Pope Benedict XVI to Resign for Health Reasons on Feb. 28

Pope Benedict XVI, saying he no longer has the strength to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, will resign from the papacy at the end of the month, the first such abdication in almost 600 years.

“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 said today in an address to senior church officials in Rome.

Pope Benedict, the 265th leader of the Roman Catholic Church, said his resignation would take effect at 8 p.m. on Feb.

28. He will step down two months before his 86th birthday after serving for almost eight years as pontiff after succeeding John Paul II.

The resignation of Benedict may reopen rifts within the Church as pressure builds to name a pope from the developing world where Catholicism is growing much faster than in Europe and the U.S. The new pope will be chosen through a conclave, a special gathering of cardinals who are sequestered in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican until they can agree on a successor.

Demographic Shift

About 70 percent of the world’s Catholics now hail from the developing world, where the general population is also growing at a much faster clip than in Europe and the U.S. The faith is expanding most rapidly in Africa, with the continent providing a growing share of the ranks of the global priesthood.

“If you go back 100 years, three-fourths of Catholics were in the developed world, now those numbers are reversed, it would be fair to reflect that,” Rev. Robert Wister, Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University, said in a telephone interview.

Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64, is the 9-4 favorite to become the next pope, according to Irish betting site Paddy Power Plc. Canada’s Marc Ouellet, 68, is second favorite at 5-2, followed by Nigeria’s Francis Arinze, 80, at 3-1.

Pope Benedict will have no role in choosing his successor, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said at a press conference in Rome. The pope will initially retire to his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo before transferring to live in a convent, Lombardi said.

Obama, Cameron

World leaders offered their support for the pope’s decision. U.S. President Barack Obama said in an e-mailed statement that his prayers were with Pope Benedict and that he wished “the best” to those who will choose his successor. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement that Benedict “will be missed as a spiritual leader to millions.”

Benedict will become the first pontiff to resign since Gregory XII, who was pressured to step down in 1415 to resolve a schism that had divided the church. The previous pope to quit was Celestine V in 1294 after reigning for five months. Many literature experts identify him as the nameless figure Dante Alighieri sees among those in the antechamber of Hell in his Divine Comedy, deemed by the poet as someone “who by his cowardice made the great refusal.”

Today’s announcement took even senior church officials by surprise, Lombardi said. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said on the sidelines of an event in Milan that he was very shaken by the unexpected news, Ansa reported.

Moral Relativism

A traditionalist, Benedict succeeded John Paul II in April 19, 2005 after spending a quarter century as the enforcer of doctrine in an office formerly known as the Inquisition. A scholar, Benedict spent years penning by hand his philosophical take on the life of Jesus Christ in a three-volume book. He was an enemy of “moral relativism” and considered it his main job to resist some of the changes sweeping modern society.

He strengthened the Church’s opposition to women joining the priesthood, clamped down on efforts to open up to homosexuals and vigorously opposed birth control. Before becoming pope, he announced that he would prefer a smaller, purer church to a broader one if it meant easing doctrine.

“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goals one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” he said a day before the conclave of cardinals met to elect him pope.

After his election as pontiff, he compared the job he was about to accept with a guillotine falling toward his neck, and to capital punishment.

‘Death Sentence’

“He is probably the first pope in history to compare his election with a death sentence,” said John Allen Jr., author of “Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith.” The pope’s real name is Joseph Ratzinger and he chose the name of Benedict when he became pope.

Succeeding a revered pope who was swiftly put on the path to sainthood, Benedict discovered not only that he couldn’t match John Paul II’s charisma but that some of the failings of his predecessor would come back to haunt his own papacy.

The church came in for criticism at the start of his tenure for doing too little to punish pedophile priests and even covering up evidence of their abuse. Benedict did confront the issue, apologizing for the church’s shortcomings in not better protecting children from wayward priests and he met and prayed with victims of abuse.

New Economic Order

As the global credit crisis unfolded, Benedict found his voice as an advocate for a new financial and social order in the aftermath of the market meltdown. As an octogenarian, he published a 150-page encyclical calling for a new economic order with “real teeth.”

Still, the recurring theme of his papacy has been a personal battle against relativism, wherein religious truth and practices are malleable to suit lifestyle demands of changing cultures. He argued it would be a mistake to compromise on ideology to make the faith more accessible to modern societies.

That is not to say that Benedict, who preferred to write by hand, wasn’t dragged into the 21st century by outside pressure to appear in touch with the times. He even set up a Twitter account this year.

For example, Benedict reviewed the church’s stance on contraception. He commissioned a 200-page report to explore the effect that condoms could have in stopping the spread of infectious diseases, including AIDS. The effort eventually yielded to a slight shift, while at the same time reaffirming the church’s approach. In 2010, Benedict said that condom use can be justified in “single cases,” for example by sex workers, as a necessary “humanization of sexuality,” while reiterating the church still opposed contraceptive use.

German Pontiff

Benedict was the first German pontiff since Victor II in the 11th century and the oldest cardinal elected since Clement XII, who was also 78 when chosen in 1730. His fellow cardinals needed only four ballots to select him pope.

John Paul tapped then-cardinal Ratzinger in 1981 to head a body that today is better known for putting the astronomer Galileo Galilei on trial for heresy in the 17th century. In that role, he quashed efforts by some priests to convince the Vatican to ease doctrine on issues such as celibacy for priests and took on liberal theologians such as Brazil’s Leonardo Boff.

“Ratzinger would never be swayed from his beliefs,” said Allen. “At his age and with his life experience, his core ideas were very well fixed.”