Pope Francis under the test of Bishop Gasser’s Relatio


Below, I’ve typed out a few excerpts from the relatio of Bishop Gasser at the Vatican Council (1870). I am running through the thought experiment of whether Pope Francis’s magisterial teachings pass the canon of the relatio, particularly the portions which I’ve reproduced. At the forefront we have (1) Amoris Laetitia and (2) the Death Penalty revision (CCC 2267). I know there have been many who have made it clear that the Pope was not speaking with the supreme authority of St. Peter, and thus not ex-cathedra infallible. However, something which Gasser pointed out is often missing in today’s thinking. Notice how Gasser says that the “dogmatic judgments” of the Roman Pontiff are infallible, and then follows it with saying that there have been “thousands and thousands” of these “dogmatic judgments”. That would certainly be contrasted with many Catholic theologians today who insist on there only being 2 instances of Papal Infallibility, one on the Immaculate Conception in Ineffabilis Deus (1854), and the other on her assumption into heaven in Munificentissimus Deus (1950). Notice that Gasser gave his relatio in 1870, so that means that those theologians who say that there have only been two instances of Papal infallibility would have to conclude that Gasser’s saying that there have been “thousands and thousands” infallible dogmatic judgments should have really just said one-time. This is truly interesting, since this relatio was central to the discussions on the meaning of papal infallibility at the Council. The relatio was made to the general congregation of Bishops. In fact, Dom Cuthbert Butler, whose two-volume work on the Council is the most complete history written in English, said that Bishop Gasser was “the most prominent theologian of the Council”. This relatio has been a source of authoritative reference in theological treatments and manuals down unto the present day. In particular, the 2nd Vatican Council’s document Lumen Gentium, which includes a treatment on the hierarchical organization and authority of the Church, cites Gasser’s rlation four times in the chapter on the Magiterium. This chapter only had 24 lines of text and the references to the relatio make up half of all of them. Needless to say, this relatio is the best guide to properly interpret the treatment on the infallibility of the Pope in Pastor Aeternus. And yet, we hardly get the idea that there had only been 1 single exercise of Papal infallibility. Quite to the contrary, the relatio asserts there had been thousands. The consequence of this is that the more and more narrow modern theologians have become in explaining the conditions of Papal infallibility, the more and more they steer away from the historical understanding as it was had by the Bishops at Vatican I. You hear this when people say that the Pope is only infallible when he speaks in such highly decorative manners with all the right words and actions and warnings, etc,etc. While this is appreciable, I think it is absurd to think that the infallibility of the Pope, ordained to be the help and sustainer of unity in the Church catholic, had only been exercised once in nearly 1800 years after the birth of the Church. In fact, it is absurd.

With that said, it makes me wonder whether the writings of Amoris Laetitia and the Death penalty revision, both of which are being held as theologically erroneous by many Catholic clergy and theologians, would, if these findings are true, entail that the see of Peter has become a see of Pestilence, or See of Falsehood, rather than a See of Truth.

More thoughts will come in another article.

This prerogative [of infallibility] granted to St. Peter by the Lord Jesus Christ was supposed to pass to all Peter’s successors because the Chair of Peter is the center of unity in the Church. But if the Pontiff should fall into an error of faith, the Church would dissolve, deprived of the bond of unity. The Bishop of Meaux speaks very well on this point, saying: ‘If this Roman See could fall and be no longer the See of Truth, but of error and pestilence, then the Catholic Church herself would not have the bond of a society and would be schismatic and scattered — which, in fact is impossible‘….But Christ instituted nothing of this sort; rather He placed Peter and his successor as an immobile bulwark of faith, as the heir of a confirmed faith and as the one who confirms his brothers, and, finally, as the pastor of the whole flock of the Lord, ruling it in such a way that it lacks nothing and leading it to good pastures. That the infallibility granted to Peter was to have passed to his successors is also proved — to use the words of Cardinal Cajetan — from the fact that when the Pope makes a judicial and definitive determining that something is heresy and that it must be held as such by the Church then it is clear that we are all bound to accept his decision and that whoever pertinaciously clings to the opposite view is considered a heretic. Therefore the whole Church is able to err, following the decision of a Pope, if the Pope in such a definition is able to err…..But the divine assistance promised to him [the Pope], by which he cannot err, he only enjoys as such when he really and actually exercises his duty as supreme judge and universal teacher of the Church in disputes about the faith. Thus, the sentence ‘The Roman Pontiff is infallible’ should not be treated as false, since Christ promised that infallibility to the person of Peter and his successors, but it is incomplete since the Pope is only infallible when, by a solemn judgment, he defines a matter of faith and morals for the Church universal….For we define: the dogmatic judgments of the Roman Pontiff are infallible. Therefore let us also define the form to be used by the Pontiff in such a judgment. It seems to me that this was the mind of some of the most reverend fathers as they spoke from this podium. But, most eminent and reverend fathers, this proposal simply cannot be accepted because we are not dealing with something new here. Already thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments have gone forth from the Apostolic See; where is the law which prescribed the form to be observed in such judgments? “

(Excerpts from the Relation of Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser on July 11th, 1870 – translation taken from “The Gift of Infallibility” by Rev. James T. O’Connor)

5 thoughts on “Pope Francis under the test of Bishop Gasser’s Relatio

  1. It’s probably not as narrow and infrequent as is commonly toted (only two times), and I agree that sounds absurd, but bishop Gasser’s relatio does not seem infallible nor subject to scrutiny. Personally, the “thousands and thousands [of times]” comes across as very ultramontane. Consider Newman, who thought the Council left the Pope just as it found him, seeing the triumph of moderacy rather than of extremism.

    I know you’re not a fan of Klaus Schatz but his list of infallible statements numbers to about 10, which includes Leo the Great’s Tome.

    • I take ex-cathedra statements to be definitive (once-for-all-type) teachings which come from the Papal throne and which are intended to bind the whole church catholic on pain of excommunication , and which pertain to faith and morals. So we can go back and find many of these. Thousands and thousands sounds hyperbolic to me.

  2. I would also possibly recommend Adam D.J. DeVille’s comments as far as the interpretation of Pastor Aeternus go. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions but he does make a good point about how non-infallible documents, even canons, aren’t always the best means of defining what the Church has deemed infallible. EG, the pope’s Current practice of personally electing bishops as a norm was established relatively recently rather than a steady practice of the Church, and was formed in light of the 1st Vat council, though a number of decades after IIRC)

  3. Pingback: Christ the foundation of the church – Unmasking anti Jehovah sites and people

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