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Papal resignation

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Pope Benedict XVI is to be admired for his selfless act of voluntarily resigning as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

The pope shocked Catholics worldwide with his unexpected announcement Monday that he would step down as spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics on Feb. 28 after just eight years as the 265th pope.

Pope Benedict becomes the first pontiff in 600 years to take the step, which had been discussed but rejected by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. He remained in office until his death despite suffering from Parkinson’s disease in the final years of his papacy.

Pope Benedict set out the rationale for his own resignation when questioned about the possibility in an interview after he became pope.

“Yes. 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,” the pope said.

Pope Benedict worked closely with his predecessor as his declining health raised questions about Pope John Paul’s capacity to continue in an office that traditionally lasts for life. That experience may have helped Pope Benedict make his choice.

The 85-year-old pontiff said Monday that “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,” a reference that links the modern papacy to the first Bishop of Rome, St. Peter. It was a decision that recognized the frailties and limitations of his humanity.

Having served as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prior to his own election, it was no surprise that Pope Benedict staunchly defended traditional Catholic teachings against birth control, the ordination of women and homosexuality, which brought charges that he was not progressive enough for a modern church.

Catholics worldwide in the past year returned to an English Mass translation more closely tied to the old Latin Mass. He alienated some Catholics with his investigation of an American group of nuns for what Pope Benedict considered teachings and actions inconsistent with church teachings.

Pope Benedict, though, reached out to other faiths. He has reaffirmed the church’s traditional teachings on economic and social justice and the ecumenical nature of the church. He has been criticized for not doing enough about the church’s child abuse scandal, but he was the first to offer an apology for the horrific acts.

However, those who expect a radical break with tradition in the choice of the next pontiff fail to understand the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul appointed nearly all of the cardinals who will gather in the papal conclave next month to choose the next pontiff so they can be expected to share the pontiffs’ beliefs.

Speculation has already begun that a successor could come from Asia, Latin America or Africa in recognition of the church’s growth in those regions.

Pope Benedict recognized that a more vigorous pope may be better suited to confronting the challenges the church faces in the years ahead. Theologian George Weigel praised the pope’s resignation as a “great act of humility and self-abnegation.” In doing so Pope Benedict put the welfare of the church he has served since his ordination as priest in 1951 ahead of himself.

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