Bishop Gasser’s Relatio, the Dogma of Vatican I, and our Compassionate Lord

Bishop Vincent Gasser gave a Relatio to the fathers of Vatican I, just prior to their vote on Pastor Aeternus. Gasser was part of the delegation sent from the Roman Pontiff, Blessed Pope Pius IX, to speak to the Council on his behalf.

One point of this relatio is often used to distort what the Council itself taught. So the first point to understand is that, regardless of what the Relatio says, the text of the Council’s teaching is what stands. Now the most often misunderstood or distorted passage is where Gasser refers to what Saint Robert Bellarmine says “in the fourth place”. It is a teaching of Bellarmine on what God permits regarding the Popes.

But there are TWO places in Bellarmine’s book where he enumerates using the term “fourth”. The one referred to by Gasser in his Vatican I Relatio is specified thusly: “Book IV, Chapter VI” [in “On the Roman Pontiff”]. And now here is Book IV, Chapter VI in its entirety:

CHAPTER VI: On the Pope as a Particular Person THE FOURTH proposition.

It is probable and may piously be believed that not only as ‘Pope’ can the Supreme Pontiff not err, but he cannot be a heretic even as a particular person by pertinaciously believing something false against the faith. It is proved:

1) because it seems to require the sweet disposition of the providence of God.

For the Pope not only should not, but cannot preach heresy, but rather should always preach the truth. He will certainly do that, since the Lord commanded him to confirm his brethren, and for that reason added: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith shall not fail,” that is, that at least the preaching of the true faith shall not fail in thy throne. How, I ask, will a heretical Pope confirm the brethren in faith and always preach the true faith? Certainly God can wrench the confession of the true faith out of the heart of a heretic just as he placed the words in the mouth of Balaam’s ass. Still, this will be a great violence, and not in keeping with the providence of God that sweetly disposes all things.

2) It is proved ab eventu. For to this point no [Pontiff] has been a heretic, or certainly it cannot be proven that any of them were heretics; therefore it is a sign that such a thing cannot be.

[Bellarmine, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2: Books III-V (De Controversiis) (p. 171). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

The above is the whole chapter referenced by Gasser as the explanation for what Pastor Aeternus is teaching, not in the part about Papal Infallibility, but in the part about the charism of truth and of never-failing faith and that the Apostolic See is unblemished by any [grave] error. That the See is unblemished by any error is taught by Vatican I, but this must be interpreted as excluding any grave error, since papal infallibility (freedom from all error) is limited to only those teachings that meet all the conditions. Thus, a non-infallible papal teaching, which is non-irreformable, and does not require the full assent of faith, can err to a limited extent. This is not a blemish, as the teaching is not definitive (not final), can change, and permits a limited type of licit dissent.

Similarly, Bellarmine says the Pope cannot err (quoted above), but in another place he admits certain types of errors. So I would phrase those errors that can occur in the Roman Pontiff as non-grave errors in non-infallible decisions of discipline or prudential judgment, and non-grave errors in non-infallible teachings. However, Vatican I, the OUM, Gasser’s relatio, and the works of Bellarmine all clearly exclude grave errors on doctrine, on discipline, and any grave failures in faith by the Roman Pontiff. Therefore, no Pope can teach or commit heresy.

Now as for what Gasser and Vatican I certainly teach, Gasser quotes Bellarmine:

“It can be believed probably and piously that the supreme Pontiff is not only not able to err as Pontiff but that even as a particular person he is not able to be heretical, by pertinaciously believing something contrary to the faith.”

So Gasser was NOT referring to the “fourth opinion” discussed elsewhere (in Book IV, Chapter II). In that other section, Saint Robert Bellarmine presents four opinions. These were summarized by Emmett O’Regan conveniently as follows:

1) That a pope could teach heresy in the extraordinary and ordinary and universal Magisterium, even when assisted by a general or ecumenical Council.

2) That a pope could be a formal heretic and teach heresy acting alone, without the assistance of a general or ecumenical Council.

3) That a pope could never in “any way be a heretic nor publically teach heresy, even if he alone should define some matter, as Albert Pighius says”.

4) “The fourth opinion is that in a certain measure, whether the Pope can be a heretic or not, he cannot define a heretical proposition that must be believed by the whole Church in any way. This is a very common opinion of all Catholics.”

Note that opinion #1 is called heretical by Bellarmine. He calls the second “altogether erroneous and proximate to heresy”, but as O’Regan points out, it was condemned by the Church subsequent to the lifetime of Bellarmine. The third opinion is held by Bellarmine and called probable “but not certain”. However, Vatican I now makes that probable opinion a dogma.

