Pope Benedict XVI announced on Monday that he will resign the Papacy, effective February 28th, citing his declining health. "I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me," Benedict wrote in a statement. He is the first pope since 1415 to resign, and the office wil remain vacant until a successor is chosen by the traditional conclave of cardinals.

Benedict's eight years as pope were marked by a series of scandals in the Vatican and a pronounced conservative turn. A Vatican spokesman dismissed the idea that he is resigning over "depression," "uncertainty" or "difficulties in papacy." No: apparently he may have quit "to avoid [the] exhausting rush of Easter engagements."

Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger in Germany, will move to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo following the resignation, and then to a "cloistered residence" in the Vatican, according to a spokesman. Vatican officials have apparently known about the resignation for weeks, and were taken by surprise at the pope's decision.

During his eight-year pontificate, Benedict faced a near-constant chorus of calls for his resignation, generally over his handling of sex-abuse cases as a German bishop and as a cardinal. In 1985, he'd signed a letter that prevented a convicted child-molesting priest from being defrocked; in 2001, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he authored a letter asserting the church's right to keep its investigations into sexual abuse confidential. As pope, Benedict met with victims, and apologized repeatedly for the church's coverups and denials, but did little to change the institutional character or response to sex-abuse accusations.

But the sex abuse stuff wasn't the only thing going. As a child, Ratzinger was a member of the (compulsory) Hitler Youth; he also presided over a corrupt and scandal-ridden Vatican (though in fairness, what pontiff hasn't); and as a theologian, writer and administrator was a reactionary, a deeply conservative figure who repeatedly condemned the use of condoms even as they could save lives by preventing HIV, who uncritically quoted the words of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who called Islam "evil and inhuman," and who compared gay marriage to abortion and euthanasia as a threat to world peace—despite the fact that Benedict himself has often been assumed to be gay, thanks to his flamboyant fashion sense, his taste in handsome priestly assistants, and his fascination with shirtless male acrobats. He was also the first pope in Twitter, which has to count for something.

[image via AP]