Pope Benedict XVI stunned the Roman Catholic church today as he announced his intention to carry out the first papal resignation in almost 600 years, prompting shock from even his closest confidants and acerbic judgment from critics of his eight year-long reign.
In an address read out in Latin before a group of cardinals in the Apostolic Palace, the 85-year-old pontiff said he had decided that, due to his "advanced age" and deteriorating strengths, he would be stepping down as head of the Catholic church on 28 February.
"The pope has just broken a taboo by breaking with several centuries of practice," Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris, told journalists, hailing the move as a "liberating act for the future".
The dramatic move – almost entirely unexpected – paves the way for a successor to be chosen by Easter. Whoever is named the next pope by a conclave next month will inherit a church struggling with many of the same controversies that blighted Benedict's papacy, from clerical sex abuse to fears over money laundering.
Benedict said he had taken the decision to resign "with full freedom" and great awareness of the "seriousness of this act". In order to fulfil the role of pope, he said, "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 recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me".
A Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, insisted the pope had "no current illness that would influence his decision". The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, said he had made up his mind nearly a year ago after trips to Mexico and Cuba left him tired. His 89-year-old brother, Georg Ratzinger, told reporters: "Age is weighing on him. My brother would like more rest at this age."
The German who, in 2005, was the oldest man to be elected pope in almost 300 years, will now become the first pope to resign his position since Gregory XII in 1415 and the first to have done so voluntarily since Celestine V in 1294.
Fears that a papal resignation could cause a schism in the church are generally thought to have deterred previous popes from stepping down, but Lombardi insisted there would be "no risk" of this happening as canon law specifies that a former pope has no right to govern.
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