Now, the fourth opinion is certainly true; a Pope cannot define heresy to be believed by the whole Church. However, the common grave error is to limit the teaching of Vatican I to that fourth opinion alone. As a matter of fact, the Relatio of Gasser cites Book IV, Chapter VI (quoted in full at the start of this article) and NOT the above fourth opinion from Book IV, Chapter II. So the teaching of Vatican I includes, but is not limited to the fourth opinion above. In effect, Vatican I condemns the first two opinions, and confirms the last two.

Saint Robert Bellarmine believed that no Pope could teach or commit heresy, and Vatican I as well as the ordinary universal Magisterium teach the same.

Gasser on Albert Pighius

It is not correct to view any opinion of Albert Pighius as error. Gasser argues against the idea that the position in Pastor Aeternus on the charism of truth and of never-failing faith is an extreme view proposed by Pighius. Instead, Gasser says, it is the opinion of both Pighius and Saint Robert Bellarmine; it is not extreme. So Gasser is not rejecting the position taken by Albert Pighius (opinion three above), but approving of it as being also the position of Saint Robert Bellarmine, and as implied by the document Pastor Aeternus. No Pope can teach or commit heresy, say Pighius, Bellarmine, and Gasser.

“As far as the doctrine set forth in the Draft goes, the Deputation is unjustly accused of wanting to raise an extreme opinion, viz., that of Albert Pighius, to the dignity of a dogma. For the opinion of Albert Pighius, which Bellarmine indeed calls pious and probable, was that the Pope, as an individual person or a private teacher, was able to err from a type of ignorance but was never able to fall into heresy or teach heresy. To say nothing of the other points, let me say that this is clear from the very words of Bellarmine, both in the citation made by the reverend speaker and also from Bellarmine himself who, in book 4, chapter VI, pronounces on the opinion of Pighius in the following words: ‘It can be believed probably and piously that the supreme Pontiff is not only not able to err as Pontiff but that even as a particular person he is not able to be heretical, by pertinaciously believing something contrary to the faith.’ From this, it appears that the doctrine in the proposed chapter is not that of Albert Pighius or the extreme opinion of any school, but rather that it is one and the same which Bellarmine teaches in the place cited by the reverend speaker and which Bellarmine adduces in the fourth place and calls most certain and assured, or rather, correcting himself, the most common and certain opinion.”

So Pighius does not offer an extreme opinion, but rather a position that Bellarmine calls pious and probable. Gasser then cites Book IV, Chapter VI, saying that the Pope “is not only not able to err as Pontiff” but even privately, “as a particular person”, he cannot be heretical by obstinately believing what is contrary to the faith. Notice that this wording excludes both formal heresy and obstinate material heresy. Of course, something that is not obstinately held is not any type of heresy at all. (Thus, a passing remark to the press by any Roman Pontiff cannot be any kind of heresy.)

And as said before, Popes can err to a limited extent, as Bellarmine also admits elsewhere. Thus, “not able to err as Pontiff” must exclude grave error, and must permit some limited lesser errors.

Other Questions

* Can a Pope be, as Timothy Gordon claims about Pope Francis, “deeply wicked”? No.
* Can a Pope be part of a conspiracy to pervert the teachings of the Church away from the true Faith? No.
* Is this opinion rescued by the claim that a Pope can desire or try to harm or pervert the Faith, but will ultimately fail, preserving the indefectibility of the Church? No.

The faithful would be gravely harmed in the path of salvation by such a mere attempt, plan, or desire of their Teacher and Shepherd — from whose decisions on doctrine and discipline there is no appeal. And the charism of truth and of never-failing faith would be ridiculously limited, if it did not extend to preventing such an inner wickedness, specifically directed against the Church, the Faith, the faithful, or the path of salvation. The purpose of the charisms given to the Roman Pontiff is so that he may faithfully guide the flock in the way of Truth. If he himself harbored a desire to lead the sheep astray, he would be wolf, and not Shepherd.

Also, this is dogma:

Pope Pius XII: “After His glorious Ascension into Heaven this Church rested not on Him alone, but on Peter, too, its visible foundation stone. That Christ and His Vicar constitute one only Head is the solemn teaching of Our predecessor of immortal memory Boniface VIII in the Apostolic Letter Unam Sanctam; and his successors have never ceased to repeat the same.” [Mystici Corporis Christi, n. 40]”

Since Christ and the Roman Pontiff “constitute one only Head”, the visible Head cannot desire to destroy or corrupt the body of Christ, which is the Church, while the invisible Head, Christ, desires the opposite. Then there would truly be two Heads, and the Church would be like a monster.

