The presentation given by Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser (1809-1879) to the general congregation of Bishops at the 1st Vatican Council, famously referred to as Gasser’s relatio, is the single best treatise on the subject for anyone interested in the theological rationale of the doctrine on Papal infallibility. That means the relatio, while not being the final and infallible word on the subject, is definitely the chief reference for exploring what Catholics believe on this all-important subject. It has great relevance to the contemporary Pontificate of Pope Francis, whose Papal administration has been what many Catholics would say “the worst Pontificate in history.” I remember when I was an Anglican, after spending months studying the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, the History of the Church, philosophical argumentation, and the general teaching of Catholicism, I had my initial troubles before entering the Catholic Church under Pope Benedict XVI Emeritus. Since the first interview I heard of Pope Francis, I knew that the Church was in for a time of testing on the matter of the Papacy as divinely instituted office for the benefit of the body of Christ. In particular, the limits of Papal power and the authoritative reach that the Papal magisterium has over the conscience of the faithful. This piece will be written with a consideration of one part of Gasser’s relatio and how coherent it is under scrutiny. Gasser wrote:
“This prerogative [inerrant teaching authority] 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.”
What a dense statement, filled with so much potential space for speculative implication. What does it mean for the Pontiff to “fall into an error of faith”? Today, especially among traditionalist Catholics, they are only willing to say that the Pope cannot use his supreme power of teaching to bind the Church (via ex cathedra) unto the confession of doctrinal errors, but otherwise the Pope is open to being a formal heretic. Is the possibility of the Pope being a formal heretic consistent with how Gasser and the bishop of Meaux speaks about the Roman See? Gasser begins from the doctrine that the Apostolic See is the center and bond of visible unity, and since said unity can’t be abrogated or lost, per Catholic doctrine, then the Apostolic See must always be of such a quality that it deserves and demands communion, namely, by upholding the right faith of the Church. However, if the Roman See were to take on the quality of “error or pestilence”, thereby becoming a “See of error,” then the unifying embrace of Rome would bring all those who are in communion with her to err along with her, and thereby absolutely shatter the unity of the faith and the bond of peace with Jesus Christ. As the bishop of Meaux says, the Church would be dissolved and herself become schismatic by joining a heretical Rome.
Of course, Gasser does not insist that the infallibility of the Pope means that he, as a “private person” or a “private teacher”, is guaranteed to be prevented from all error. Appealing to the logic of Cardinal Cajetan, “equal does not have power over equal” and thus when and if the Pope of Rome speaks as an equal with all other men, i.e. as a private individual, he is capable of being in error just like the rest of humanity. However, when the Pope enacts to exercise his public office of teaching, then he is protected from error because God so protects him in light of the Pope’s binding authority on the conscience of all the faithful. In other words, when he teaches all Christians in an official manner with the intention to define doctrine on faith or morals and which must be held by all for their eternal salvation.
However, today Catholics consider ex cathedra decrees of the Pope to be rare and few, perhaps twice. That means the majority of Papal teaching is not of the ex cathedra kind. And, the reasoning goes, is therefore fallible teaching. One can’t help but foresee a potential problem here. If the Pope is fallible most of the time, let’s say 80% of the time (and that is being generous for the amount of time he is infallible), then that means that the Pope can be just as erroneous and heretical as any other human being 80% of the time. Moreover, since the Church says that we are bound by law to give religious assent of mind and will to even the ordinary teaching of the Popes, the question must be raised as to just how the fatality envisioned by Bishop Gasser and the Bishop of Meaux is avoided if, 80% of the time, the Pope can universally teach, albeit through the means of a non-infallible mode (encyclical, exhortation, motu proprio, public letter, etc., etc.), some heretical doctrine? If all the faithful are bound to give religious assent of both mind and will to binding heretical decrees issued within the 80% of the Pope’s fallible mode of teaching, then it would appear to create the same break in unity thought impossible by Gasser, and for which he insisted that the Pope must be protected from error. It would seem then that the Pope can’t teach the universal Church any error ever. Perhaps, then, the theologians of old, particularly those of the mindset of Gasser, had a far less complex understanding of when the ex cathedra mode of Papal teaching became active. Today, you have persons wrangling over how well specified the teaching must be worded and how demanding it sounds that it becomes absurdly undiscernible. Perhaps Gasser would have thought that a simple general epistle of the Pope wherein he teaches on a matter of doctrine and applies any kind of bind upon all Christians. This would make perfect sense. Gasser states the following:
“In order to strengthen the first part of this argument, I read again and again the genuine epistles of the Roman Pontiffs as edited by Coustantio and by Andrea Thiel, his recent continuator. As often as I read them and the more I considered them, the more did I become convinced that the Roman Pontiffs, as they descended into the arena as witnesses, doctors and judges of the universal Church to fight for Christian truth, were incapable of erring, through the power of a divine promise.” (ibid., p. 29)
Anyone who flips through the pages of Coustantio or Thiel will know that what you have therein are epistles which aren’t always styled with the kind of complexity that contemporary Catholics expect of ex cathedra pronouncements. They are often forceful letters on doctrine, but they aren’t so stylistic in that manner. Sometimes the Popes make a statement wherein excommunication is threatened, and this alone may be sufficient enough in Gasser’s mind to be a definitive statement that resounds and embraces all Christians.
