Pope Benedict XVI Resignation Dominates European News Coverage

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Before a visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the U.S in 2008, Maher called the church "a child-abusing religious cult" whose leader "has a compound," "operates outside the bounds of the law," "used to be a Nazi and wears funny hats."

UPDATED: The 85-year-old leader of the Catholic church took on his role in 2005 and will step down at the end of the month.

ROME – The unexpected announcement that Pope Benedict XVI would step down at the end of the month has sent shockwaves across the world, immediately touching off a flurry of speculation who would succeed the first pontiff to step down in more than 700 years.

The news immediately dominated news outlets in the U.S. and in Europe, including in Italy, where it performed the difficult trick of downgrading the country’s high-profile upcoming elections to page 2 news. 

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The 85-year-old Pope, who has been the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics since April 2005, said his age and health were reasons behind his decision to step down, effective Feb. 28. There was no announcement about what Benedict, whose public appearances have become increasingly infrequent and brief in recent months, would do next. A conclave to select a successor would likely take place in March.

It is not the first time in recent years there was speculation about a papal resignation. Benedict himself hinted about a possible eventual resignation in 2010, and there was a great deal of speculation that John Paul II, Benedict’s predecessor, might step down as his health declined late in life. But John Paul put those rumors to rest two years before he died in 2005, saying that “God put [him] in this post” and God would take him away when it was time to leave.

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The last undisputed pope to resign was Celestine V, who stepped down in 1294. The decision left him so despised that when the Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote Divine Comedy a quarter century later he placed Celestine in the lowest rung of hell. Pope Gregory XII was one of three claimants to the papacy when he resigned in 1415 as part of a compromise to end the Great Schism and return the papacy to Rome under a single figure. 

In a statement, read in Latin and released to reporters in seven other languages, Benedict said that after “having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of the papacy.

The news caught everyone off guard, including papal spokesman Federico Lombardi, who said, “We were all surprised.”

It was front-page news across the world, where the New York Times called it a ”Decision with Few Precedents.” In Germany, the words “The Pope Resigns!” spilled across the front page of the tabloid Bild, while El Pais in Spain and Le Monde in France both said the pope “lacked the strength” to carry on. Italy’s La Repubblica quoted Italian President Giorgio Napolitano -- who is two years older than the pope -- who called the decision “an act of courage.”

CNN host Piers Morgan chimed in on the news via Twitter: "As a Catholic, I'm not buying this. Popes don't just quit because they're tired. What's going on here??"

Georg Szalai contributed to this report.