First, let's all take a breath and realize how unprecedented this is. Yes, I know this has happened before, centuries ago, but nothing like it has happened since before America was discovered. These are uncharted waters we are about to go through. Scary? Yes. Uncertain? Of course. Interesting? You bet your bippy.
Canon Law allows for this to happen. Canon 332, paragraph 2, says that the Roman Pontiff may validly resign his office if he does so "freely" (no one can hold a gun to his head and force him to resign) and that it be "duly manifested" (he can't do it secretly - the universal Church needs to know). His resignation does not need to be accepted by anyone. He essentially resigns to himself.
Now, to the haters, the conspiracy theorists, to those who pretend to advocate things like "tolerance" and "acceptance of all beliefs" (providing you agree with them), I say just shut your pie hole. This isn't about some nasty scandal that is about to break. This is about bad health. Nor is this your foot in the door to open up your old playbook of, "Now can we have a discussion about ______?" This isn't about what doctrine(s) will change. They won't, even after the new guy is elected. What, you can have a shifting paradigm every five years, and the Pope can't have one?
OK, so let's talk about bad health. The Ratzinger family has had some bad health in it. The Pope's father died two days after suffering a stroke in 1958. The Pope's mother died from stomach cancer in 1963. His sister is already gone. He and his brother have had health scares in the past. Also, don't overlook the Holy Father's timing of the announcement. He announced this on the Church's World Day of Prayer for the Sick (emphasis added). In the announcement, he hinted to health setbacks in the last few months, saying that in order to perform the functions of the Pope, "...strength of mind and body are needed, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me...". Yes, he is keeping the particulars private, but he is a sick man. JP2, even at the last moments of his life, could communicate to aides in soft, mumbled tones. How would the Church function with a Pope who has had a stroke, whose heart beats on but who cannot communicate with anyone? He would not want the Church to endure that.
Also, from the start of his pontificate (when everyone assumed the new pope would be called John Paul III), the choice of his name showed he did not see himself as another John Paul II. I'm sure he thought it heroic that Pope John Paul remained in office until his death, but it doesn't mean he felt obligated to do the same. Every Pope is his own man.
Scott Hahn had a great anecdote/insight into the Holy Father's thinking on this:
Back on April 29, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI did something rather striking, but which went largely unnoticed. He stopped off in Aquila, Italy, and visited the tomb of an obscure medieval Pope named St. Celestine V (1215-1296). After a brief prayer, he left his pallium, the symbol of his own episcopal authority as Bishop of Rome, on top of Celestine's tomb!
Fifteen months later, on July 4, 2010, Benedict went out of his way again, this time to visit and pray in the cathedral of Sulmona, near Rome, before the relics of this same saint, Celestine V.Now let's talk a little about the Papacy. Matthew 16:19 is the big passage - Jesus giving Peter the keys, meaning authority. It refers back to Isaiah 22:22 and the taking away of the keys (aka stripping of authority) from one steward, Shebna, and giving it to another, Eliakim. The keys are an office that can move from person to person, depending on whom the King chooses. In this case, the keys are not being taken away, they are being given away. But the idea is the same.
Few people, however, noticed at the time.
Only now, we may be gaining a better understanding of what it meant. These actions were probably more than pious acts. More likely, they were profound and symbolic gestures of a very personal nature, which conveyed a message that a Pope can hardly deliver any other way.
In the year 1294, this man (Fr. Pietro Angelerio), known by all as a devout and holy priest, was elected Pope, somewhat against his will, shortly before his 80th birthday (Ratzinger was 78 when he was elected Pope in 2005). Just five months later, after issuing a formal decree allowing popes to resign (or abdicate, like other rulers), Pope Celestine V exercised that right. And now Pope Benedict XVI has chosen to follow in the footsteps of this venerable model.
What happens to him afterwards? He will NOT be an ex-Pope the way we think of former Presidents of the United States, showing up to give speeches and open shopping malls. We probably will never see him again. He most likely will not write publicly any more. There is only one Peter at one time in the Church, and he knows a Pope and a visible former Pope would be confusing to the Church. He will go back to being what he was, an ordained Bishop of the Catholic Church and a member of the College of Cardinals, though I'm sure he will not be at the Conclave that will elect his successor. Because he is over the age of 80, he would not be allowed to vote for his successor, and even if the Cardinals elect him again, he may validly refuse election.
Despite what is being said on some stations (including some Catholic stations), the Pope has not resigned yet. He has announced that he will do so on February 28 at 8:00pm. Until then, he is fully the Pope. Technically, he could change his mind and remain Pope. He still has all the powers a Pope has ("supreme, full, immediate, and universal") in the Church.
What will happen next? On the 28th at the proper hour, he will probably sign a document attesting to his renouncing of the Petrine office. Perhaps the Dean of the College of Cardinals (Card. Sodano) and the Cardinal Camerlengo (Card. Bertone) will be present. At that time the Cardinals assume trusteeship of the Church, and the Cardinals of the Church will be called to Rome for a conclave. Without a funeral first, they can go right into their general meetings to handle the business of the Church. They will have Mass every day, though this time not for the repose of the Pope's soul, but for guidance of the Holy Spirit on their conclave. We will probably have a new Pope by Holy Week.
Maybe the Cardinals will start to arrive in Rome on their own. Maybe he will resign in the presence of every Cardinal? Again, this is new territory we're in. If you want some reading on the topic, read Pope John Paul's 1996 Apostolic Constitution on the election of the Roman Pontiff.
How will the world respond to this? Our culture says promote yourself. Heck, why else would I be writing this blog? Pope Benedict is voluntarily choosing to walk away from celebrity and power for the greater good. He's not being paid to do so. He won't write a book about it or tell Barbara Walters or Katie Couric about it. The world won't get this because what the world holds up as success and happiness is not about anonymity or humility.
What a moment in the life of the Church. I can't watch, but I can't not watch.