Why the Pope Really Stepped Down: Your Guide to Ridiculous Conspiracy Theories

The Atlantic

Pope Benedict XVI announced today that he was stepping down from the papacy, a surprise move in which he cited "advanced age" and "strength of mind and body" that had "deteriorated." Far from the Vatican, though, the non-believers of the Internet aren't quite buying the old-age excuse — or at least they're getting distracted on a Monday by alleging everything from Benedict's Nazi past to new sex scandals as the real reason he's leaving right before Lent.

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The thing is, nobody really just quits being pope — John Paul II, who was suffering from Parkinson's, served as pope until his last breath — and that, along with the Catholic Church's scandal-ridden millenium, has led plenty on Twitter and across the web to connect the dots today:

Pope resigned?! Call me cynical but I can't help thinking terrible scandal about to break, but what? The church has been so scandal free...

— Dr Christian Jessen (@DoctorChristian) February 11, 2013

Here's what that "terrible scandal" just might be — according to the conspiracy theorists, at least:

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His Nazi Past?

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Pope Benedict has acknowledged the time in his German childhood when he was forced to join the Hitler Youth, calling it a "dark time" in his past. But less than two years after that admission, the non-believers are raising eyebrows:

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

The Nazi theory comes as Pope Pius XII, long believed to be a Nazi sympathizer, may be getting his own history rewritten.

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A Sex Scandal Connection?

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Benedict's tenure as pope has been punctuated by the boiling sex-abuse scandal across the Church, and he and his subordinates have been faced with repairing the Church's image. But there's a personal connection that's been hanging over his cap. In 2010, a German archdiocese had "said that 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," reported The New York Times's Nicholas Kulish and Rachel Donadio. HBO's Mea Maxima Culpa, a documentary exploring the culpability of Pope Benedict and the Catholic Church in the brewing scandal, premiered last week, as some were quick to point out Monday morning: 

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Twitter has been rife with talk about whether the pope is making up for his 2010 connection to the German priest, or whether there's a bigger sex scandal on its way to becoming public.

The Prophecy?

The last time a pope quit was almost 600 years ago. Gregory XII "left the papacy in 1415 to end what was known as the Western Schism among several competitors for the papacy," report The New York Times's Elisabetta Povoledo and Alan Cowell. The theory here is that if Benedict is retiring now, then it must mean there's something as big as that dividing the Church right now.

The Church has been long divided over its next course. And, on a slightly more ridiculous course, there is a papal prophecy out there from St. Malachy, a monk born in 1094, that Pope Benedict's successor will be a guy dubbed "Peter the Roman" and Peter the Roman's pontificate will be so bad that he will destroy Rome (the Catholic Church). That's a little worse than a schism: 

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