Pope Benedict XVI sent shock waves through the Catholic world when he announced he was resigning. Although he gave reasons, chiefly "advanced age" and declining strength, speculations have flourished about the true reason behind the decision.
In the address read in Latin, the tremulous Pontiff said his strength of mind and body has "deteriorated... to the extent that I have to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."
The Guardian reports that at a hurriedly arranged press conference, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, said the 85-year-old Pontiff took the decision to resign as a "personal decision" and that he did not come under any external pressure. However, speculations abound on Twitter that the Pontiff was forced to resign.
As a prelude to full blown conspiracy theories, it is generally acknowledged that his time as Pope has been filled with a string of controversies. He has certainly had a "difficult papacy," The Guardian notes. This explains partly why some of the conspiracy theories being promoted may have some substance.
Under Benedict XVI's papacy, the Roman Catholic Church has suffered in prestige after revelations of several pedophile scandals and charges of money laundering.
Piers Morgan voiced the widely held view that it is suspicious enough that a Pope would simply quit on the grounds of old age:
As a Catholic, I’m not buying this. Popes don’t just quit because they’re tired. What’s going on here??
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) February 11, 2013The Atlantic Wire notes that John Paul II, who was suffering from Parkinson's "served as pope until his last breath."
Morgan said: "The Queen's a year older than The Pope. Can't see her ever resigning because she's tired."
The conspiracy theories making the rounds range from the downright absurd to those that appear to have some substance. And with Benedict XVI being the first Pope to resign in 600 years the urge to speculate may be irresistible to some.
Pope Benedict XVI: Conspiracy theories
The conspiracy theories
A popular conspiracy theory being promoted on Twitter is that a big sex scandal is about to erupt in the Vatican. But as The Inquistr notes, the Vatican has lived on a staple of sex scandals for centuries, so any "new" revelation isn't likely to be new.
According to The Atlantic Wire, there is, however, a personal involvement in the sex scandals that may have impacted on Benedict XVI. According to the story, in 2010, "a priest accused of molesting boys was given therapy in 1980 and later allowed to resume pastoral duties, before committing further abuses and being prosecuted. Pope Benedict, who at the time headed the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, approved the priest’s transfer for therapy."
The conspiracy theory alleges that a documentary which reveals Pope Benedict's culpability in the case is about to erupt in a scandal. While some say the office of the Pope has been sufficiently besmirched by the scandal to warrant to his resignation, others speculate that an even bigger scandal may be brewing.
A second popular theory recalls his childhood involvement in the Hitler Youth movement. This really isn't anything new either. Pope Benedict XVI had acknowledged his involvement with the Hitler Youth, describing it as a “dark time” in his past. But he defended himself, saying he was forced to join the movement. But some are speculating that there may be some new big revelation about his Nazi past that is too big for the Vatican to handle.
The Atlantic Wire quotes a few skeptical tweets that center on his Nazi past:
Lol at my dad telling people the Pope's being forced to resign cause his Nazi past has been dug up.
— John Michael Lowe (@JohnMichaelLowe) February 11, 2013
Resigning for health reasons! Yeah. That's it. Not because of anything scandalous like covering up child abuse or having a Nazi youth past.
— Melanie Karin (@melaniekarin) February 11, 2013
Old Benni's Nazi past is trending in the UK, right up there with all the Popery. This is the most patriotic I've felt in years.
— Michael Richmond (@Sisyphusa) February 11, 2013
Then comes, finally, a rash of millennial "prophetic" conspiracy theories bordering on the absurd.
According to The Atlantic Wire, the prophetic theory goes that the last Pope to resign in 1415, Gregory XII, did so to prevent a schism in the church over succession. The argument goes that Benedict's resignation may be in response to growing threats of schism in the 21st century Roman Catholic Church over demands that the next Pope should come from a non-European part of the world. Media reports already hint that any move to block the demand may result in a rift. Benedict was elected Pope at a time expectations were high that the next Pope would either be an African, the Cardinal Francis Arinze, or a Cardinal from Latin America.
Closely related to this is the seemingly inane theory about a papal prophecy from St. Malachy being circulated under the hashtag #ProphecyOfThePopes. Malachy, a monk born in 1094, allegedly prophesied that Pope Benedict’s successor “Peter the Roman” (hashtag: #PetrusRomanus/#PeterTheRoman) will ruin Rome and the Catholic Church. The prophecy connects to an apocalyptic #EndTimes prophecy that Peter the Roman's papacy will be the last.
In spite of the conspiracy theories, close Vatican watchers say Benedict's resignation was not altogether unexpected. Those who have been watching his papacy closely were not taken by surprise. The Guardian reports that his decision recalls an interview for the book "Light of the World" during which he said: "If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of an office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign."
When he was elected Pope in 2005, Benedict at 78 was the oldest person to have been elected Pope since Clement XII in the 18th century. The Telegraph reports close associates say he had been planning a peaceful retirement in Bavaria. His declining strength had not escaped the attention of watchers. He suffered a hemorrhagic stroke 1991. He also suffers severe arthritis.