Is the retired pope still infallible?

Readers answer other readers' questions on subjects ranging from trivial flights of fancy to profound scientific concepts

Now that Pope Benedict has stepped down, does he remain infallible? If so, how might that conflict with the infallibility of the next incumbent?

The pope is infallible when, as head of the bishops of the church, he requires the faithful to believe a matter pertaining to faith or morals. This is the standard definition of infallibility. It goes no further. Should the pope stick his head out of doors and remark that it will be a nice day, he is just as liable to be snowed on as the next man.

In practice, this means that the church debates a subject at great length and when the bishops and laity are in agreement, the pope makes an infallible pronouncement. The bishops' discussions before the announcement can take a long time; the doctrine of the immaculate conception was in debate for at least 1,300 years before being made official.

The pope, then, is analogous to the head of any company; he will say what his board of directors tells him. In the case of Emeritus Pope Benedict, the exercise of infallibility will not be required, since he is no longer in charge. Pope Francis is unlikely to have to be called upon, because there is nothing significant in the pipeline, as far as I know. Any other pronouncements the pope may make will be to do with organisational matters such as married priests, contraception and the like, which are liable to change because they are man-made rules promulgated in the best knowledge of their time. He will not be infallible when he makes such pronouncements, so just think of the pope as Mr Chairman and relax.

Terry Harvey, Chester-le-Street, Co Durham

When the pope renounces his papacy – symbolically marked by the crushing of his papal ring – he is no longer infallible, nor more pope than you or I. And his title Pope Emeritus etc is purely honorary.


No. Keeping those red slippers was a big mistake. Huge.


Before people had a language, how could they think?

If I nip smartly across to that rock over there, that sabre-toothed tiger probably won't notice me – that doesn't need words, just the ability to imagine a 3D scenario.

That cave is probably warmer than that one – we can recognise a category of things seen, like a cave, or a concept like warm, without needing words or pictures.

When we rack our brains to remember a word, we are thinking largely wordlessly, until the word appears.

As a kind of mathematician, the assumption that thinking requires words annoys me. Mathematical thought doesn't use words or even symbols in many cases. It's more like a brass rubbing: a pattern that becomes clearer as you repeatedly direct attention to different parts of it.

Where communication, hence words, become essential is when we want to put thoughts into a shareable, eventually recordable form, without which complex ideas cannot evolve over time.

Roger Haines, London W5

It's said the sandwich was invented by the 4th Earl of Sandwich. What would he have put in it?

The earl was about 1600 years too late to claim to be the inventor of the sandwich: "This is what [Rabbi] Hillel would do when the the Temple stood. He would make a sandwich of matzah [unleavened bread] and bitter herbs and eat them together." (Quotation from the Haggadah, the prayer book for the eve of passover.)

Perhaps we should call them hillels rather than sandwiches – though I can't imagine that bitter herb hillels would be all that popular at Pret.

Arnold Zermansky, Leeds

More than a century before the Earl of Sandwich, an English traveller in Amsterdam observed: "In all the taverns, there is always a cheese, and also a ham or joint of beef. Upon a customer's request, slices of these will be placed between slices of bread. This they call the belegde broodje and it is greatly esteemed as a small meal."


History might have turned out differently, according to Black Adder the Third: Blackadder asks Baldrick for "something quick and simple to eat … two slices of bread with something in between." "What, like Gerald Lord Sandwich had the other day?" asks Baldrick. "Yes," says Blackadder: "a few rounds of geralds".

Jane Harrison, Manchester

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