| || ||
Introduction to The Gift of Infallibility | Rev. James T. O'Connor
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
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." 
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,
 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. 
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
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
 Dom Cuthbert Butler, The Vatican Council: The Story from Inside in
Bishop Ullathorne's Letters (New York:
Longmans, Green, 1930), 2:134.
 Ibid., 2:134-48.
 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...
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:
On the Papacy, John Paul II, and the Nature of the Church |
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Peter and Succession | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
"Primacy in Love": The Chair Altar of Saint Peter's in Rome | Joseph
St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome | Stephen K. Ray
Church Authority and the Petrine Element | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Papacy and Ecumenism | Rev. Adriano Garuti, O.F.M.
What Is the Magisterium? | Thomas Storck
Vatican II and the Ecclesiology of Joseph Ratzinger | Fr. Maximilian Heinrich Heim
The Church Is the Goal of All Things | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Motherhood of the Entire Church | Henri de Lubac
Excerpts from Theology of the Church | Charles Cardinal Journet
Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church | Dr. William E. May
Exploring the Catholic Faith! | An Interview with Diane Eriksen
Understanding The Hierarchy of Truths | Douglas Bushman, S.T.L.
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.
If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about
every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com
articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances,
please click here to sign-up today!
| || || |