America's 77 million Catholics generally gave Pope Benedict XVI high marks, but his surprise decision to step down after just eight years comes as the U.S. church confronts a string of unanswered questions, on issues ranging from divisions with the Obama administration on birth control and gay marriage to political activism by U.S. nuns and the continuing fallout from the sexual-abuse scandals in dioceses across the country.
Despite his reputation as a conservative disciplinarian, the pope scored well in surveys of American Catholics after succeeding Pope John Paul II in April 2005, capped by a 2008 visit to New York and Washington that drew large, friendly crowds and featured a personal apology from Benedict to the victims of the clergy abuse.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, praised Benedict on Monday for his eight years of world travels, as well as bringing "a listening heart to victims of sexual abuse by clerics."
Pope Benedict stood for "eternal truths" and against the "dictatorship of relativism," said the New York archbishop, who will vote in his first conclave of cardinals to select Benedict's successor.
Catholic University of American President John Garvey praised Benedict as "a public figure of considerable importance, reminding the world of the inviolable dignity of the human person and the call of the Gospel to charity."
Even those who clashed with Benedict expressed respect for his learning, piety and willingness to step aside for the greater good of the church.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the target of a Vatican-backed drive to rein in politically active Catholic nuns, issued a statement thanking the pope for "his many years of tireless service to the Catholic Church and for the contributions he has made as a theologian, as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as pope."
"We respect his integrity in making what must have been a difficult decision to resign and promise him our prayer as he prepares to leave the papacy," the LCWR statement said. "May he be richly blessed for his profound dedication to the service of the Gospel."
Despite his following in the wake of the charismatic Pope John Paul II, a July 2012 poll by Pew Research Center found that 74 percent of U.S. Catholics said they were "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with Pope Benedict, compared with 72 percent who gave a similar rating for John Paul II in 2002 in the waning years of his papacy.
With speculation already turning to who will be the next bishop of Rome, U.S. conservative Catholics mourned the retirement of a pope whom they saw as checking some of the church's liberalizing excesses of recent decades.
"This is a shock to all Catholics," said Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. "We have lived in an age of great pontiffs. Certainly, he was one of the greatest."
The timing of the resignation announcement was "startling," but reflected the pontiff's humility and love for the church, Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said at a news conference Monday.
"I do think that if the Holy Father reached in his heart and in his conscience the decision that he didn't have the energy to continue, then whatever time he makes that decision is going to be the appropriate time," said Cardinal Wuerl, adding that at their last meeting, the pontiff appeared "very alert" and "with a good bit of energy."
Asked about the selection process for the next pope, Cardinal Wuerl, who is also part of the conclave who will make that decision, said the choice will be driven by "what is God asking of us in making a choice for who will fill the Chair of Peter."
"I think that's going to be the only consideration: Who among this body has the qualifications, the characteristics, the spiritual gifts to fill that chair?" he said, noting that the next pope should also have the physical stamina to travel as well.
Benedict is stepping down "out of love for the church and her needs, much as he began his papacy with a focus on love, [titling] his first encyclical 'God is Love,'" said Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser of the Catholic Association.
The announcement also sparked comments about what other big changes could be afoot.
"Imagine the shock waves -- and the hope -- that would be generated if, in his waning days, the pontiff demoted, disciplined, or defrocked even a handful of bishops who are concealing child-sex crimes. And imagine the deterrent that would be to present and future cover-ups," said Barbara Dorris, outreach coordinator for Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.
The Women's Ordination Conference, an advocacy group that supports allowing women to become priests, said they would be praying for the ailing pope. But they criticized his "steps backward" for women in the church and promised to raise "pink smoke" during the papal conclave.
But traditional Catholics were also prepared to fight for Benedict's legacy.
"The idiocy already begins," Mr. Ruse said, referring to such comments. "No doubt, the hard left will be circling around the papacy in the days and weeks to come."
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