Q: A friend asked me recently, “Now that Benedict XVI has resigned as pope, is he still infallible?” I don’t think so, but I wasn’t sure how to explain my answer. Can you help?
A: No, a retired pope is not infallible because that guarantee is not a personal quality; it is attached to the office that he no longer holds. This is true in terms of the pope’s extraordinary teaching authority, which Pope Pius XII used in his 1950 definition of Mary’s assumption into heaven. He acknowledged consulting the world’s bishops prior to that decision.
Benedict XVI remains a member of the college of bishops—though obviously a unique member. When that group collectively teaches something as essential to the Catholic faith (for example, the Nicene Creed, the Trinity, or the Incarnation), it teaches infallibly. The college of bishops has “supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff” (Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 22).
Infallibility is a guarantee that the Church cannot lead Catholics into definitive error on a matter essential for their salvation.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has chosen a hidden life of prayer as his new ministry within the Church. Less than 12 hours before he resigned on February 28, he publicly pledged to the College of Cardinals that he would accept and obey whomever they elect as his successor.
Theoretically, a retired pope could become a point of division within the Catholic Church; Benedict XVI has promised not to cooperate with any such attempt.