In any case, some traditional Catholics run into a big problem here since they are often supposing that the decrees of the 2nd Vatican Council and the magisterial pronouncements of 6 consecutive Apostolic Pontiffs of Rome over the course of decades have included, at least, erroneous propositions. The perfect example of this is the Society of St. Pius X who believe certain statements in the decrees of Vatican 2 and the liturgical reform under St. Paul VI and his Novus Ordo Missae are violations of the faith, the pursuance to which yields in some sort of denial of the faith. Not every SSPX member is going to say that, but it seems to be the general opinion. But even traditional Catholics who are not of the SSPX, and are just committed to their understanding of the Catholic tradition, are of the belief that Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and especially Francis have all incorporated some error in their teachings, even magisterial ones. Whether it is the ecumenism of John Paul, the commitment of Benedict XVI to the hermeneutic of continuity, or Francis’s teaching in Amoris Laetitia, they all see dangerous violations of faith. It is becoming more and more popular to say that these Pontificates characterize a rupture from Catholic tradition in one degree to another.
And so how do they justify this in light of the coherent test of truth that Gasser gives for the Papacy? Gasser is very straightforward. If the Papal throne were to become an administrator of error, then the bond of unity is obliterated, and the Church would suffer her demise under the gates of hell. Therefore, argues Gasser, the Papal throne must only administer truth the Church. This is a very straightforward criterion, and one that should be easily measured. But the traditionalists that I’ve been describing hedge out the legal distinctions ad nauseum such that the Pope can administer errors to the Church, albeit in finely situated “non-infallible” means, regardless of their normative binding style, i.e. requiring religious assent of mind and will. From this, the traditionalists argue that as long as the Pope doesn’t reach the highly complex mode of infallible magisterial teaching mode, whatever the Pope says can be challenged by even private individuals who detect incongruency between the Pope’s teaching and what they perceive to be the objective content of the dogmatic faith hitherto manifest through prior ecclesial pronouncements or through some sort of other rule of faith, whether that of the universal ordinary doctrine of the Church, the sensus fidei, the consensus of the Fathers, etc., etc. And thus what you have here is a condition of justified resistance, or even rightful disobedience. One might hear “we must obey God rather than men”, to quote the Apostles, or even St. Paul who says “even if we” preach another Gospel, let us be anathema (Gal 1:6). On these conditions, what is envisioned is a clear competition between the Pope and the faithful, between the Shepherd and universal Teacher with the sheep and students of the whole world. This competition is construed to be caused by the Popes intention to teach error and the people of God so recognizing this that they are enabled, even through their own private judgment, to contest, resist, object, and even defy the magisterial bind of the Pope.
