As Benedict XVI (born Joseph Alosius Ratzinger) prepares to step down and become "pontiff emeritus," theories swirl as to why the 85-year-old is leaving his influential post. Benedict himself has cited his advanced age for the decision, but that hasn't stopped others from wondering whether something more sensational -- and, in some cases, heartbreaking -- motivated his stepping down.
Let's explore some of the more pervasive theories, from the plausible to impossible, from the sad to the completely absurd.
While the Vatican has officially stated that the pope's age, and not a specific malady or health issue, is the reason for his stepping down, some believe that deteriorating health is a factor. As the Daily Beast reports, "whispers of late-night helicopter trips to emergency rooms and hints that he is suffering some terminal illness like leukemia pushed forward by Italian gossip site Dagospia are unconfirmed, but still won't go away." Then there was the recently-confirmed fall he suffered during a March 2012 trip to Mexico -- a fall which Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi insists has no bearing on the pope's resignation. In addition, papal biographer Peter Seewald has reported that the pope appeared exhausted, thin and "depressed" when they met last November, and that his hearing and vision had greatly diminished.
Italian newspaper La Repubblica has been quick to report on a 300-page dossier organized by a pope-appointed commission of three cardinals and completed in November of 2012 as a result of the Vatileaks scandal. The dossier detailed, among other incidents, a "cross-party network united by sexual orientation" within the Catholic Church. The paper also alleges that the dossier highlights instances of blackmail, as well as various instances of theft among members of the Holy See.
Earlier this month, HBO premiered Mea Maxima Cupla, a documentary on the history of child sex abuse within the Church. It focused most of its attention on the Reverend Lawrence C. Murphy, a Wisconsin priest accused of sexually abusing hundreds of deaf boys over the span of 25 years. Correspondence between bishops in Wisconsin and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger showed that, in 1996, Ratzinger failed to respond to two letters from Milwaukee's archbishop, and Wisconsin bishops were later instructed to hold their own canonical trial, in secret. Instead, Murphy appealed to Ratzinger personally, writing that he should not be put on trial because he had already repented was in poor health, and the case had gone beyond the Church's statute of limitations. Murphy never stood trial, as Cardinal Ratzinger never pursued it, and he remained a priest -- and remained working with children -- until his death in 1998.
Prophecy of the Popes
Then there are more esoteric theories, such as the Prophecy of the Popes (or, if you prefer, Prophetia Sancte Malachiae Archiepiscopi, de Summis Pontificibus). It's a series of 112 phrases attributed to Saint Malachy and thought by some to predict the Church's papacy. Although it is officially dismissed by the Catholic Church and Catholic historians, those who defend the text believe that Benedict is the prophesied penultimate pope, whose successor will bring about the fall of Rome and the Apocalypse.