Pope Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would resign, marking the first time in nearly 600 years that the head of the Roman Catholic Church has resigned instead of serving until death.
Pope Benedict, 85, cited his diminishing physical strength as the reason behind his announcement. He has been the leader of the church since the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005.
Joseph Ratzinger started as a liberal academic, but by the time he took office as Pope Benedict, his more conservative views took center stage. He asserted that Catholicism is the "true" faith and that other religions were deficient, according to The New York Times. In addition to his antigay views, Benefict also opposed female priests, condom use, and stem cell reseach.
During his time, several reports surfaced of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and clergy against children spanning several decades around the globe. It was revealed that in 1985, when he was a cardinal, he signed a letter thwarting efforts to defrock a convicted child-molesting priest, citing the good of the church.
Also as cardinal, Ratzinger was widely believed to have helped Pope John Paul II craft some of his more conservative and antigay statements. Later, Benedict railed against legal recognition of same-sex couples.
"Only the rock of total and irrevocable love between a man and a woman is capable of being the foundation of building a society that becomes a home for all man kind," Benefict said in 2006. "We are open to the tranmission of life and thus cooperate with God in the generation of new human beings." He added that any union between couples that is not marriage is "based on a love that is weak."
As recently as December, Pope Benedict celebrated the World Day of Peace, warning that any efforts to allow same-sex couples to marry would "actually harm and help to destabilize marriage."
He added, "There is also a need to acknowledge and promote the natural structure of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the face of attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different types of union; such attempts actually harm and help to destabilize marriage, obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society."
Vatican spokesman Reverend Federico Lombardi said that Pope Benedict will leave the Vatican February 28 and a successor could be elected as soon as Easter, March 31.
"The pope took us by surprise," Lombardi said.
Equally Blessed, an LGBT-inclusive Catholic group, issued a statement upon Benedict's announcement and said members were "grateful that Pope Benedict XVI had the foresight and humility to resign his office for the sake of the church to which he has given his life."
The organization added that the Roman Catholic Church now has the opportunity to change the church and overturn oppressice, homophobic policies.
"We pray for a pope who is willing to listen to and learn from all of God’s people. We pray for a pope who will realize that in promoting discrimination against LGBT people, the church inflicts pain on marginalized people, alienates the faithful and lends moral credibility to reactionary political movements across the globe. We pray for a pope who will lead the church in looking the sexual abuse scandal squarely in the eye and make a full report on the complicity of the hierarchy in the sexual trauma inflicted on children around the world. We pray for a pope who is willing to make himself vulnerable on behalf of the voiceless, the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed."