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Introduction to The Gift of Infallibility | Rev. James T. O'Connor

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The gift of infallibility; given by the Lord to His Church and to St. Peter and his successors as chief teachers and pastors of the Church, has, along with many other truths, become a matter of renewed theological discussion and contention since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The doctrine of infallibility, which holds that the Church and the Pope are, in specific and determined circumstances, not able to make a mistake when teaching matters of faith and morals that must be held by all the faithful, has itself been declared to be—insofar as the Pope is concerned—a matter of faith that has been divinely revealed. This definition of faith was proclaimed at the first Council of the Vatican (1869-1870) during the pontificate of Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878).

Much has been written about the development of the doctrine of infallibility and about the meaning of chapter four of the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, in which the bishops at Vatican I solemnly taught the infallibility of the Pope. Central to all the discussions on the meaning of papal infallibility as Vatican I defined it has been the official presentation, the July 11, 1870, relatio, made by Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser to the general congregation of bishops of Vatican I.

Dom Cuthbert Butler, whose two-volume work The Vatican Council: The Story from Inside in Bishop Ullathorne's Letters, although long out of print, remains the most complete history of the First Vatican Council in English, wrote:

"Msgr. Vincent Gasser, Prince-Bishop of Brixen, Austrian Tyrol, stands out as the most prominent theologian of the Council." [1]

History has confirmed that judgment. So important is the relatio of Gasser that it has itself become a theological source; it is cited in innumerable manuals and theological treatments and serves even in our own times as a key element in the renewed theological discussions about infallibility. Indeed the Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, cites Gasser's relatio four times in its important chapter on the Magisterium, or teaching office of Pope and bishops. That chapter (no. 25) has approximately only fifty-five lines of text and eight official footnotes. Thus, half of the citations in that key chapter of Vatican II's Lumen Gentium are to Gasser's relatio.

Despite its importance in all theological discussion on the doctrine of infallibility, Gasser's relatio has never, as far as I can determine, been translated from the original Latin into English. Butler's work devotes a chapter to it and translates or paraphrases about one-third of the original, [2] thereby highlighting most of the key issues, but also omitting several significant points. The result is that a major theological source remains unavailable to all those who do not have the time or proficiency in Latin to tackle the twenty-six long columns of the original as found in Mansi. [3]

Vincent Gasser was born in 1809, taught dogmatic theology after ordination to the priesthood, was nominated by Emperor Franz Josef as prince-bishop of Brixen in the Tyrol in 1856, and died there as bishop in 1879. The importance of his role at Vatican Council I can be gathered from the following considerations.

In order to facilitate their work, the bishops at Vatican I established various commissions or deputations to act as what might be called "clearing centers" for the work of the Council. Probably the most important of these commissions was the Deputation de fide, to which was ultimately entrusted the work of producing a draft document on papal infallibility. The members of the Deputation de fide were all elected by the bishops of the Council from a list drawn up by Archbishop Manning of Westminster, England, the leader of those favoring the definition of papal infallibility. The deputation consisted of twenty-four members, among whom were Manning; Victor Dechamps of Belgium; Ignatius Senestrey of Ratisbon; John Spalding of Baltimore, Maryland; the primates of Hungary and Poland (then part of the German Empire); Pie of Poitiers, France; and Gasser. Only the primate of Hungary, John Simor, belonged to that minority of bishops at the Council who did not favor a definition of papal infallibility.

After its initial meetings, the deputation presented to the bishops a draft (hereafter referred to as the Draft) of chapter four for the Constitution Pastor Aeternus. That Draft, found in the next chapter of this book, was accepted by the bishops at the Council as their working document, to be changed or emended after discussion and voting. The Draft consisted of two long paragraphs. Two days before Gasser gave his relatio, however, the deputation proposed certain changes in the Draft, changes that were to be inserted between paragraphs one and two of the Draft. The deputation had also reworked the actual definition (paragraph two of the Draft); all of Gasser's remarks in his relatio refer to the Draft and these changes. (These changes and the proposed new form of the definition follow in the next chapter of this book.) In addition to the changes proposed by the deputation itself, long discussions in the general congregations of the bishops had resulted in over seventy other suggested changes in the Draft. The deputation had the task of reviewing each of these suggestions and of recommending to the bishops what action should be taken concerning them.

The deputation then entrusted to Gasser the task of relaying its recommendations, and of giving an official explanation of the meaning of the emended Draft so that the bishops would know precisely what they were voting on when they came to approve or reject the proposed chapter four of Pastor Aeternus. It is in this aspect of his task that the importance of Gasser's relatio can be discerned. It is the key to proper interpretation of chapter four of Pastor Aeternus as it was finally approved since the bishops voted on it, as explained by Gasser representing the Deputation de fide.

As given by Gasser, the relatio of July 11 took almost four hours to deliver, despite the fact that his style is precise, clear, and, with one exception, not given to digressions. The relatio reveals a mind that is logical in process and fully acquainted with the historical and theological aspects of the question at hand. The talk is devoid of polemical attacks against the minority, who did not want a definition of papal infallibility, and gives no ground to those of the bishops who wanted what might be called an "extremist" view of papal infallibility to be defined. At first glance, the relatio given by Bishop Gasser seems to contain little that is new to us. It appears to be the standard understanding of what Vatican I defined vis-à-vis papal infallibility. A careful reading, however, will produce some "surprises", especially in regard to what is meant by the word "define" as it is used in the definition of papal infallibility and in regard to what matters are to be held as capable of being included in an infallible definition of the Pope.

Gasser delivered his relatio at a time when the whole ambit of discussion on infallibility was somewhat different from the one we experience after a second Vatican Council. Some aspects of recent discussion were outside his perspective; questions have been raised that he did not foresee and could not have foreseen. I have had to resist the temptation to reread Gasser's relatio in the light of recent controversies and of the various uses made of his relatio by theologians of opposing views. Therefore I have kept the commentary to the minimum I considered necessary to clarify what Gasser himself said, hoping thereby to offer his work as a source and not as one more partisan treatise in the ongoing discussions on infallibility.

What commentary there is will be found in single spacing at the foot of Gasser's text. The numerical references in the right-hand margins are to the Mansi columns of the original, and, to facilitate reference to the original, I have retained the same paragraph structure as is found in the original.

The Second Vatican Council, which in its own teaching on the Magisterium of the Church uses Gasser's relatio as a source, has, of course, set the question of papal infallibility in the context of the infallibility or indefectability of the entire Church. For that very reason, I have written the final chapter, which deals with the topic of infallibility in this wider perspective as the Church teaches it. In that chapter I have tried to present an overview of the entire question of infallibility with an effort to keep the question less "specialized" than is Gasser's relatio or the commentary on it. I have also tried to arrange it in such a way that it can be used as a type of "study guide" to the relatio of Bishop Gasser. In this way, hopefully, the work may be of value to the general student as well as to the specialist. Even there, however, I have generally avoided going into the recent specific controversies on infallibility, most of which, indeed, were not theological in the strict sense but involved, rather, the philosophical questions that touch upon the mind's ability to know the truth, to know it definitively, and to express it—in respect to revealed truth—at least adequately. Such questions, of course, merit a special treatment of their own, but for our purpose we begin from the Church's own premise, viz., that God has given the human mind, either by its own natural powers or through the gift of faith, the ability to know reality—even revealed reality—as it truly is, and that this ability is never completely lost, even by sin.

A special word of thanks is due to Fr. Donald W. Hendricks of St. Anthony's Parish, Yonkers, New York, who generously reviewed the translation for errors. Any that might remain are due to my own negligence.

This little work is dedicated to the memory of those great and saintly men who guided the Church through the First and Second Vatican Councils and the years that followed them: Blessed Plus IX and the inestimable Paul VI. Their witness to the truth—so often bitterly contested—was itself a gift to the Church.


[1] Dom Cuthbert Butler, The Vatican Council: The Story from Inside in Bishop Ullathorne's Letters (New York: Longmans, Green, 1930), 2:134.

[2] Ibid., 2:134-48.

[3] Collectio Conciliorum Recentiorum, Mansi (Arnhem, Holland, 1927), 52:1204ff.

The Gift of Infallibility

Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser | Translated and with commentary by Rev. James T. O'Connor

Infallibility is a deeply misunderstood idea, within as well as outside the Catholic Church. It remains a subject of great theological debate, especially regarding papal infallibility and the ordinary magisterium of the Church.

In The Gift of Infallibility, theologian James T. O'Connor clarifies the idea of infallibility. He provides a helpful translation of the "relatio" or official explanation by Bishop Gasser given at Vatican I, the Church council that defined the dogma of papal infallibility. Also included in this important volume is the first draft of chapter 4 of the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, as well as the final, official chapter of the constitution.

Despite its importance in all theological discussions on the doctrine of infallibility, Bishop Gasser's relatio had never until recently been translated from the Latin original into English. The relatio reveals a mind which is logical in process and fully acquainted with the historical and theological aspects of the question.

This volume concludes with a recently updated theological summary on the topic of infallibility by Father O'Connor. The Gift of Infallibility is immensely important for theologians and others who wish to understand the way by which the Holy Spirit safeguards the Church. It will be of great value to the general student as well as to the specialist. Read more about this book...

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Rev. James T. O'Connor was a professor of theology for 23 years at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York. He is the author of the best-selling book The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist. He is currently the pastor of St. Joseph's Church, Millbrook, New York.

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