THE GIFT OF INFALLIBILITY, by Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser

THE GIFT OF INFALLIBILITY, by Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser

Michael Daniel

Examining the historical case for papal infallibility

by Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser
Translated with commentary by Rev James T. Connor
(Ignatius Press, 137pp, $29.90, ISBN: 978-1-58617-174-2. Available from Freedom Publishing)

One doctrinal teaching which separates the Catholic Church from the various Christian denominations is that of papal infallibility, that is, the teaching that when a pope, in his office as pastor and teacher, defines a matter of faith or morals that must be believed by all the faithful he does so without error. Although considered by some to be an obstacle to Christian unity, what often impresses converts to the Church is that in the Petrine Office there exists a unique and definitive magisterial authority that can be used in times of doctrinal crisis to rule on Church teaching.

The definition of papal infallibility was promulgated by the First Vatican Council in the declaration  Pastor Aeternus (Eternal Shepherd).

Bishop Vincent Gasser, the Prince Bishop of Brixen in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a seminal figure in its promulgation. This volume contains his  relatio or rationale for the doctrine that was presented to the Fathers of Vatican I on 11 July 1870. This  relatio is a key document in explaining the Church's teaching on papal infallibility.

Vatican II

For this reason, when the Second Vatican Council, in its dogmatic constitution  Lumen Gentium, restated the Church's teaching on papal infallibility, it cited the  relatio in the footnotes. Surprisingly, as Connor points out in his introduction, the  relatio was not translated into English until 1986.

Following his introduction, Rev James Connor, a former professor of theology at St Joseph's Seminary, New York, presents a translation of Gasser's  relatio, to which he has added valuable footnotes explaining key historical and theological information to help the reader understand the text.

The  relatio itself may be divided into three sections. At the start of the first section, Gasser asserts that papal infallibility is inherently linked to papal primacy and surveys the historical arguments in favour of papal infallibility, including the definitions of the Fourth Council of Constantinople, Second Council of Lyons and the Council of Florence, which are cited in  Pastor Aeternus immediately prior to the statement of the definition itself.

The reason these three councils are specifically cited is that they were all attended and endorsed by bishops from the Eastern Church, the latter two when brief reunions between the Eastern Churches and Rome were achieved. Gasser also cites the teachings of other Church Fathers, such as Iraeneus, Augustine and Ambrose. He deliberately does not cite the testimony of popes themselves.

After reading the historical arguments for papal infallibility, the question is not whether or not there is such a thing, but rather what are its scope and limitations. Gasser then explores the theological dimensions via three facets, namely, that it is "personal", "separate" and "absolute".

Gasser argues that the primary purpose of this prerogative is the preservation of truth in the Church and its special exercise occurs either when initial steps to clarify uncertainty have failed - Gasser cites the example of provincial synods of bishops - or "when the bishops themselves are infected by the sad stain of error." (p. 47). 

He points out that when a pope exercises papal infallibility, he does so not as a private person, but as the successor of Peter. Furthermore, while it is common practice for a pope to consult widely prior to pronouncing a definition, he is - strictly speaking - not bound to consult bishops prior to exercising the power, nor does he require their agreement for the exercise of the authority to be valid.

General Councils

However, Gasser stresses that this power does not make the role of General Councils of the Church redundant. Instead, he reminds his readers that the declarations of councils are considered binding because they have been ratified by the See of Rome.

The third section of the  relatio essentially consists of the acceptance and rejection of various suggestions of amendment to the draft of the definition itself. The appended essay by Fr Connor examines the role of papal infallibility within the Church's magisterium. Contrary to the wishes of some, Vatican II did not make it an 'optional extra', but instead reiterated the central teachings of  Pastor Aeternus.

The Gift of Infallibility is a welcome addition to books dealing with the role of the Papacy, particularly by making an annotated copy of Bishop Gasser's  relatio readily available. What is striking about this historical document  are his logical sequence of ideas and clarity of explanation. Although written by an eminent theologian for his peers, one of its chief strengths is that Bishop Gasser sets forth his rationale for papal infallibility in such a way that it can be easily grasped by the average lay person, so that no specialist knowledge is required to follow and make sense of his line of argument.

Michael E Daniel teaches at a Mel bourne secondary school.

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