Minutes after Benedict XVI announced Monday that he would step down at the end of the month, wags were joking on Twitter that the Holy Father would become gaffe-prone after Feb. 28, having relinquished his papal infallibility.
By choosing to be the first pontiff since Gregory XII in 1415 to leave office, Pope Benedict raised intriguing questions about his future title and privileges and what would happen to that mysterious infallibility.
Why did the Pope fire himself?
While it is rare for pontiffs to step down, Canon 332, Section 2 of the Code of Canon Law spells out the possibility.
The section says a resignation has to be "made freely and properly manifested" but does not have to be accepted by anyone in particular.
As head of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, unlike other bishops, has no superior to whom he could present his resignation, said Chad Glendinning, a professor of canon law at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.
So all Benedict had to do, following a canonization council on Monday, was to announce that "I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter."
Will he still be a cardinal? What will he be called?
Before he became Benedict XVI, he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Prof. Glendinning said he expects the outgoing Pope to revert to a title he held earlier, such as cardinal or bishop, since the pope is the bishop of Rome. "Since this is a new situation, it is not clear how Benedict XVI will be addressed. Certainly he is a bishop and, at the very least, he will retain this designation," Prof. Glendinning said.
At a press briefing Tuesday, Rev. Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See press office, explained that the Vatican's office of protocol was still trying to clarify what would be Benedict's future title and role. "It's uncharted territory for us all," Father Lombardi told reporters.
Will he remain infallible once he no longer is pope?
In short, no, he will not remain infallible.
Papal infallibility is rarely invoked and applies only to doctrinal or moral matters. Benedict didn't delve into such matters during his tenure and would lose that ability once he leaves his pontifical functions. Prof. Glendinning points to Canon 749, which says that it is only "by virtue of his office" that a pope possesses infallibility in his teachings.
So what will he do next?
Father Lombardi had said that Benedict will move to the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. Once renovations at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery, inside the Vatican, are complete, the outgoing Pope will relocate there "for a period of prayer and reflection." The Pope's brother, Georg Ratzinger, spoke to his famous sibling and told reporters that Benedict doesn't plan to return to Germany but would rather keep a low profile at the Vatican. "You don't transplant an old tree," Georg Ratzinger said.