Neither is it possible for a Pope to be a heretic, apostate, or idolater, as concerns himself as a private person, or his teachings limited to those that are non-infallible, or his teachings limited to those that are private theological opinions, and then to teach and guide the Church aright only at certain times or only when certain conditions were met. For then the Roman Pontiff would be like that monster from fiction called “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” — the Doctor being gentile, wise, and trustworthy, while the monster “Hyde” is hidden within the Doctor. That is not the plan Christ chose for the visible Head of His Church. And since Christ is the Son of God, He cannot fail by lack of wisdom or lack of power.

Yes, a Pope can commit actual mortal sins, refuse to repent, and be punished forever in Hell. But this pertains only to his personal sins. As concerns the Church, the Pope cannot commit any type of objectively grave sin, whether actual mortal sin or not, which is contrary to the indefectibility of the Church or contrary to the charism of truth and of never-failing faith. Some sins are not permitted to the Roman Pontiffs. This occurs by prevenient grace, the same grace that prevents every single soul in Purgatory from committing any sin at all, mortal or venial. So it is not so surprising that God would prevent only certain grave sins in the Pope for the sake of the Church and the faithful.

Neither is this contrary to free will, as the Pope freely accepts his office and he can freely lay it down. Recall also the example of the antipope Vigilius, who taught manifest heresy, but once he became, later, the true Pope, all heresy was immediately vanquished in him by prevenient grace, and he stood never failing in the Faith, just like any of the Pope Saints. Vigilius acted “wickedly” prior to becoming the true Pope, even wickedly against the Faith. But once he was true Pope, every type of wickedness against the Faith immediately ceased.

No, the Pope cannot be wicked in the sense of wishing or planning to destroy the true Faith, with his failure of this plan being all that keeps the Church indefectible. Our Compassionate Lord is solicitous for the salvation of souls. So He did not give the Church and its Vicar the least form of the charism of truth and of never-failing faith, but rather its fullness. For the mercy of God is generous. What would be the reason for the gift of never-failing faith to stop at the point of inadvertent mere material heresy in private opinions of the Roman Pontiff? What benefit accrues to anyone to permit such a type of error? Or what would be the reason for permitting the Roman Pontiff to be a wicked person who desires to lead the Church astray, with mere circumstances preventing him? That is not the wise and compassionate plan of God.

Vatican I and Bellarmine do not exclude the type of error whereby a Pope holds privately to mere material heresy (inadvertently). But they do seem to imply that the Pope cannot be interiorly wicked in the sense of desiring to lead the faithful astray, since this conflicts with the role of the Roman Pontiff as Supreme Shepherd and is contrary to the indefectibility of the Church, of which the Pope is the Head.

I am advancing the opinion that Jesus prevents even mere material heresy in the personal opinions of the Roman Pontiff, due to His mercy and generosity, and so that none of His poor and weak flock would be accidentally led astray by the mere personal opinion of their Shepherd who officially speaks for Christ. This would be the same charism of truth and of never-failing faith, in its fullest form. And while this interpretation is not required of anyone, it seem to me the most wise form of this most generous gift to the faithful. For the charism of never-failing faith is not given to keep the Roman Pontiff for his own benefit; he must walk the same path of salvation as the rest of the sheep, and can possibly suffer eternal punishment. But the charism is for the faithful, and they benefit most if the charism has its fullest form, which excludes even mere material heresy in the Pope’s private opinion.

What Errors are Possible?

Bellarmine: “With these things being noted, all Catholics and the heretics agree on two things. Firstly, that the Pontiff, even as Pontiff, can err in particular controversies of fact, even together with a general Council, because these depend especially on the testimonies of men. Secondly, the Pope can err as a private teacher from ignorance, even in universal questions of law concerning both faith and morals, just as what happens to other teachers.

