The unprecedented resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on Monday surprised many people who had come to believe that a Pope serves until he dies. Robert Mugagga writes on the history of popes in the Catholic Church, and why an African pope is unlikely today.
Pope Benedict XVI's unprecedented announcement on Monday that he would resign at the end of February brings to a close one of the shortest papacies in history. The shocking decision, which was announced in Latin during a meeting of Vatican cardinals, makes Benedict XVI the first Pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years.
When Benedict was elected in 2005, aged 78, he was the oldest pope chosen in nearly 300 years. At the time, he had been planning to retire as the Vatican's chief orthodoxy watchdog to spend his final years writing in the "peace and quiet" of his native Bavaria, Germany. Though to many, Benedict's resignation is unimaginable, according to Canon Law it is normal and acceptable.
His predecessor, John Paul II, nearly resigned in 1989, feeling his failing health was preventing him from leading the church effectively. But he changed his mind and decided to stay on because he firmly believed his mission was to lead the world's 1.1 billion Catholics into the new millennium.
According to various Vatican sources, after resigning on February 28, Pope Benedict XVI will live a simple life at Castel Gandolf, a papal summer residence outside Rome. It is believed that the Pope will revert to his old title of 'Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger' though some sources have not ruled out him being referred to as 'Pope Emeritus' (retired pope) or 'Bishop of Rome Emeritus'.
As the reign of a pope has conventionally been from election until death, papal resignation is rather uncommon; only five popes have resigned, all but one between the 11th and 15th centuries. There are disputed claims of four [other] popes having resigned between the 3rd and 11th centuries.
The Canon Law of the Catholic Church mentions papal resignation in Canon 332, where it states that if it should happen that the Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that he make the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone. Canon law does not specify any particular individual or body or people to whom the Pope must manifest his resignation, but some analysts hold that the College of Cardinals, at least its dean, must be informed.
The first historically clear papal resignation is that of Pope Benedict IX in 1045. In order to rid the Catholic Church of the scandalous Benedict, Pope Gregory VI had reportedly given Benedict "valuable possessions" to resign the papacy in his favour. Gregory himself resigned in 1046 because the arrangement he had entered into with Benedict IX was considered to be wrong.
Another well-known resignation is that of Pope Celestine V in 1294. After only five months of pontificate, he issued a solemn decree declaring it permissible for a pope to resign, and then did so himself. He lived two more years as a hermit and then later as a prisoner of his successor, Pope Boniface VIII.
Pope Gregory XII (1406-1415) resigned in 1415 in order to end a schism in the church, which had reached a point where there were three claimants to the papacy. Canon law makes no provision for a pope being incapacitated for reasons of health, either temporarily or permanently. It does, however, state that "when the Roman See is vacant, or completely impeded, no innovation is to be made in the governance of the universal church."
When the cardinals assemble in Rome to elect the next pope next month, many Africans will be hoping that he will be one of their own. Speculation about who will become pope is a hazardous business for those keen to bet. But that will not stop it. Some think the next pope could come from the Third World, where Catholicism is growing fastest, with African, South American and the Far East cardinals in contention.
Bookmakers have singled out Ghana's Peter Turkson (64) as the most likely of Africa's cardinals. Those who look to South America believe Archbishop Odilo Pedro Scherer (63) of Sao Paulo, Brazil, has a strong chance. In the Far East, 55 year-old Luis Antonio Tagle of The Philippines is seen as a strong candidate. Elsewhere, Canada's Marc Cardinal Ouellet (68) has been cited, along with the only two likely Italians, Archbishop Angelo Scola (71) of Milan and Gianfranco Ravasi (70) - President of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
Yet others point to 67-year-old Archbishop Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, Benedict's former student. The composition of the College of Cardinals could prove the greatest barrier to an African being elected a pope. The body of 117 voting members consists mostly of white Europeans and North Americans. Africa has only 18 members, while a quarter are Italians!
Three cardinals will represent the East African region. These are Polycarp Cardinal Pengo, the Archbishop of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), John Cardinal Njue of Nairobi (Kenya), and Gabriel Cardinal Zuber Wako of Sudan. Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala of Uganda will not be taking part since he is above 80, and thus doesn't qualify to be part of the papal electorate.
The composition of the College of Cardinals clearly shows that the church's top hierarchy differs dramatically from the mass of believers. More than two-thirds of Catholics are now estimated to live in the "global south". The religion is growing rapidly in Africa even as it steadily declines in Europe.
It must be noted that none of the last four popes was predicted as a likely candidate; so, the new pope is likely to be a surprise. What is certain, however, is that the next pope is likely to be as conservative as his last two predecessors. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI appointed nearly all the 117 cardinals who will elect the new pope - and most of them share the two popes' theological thinking.
Additional reporting by Moses Talemwa