Now, if such a circumstance were to last indefinitely, then surely what you have is a break in the Church’s visible bond of unity, i.e. the Pope vs. the Church. Head versus members. Teacher versus students. Shepherd versus flock. All justified on the basis of the error in the Head, Teacher, and Shepherd. Is this not precisely what Gasser said was impossible when he said that if the Roman see were to “fall into an error of faith” (albeit through an official teaching mode), the Church’s unity would be dissolved? So it seems. It would also seem, therefrom, that the incredibly subtle and almost undiscernible difference between the supreme power of ex cathedra teaching and some slightly lower level exercise of the Pope’s universal magisterium (that is, when he teaches the whole church) leaves the Church open to run into the falsification that Gasser so clearly described, particularly when traditionalists claim that the Pope can administer errors universally through official magisterial pronouncements, albeit in some hair less condition from what they consider to be ex cathedra.
Consider the implications here, and I particularly have the SSPX in mind, or those regularized Catholics who think the 2nd Vatican Council and the post-Conciliar Pontificates pose a rupture from the Catholic tradition. The SSPX agree with the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Old Catholic Church, the classically Reformed Protestants, and the general world of Evangelical-free communities that the Apostolic See has embraced errors which violate the Christian faith as handed by Christ and the Apostles. Only, the SSPX hold that, despite this fact, Christians must not break unity with the Apostolic See regardless of how far she descends into the abyss of error. That is, of course, unless there could be some “imperfect Council” which can “depose” the Pope after issuing sufficient corrections after which the Pope, or once-Pope, can be declared self-forfeited from the throne of St. Peter. Otherwise, so long as the Pope is disseminating his error through, again, highly specified non-infallible modes of teaching, they will maintain unity with the Apostolic See. On the face of it, this position is simply absurd. The center and bond of visible unity has nearly a blank check to become amassed in violations of the Christian faith indefinitely (for 5, 10, 15, 20, 50, 100+ years or more?), even in her magisterial efforts (an ecumenical council, no less), and so long as there is no formal correction whereby to enact the self-deposition of the Pope (or there recognition thereto), the SSPX believe they uphold the principles of Gasser’s relatio and the logic of Pastor Aeternus. There is no clearer reductio ad absurdum. Practically speaking, in this schema, the Apostolic See can become just as erroneous as the Anglican Church under the synodal guidance of Canterbury, and so long as the magisterial push towards error remains just under infallible modes of teaching, then the Catholic Church still retains her status as the “one true visible Church of Christ.”
Gasser, and the Vatican Council which took from his relatio, understood that the will and intention of Jesus Christ in creating the Papal office was for the perpetual protection, guardianship, and maintenance of the Apostolic Faith, and that the authority of said office would be a perpetual principle of unity for all Christians until the end of time. The Papal institution is the bedrock of ecclesiastical truth and unity, and the structure that is built atop depends on the Papacy for its constant criteria of oneness, unity, and coherence. Therefore, the SSPX, and those who agree with them that Rome has fallen, have revised the fundamental architecture of the Catholic religion. The bedrock foundation has become in need of competing forces from the top structure in order to be what it is. It reverses the meaning of the foundation to building relationship. The foundation supports the building, and the building receives its strength from the foundation, and not the other way around.
As I conclude here in the 2nd part of a series of article I’m writing on the matter of the logical integrity of the Catholic magisterium and the Papacy in light of recent history, I simply want people to exercise their minds so as to revisit the fundamentals of the doctrine of the Papacy to see if what I call the greasy tweaking of many traditionalists can really be understood to be reflective of what the 1st Vatican Council taught in the first place. I’ve already written the 1st part explaining how the infallibility of the Apostolic See can’t be reduced and limited to just a couple of instances in history, as is popularly thought in the opinion of many. On the contrary, the Council Fathers of Vatican 1 could not have used more general language such as St. Agatho or Pope St. Hormisdas, both who said the Roman See had been protected from error under the Petrine charism since the beginning and throughout the whole course of its career in the Church. Can the position taken up by the likes of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Eric Sammons, and many others really hold up under the test of congruence between their beliefs about Rome and the Vatican Council (1870) as influenced by Bishop Gasser? Lastly, it is likely that many computer screens reading this have faced a shout of “HONORIUS!!” by now. Please be at ease, there are more articles coming out wherein I treat the history of heretical Popes in light of all the aforesaid.
 Relatio as cited from Rev. James T. O’Connor, The Gift of Infallibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 24.