curious.