What Happens to Pope Benedict’s Infallibility When He’s No Longer Pope? 14

Answer: It’s not Pope Benedict’s infallibility.

At the end of every pontificate, there is always a lot of buzz and speculation surrounding the issue of the next Pope.

Who will he be? Will he let priests start marrying, allow women to be priests, or change the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception?

This time around things are obviously different, since Benedict will still be sticking around the Vatican after the new Pope is inaugurated. This situation raises a new plethora of questions a lot of people haven’t considered before.

Will we still call Pope Benedict, Pope Benedict? Will we call him the “Pope Emeritus”? Is he still infallible?

Many anti-Catholics groups and writers have taken the last question and started to run with it. “See, Papal Infallibility is nonsense,” they say. “How can a person go from being fallible to infallible, and then back to being fallible again just because of a change in office?”

This type of reasoning displays brutish ignorance over the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. It’s the same type of ignorance that associates the Pope’s infallibility with the Chair of Saint Peter too literally.

To be sure, according to the doctrine, the Pope’s infallible decrees have to be issued from the Chair of Saint Peter. Well, which chair is that?

Is it this one?

The Chair of Saint Peter

The Chair of Saint Peter

Or this one?

The Chair of Saint Peter

The Chair of Saint Peter

Whoops! Certainly can’t be this one.

This chair is currently occupied

This chair is currently occupied

If you get hung up on literalism, you’ll never get it. In the context of the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility, “the Chair of Saint Peter” refers to the Pope’s authority as Pope, that is, his authoritative role as the head of the Church to pronounce teachings on faith and morals to be held by the whole Church. He does not have to be sitting on any designated chair when he makes infallible pronouncements.

If you were able to get that distinction, then you are now in a good position to understand what happens to Pope Benedict’s infallibility when he’s no longer Pope.

Once again, the Pope is only infallible when he issues an official teaching concerning faith and morals to be held by the whole Church. Think about it. How many of those statements do you think Benedict XVI will make after he vacates Peter’s symbolic chair on February 28?

The answer is zero.

Got it? Let’s hope so.

Certainly there will be other questions about Pope Benedict’s resignation, his relationship with the next Pope, and the nature of the papacy in general swirling around in the media over the next few months. I think that a lot of these questions are healthy, earnest, and sincere. A lot of those questions can be answered just by understanding the biblical root of the papacy, which we find in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, chapter 16. Here is a good video clearing up some misconceptions over the Christ’s conferring on Saint Peter his authority over the Church.

I hope you enjoy the video. If you have any questions, please share them in the comments box below. If I or any other of our worthy commenter can answer them, we will.


  1. You’re teaching CCD class, James!
    Great stuff which I’ll be sharing with my sons over dinner tonight…

    ***And just an FYI: if you haven’t had a chance to peek at the very nice write-up on Pope Benedict in Canada’s ‘National Post’, it’s completely worth your while.
    I never know what to expect from NP sometimes, but this was a classy post, which is appropriate considering the Pope himself.

  2. Hey Biltrix,

    Thank you so much for this post and a well needed one at that. I think all you stated will hopefully clear up a lot of issues. Sigh, I still think though many who have nothing to do with their lives, will still try and find fault and maybe even some hidden reason for this decision. I cannot for the life of me understand why the “humility” of it all does not ever enter into their minds. Good post and God Bless, SR

    • It is unfortunate, that some people will find ways to spin the Pope’s resignation negatively. However, I think the majority of good-willed people see Pope Benedict for who he is, and they see the bad and misleading press for what it is too. The man was holy, humble, intelligent leader and above all a servant of God.

      I’d like to share with you the article that JTR mentioned in his comment above (also reblogged on his blog): There will be much to miss about Pope Benedict.

    • Pope Benedict is a great teacher. We love him and we will miss him. I am sure, however, that we have not heard the last of him. He is in our hearts and above all, in God’s heart.

  3. Since I don’t agree there is a biblical basis for it, I am not a fan of papal infallibility. Nonetheless, the vast majority of popes have been fine men and served well. Even so, power is attractive. If quitting the job before death is rare, that is because few have shown the humility of Pope Benedict. He is to be commended for putting the welfare of his flock before the elevation of his pride.

    Consider the presidency of the United States. To make certain our presidents know when to quit, we make them run for office every four year. Nonetheless, that did not stop President Franklin Roosevelt. To make certain we never got another President Franklin Roosevelt, we had to amend the Constitution, no small task.

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