“Next, all Catholics agree on two other things, but only amongst themselves and not with the heretics. Firstly, the Pope with a general Council cannot err when he issues decrees of faith or general precepts of morals. Secondly, the Pope, by himself or with a particular Council, while stating something in a doubtful matter, whether he could err or not, must be obediently heard by all the faithful.” [On the Roman Pontiff, Book IV, Chapter II]

Limited error is possible in matters of prudential judgment, never to the extent of leading the Church astray (for then the Church would not be indefectible). Also, Popes can err in private opinion, but not to the extent of failing in faith, as the charism of never failing faith is the infused virtue given to the person, not the office alone. In addition, God would never allow a Pope, even in his personal theological teachings, to harm the path of salvation of the faithful. For the charism of never failing faith might extent to exclude private mere material heresy, as I believe, or it might not. This point is not settled by Vatican I explicitly. However, it seems clear to me that God, in His mercy and generosity, has no reason to limit His gift to exclude such an error. No Pope is known to have ever expressed heresy as a private opinion. And so, this, too “is proved ab eventu” (as Bellarmine says in Book IV, Chapter VI). Thus, the more probable opinion is that God extends his charism of never failing faith to the full, so that even private mere material heresy is excluded.

What is not included in this protection is that a Pope would privately express an opinion that is contrary to a future dogma — for no one expects any member of the faithful on earth to adhere to future teachings. A law is not a law until it is propagated, and the same for teachings. So Pope John XXII could express the opinion that the faithful do not have the Beatific Vision until after the general Resurrection, as the Magisterium did not define the answer until the reign of his successor, Benedict XII (in Benedictus Deus).

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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3 Responses to Bishop Gasser’s Relatio, the Dogma of Vatican I, and our Compassionate Lord

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,

    Thank you for this excellent article highlighting Bishop Gasser’s reference to Book IV, chapter 6 of St. Robert Bellarmine’s “On the Roman Pontiff” (sometimes also titled “On the Supreme Pontiff” –De Summo Pontifice). It’s very sad that many Catholic writers fail to notice this important reference of Bishop Gasser to book IV, chapter 6 of Bellarmine’s text.

    With regard to possible (limited) errors in papal writings, sometimes it’s just a matter of imprecise wording rather than an error. For example, in Benedict XVI’s 2005 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, no. 13, there is this statement: “Jesus gave this act of oblation an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He anticipated his death and resurrection by giving his disciples, in the bread and wine (in pane et vino), his very self, his body and blood as the new manna (cf. Jn 6:31-33).” One priest thought the language of “in the bread and the wine” could suggest the heresy of impanation because the statement of Benedict XVI seems to imply that Christ’s body and blood are IN the substance of the bread and wine (a position condemned at Trent; cf. Denz.-H, 1652). The theologian of the papal household was asked about this, and he replied that the reference to Jn 6:31-33 removes any possibility of a heterodox interpretation.

    Those who accuse popes of error or heresy often read papal statments in a hostile way. In doing so, they lapse into the type of rash judgment condemnded by the 8th commandment (cf. CCC, 2477-2478). It’s all right to ask for clarifications, but we must make every effort to read papal statements in a benevolent light.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Thanks. I think that errors in papal documents on faith and morals are rare. And, yes, a charitable interpretation removes most claimed errors. Another example, in addition to the one you gave, is the first letter of Honorius I, in which he uses the phrase “one will” but only with regard, as Bellarmine and others have explained, to the human nature. Christ does not have a type of dualistic conflict in his human nature, as we do, between what we know we should do and what we are drawn to do by concupiscence. Honorius even quotes Romans 7:23 on that point.

      {7:15} For I do things that I do not understand. For I do not do the good that I want to do. But the evil that I hate is what I do.
      {7:16} So, when I do what I do not want to do, I am in agreement with the law, that the law is good.
      {7:17} But I am then acting not according to the law, but according to the sin which lives within me.
      {7:18} For I know that what is good does not live within me, that is, within my flesh. For the willingness to do good lies close to me, but the carrying out of that good, I cannot reach.
      {7:19} For I do not do the good that I want to do. But instead, I do the evil that I do not want to do.
      {7:20} Now if I do what I am not willing to do, it is no longer I who am doing it, but the sin which lives within me.
      {7:21} And so, I discover the law, by wanting to do good within myself, though evil lies close beside me.
      {7:22} For I am delighted with the law of God, according to the inner man.
      {7:23} But I perceive another law within my body, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me with the law of sin which is in my body.

  2. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Thank you, Ron. I agree completely with you and Bellarmine about how to understand the reference to the “one will” of Christ by Pope Honorius I. In previous posts you have done an excellent job in defending Pope Honorius I from the charge of heresy. Pope John IV, as you know, also offered a similar explanation of Honorius I’s “one will” reference in his spring 641 letter to Emperor Constantine III (Denz.-H, 496-498). It’s likewise worth noting that, when the Lateran Synod of 649 condemned the adherents of the Monothelite heresy, the name of Honorius I is absent (see Denz.-H, 519, footnote 1).

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