The question I’m asking is whether submission to authority as such is a virtue. I’m raising this question to investigate a common claim from catholic apologists that a catholic espouses a virtue of submission by not questioning the authority of the pope while the protestant is guilty of a vice of hubris, or somesuch, for failing to do the same.Already there is a rather unfortuante ambiguity, because surely every Christian, of whatever stripe, will acknowledge that "submission to authority as such is a virtue", since it is of the essence of Christianity to submit ourselves to the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and if there were anything wrong with submitting to authority "as such" it would be wrong to submit even to the authority of Our Lord. So it is not "as such" that he wants to examine submission to authority, but rather, as his own title makes rather explicit (though strangely set off in parentheses), submission to human authority, specifically papal authority. That much is clear from the second half of the quotation, where he mentions "catholic apologists" who claim that "a catholic espouses a virtue of submission by not questioning the authority of the pope."
This latter claim is probably more to the point, but it is also hopelessly vague, because we are not told who these "catholic apologists" are, or by what criteria we are to recognize them as faithfully representing the catholic position in this matter, nor are we told what is meant by the claim that "a catholic espouses a virtue of submission by not questioning the authority of the pope". This is unfortunate because if it is read in one way it is manifestly false (it is not the case that a Catholic could never question the authoritativeness of any papal teaching whatsoever; in particular, it is a recognized fact that Popes do sometimes fall into error and attempt to teach heresy, in which case it is the duty of the Catholic faithful not to assent to said teachings), if read in another way it is trivially true (if a teaching is authoritative in and of itself, regardless of its source it would be heresy to reject it).
But let us assume, in spite of these initial difficulties, that what is being questioned here is whether there is something like a moral duty to defer to the Pope's judgment in matters of faith and morals. Even put this way the question is rather simplistic, but I think it is fair to say that, as simplistic as this particular statement of the problem is, it is a problematic point nonetheless, at least in so far as it often serves as a sticking point between Protestants and Catholics (and indeed, between Catholics and some Orthodox; but the issue there is really quite different because, as we will see, the position being defended at Scholasticus seems to be that mere human teachings can never be fully "authoritative", which is not a view that would be congenial to any Orthodox Christian). Before delving any farther into essay, however, I should point out that the author appears to be defending a position that is roughly equivalent to, though not identical with, a sola Scriptura principle; the difference lies in what the author appears to think a viable recourse to private judgment in adjudicating possibly incompatible interpretations of the Scriptures. For an illustration of why sola Scriptura is an incoherent doctrine, see my post here. Since the argument in the present essay appears to depend on some unique and rather interesting arkhai, I am going to treat it as though it were a separate and stand-alone sort of argument.
The author begins with what he characterizes as "an incredibly brief moral psychology":
Human beings pass through various stages of dependency in life. As children we need our parents’ guidance and we need our teachers to tell us things whose ignorance would endanger us: don’t touch the fire, you have to go to eat vegetables to be healthy, and so forth. As we grow, however, we come to depend on our parents and teachers less and less. Some children can cling too long to childhood and want their parents to continue to do things for them which are no longer appropriate. Likewise parents can cling to their children and refuse to acknowledge that the child has grown independent. Young children are easily lied to because they depend so strongly upon their parents that they are used to simply doing as they are told. Along with the independence of maturity, however, it is necessary for a young adult to develop a critical attitude towards the commands and wishes of other people in order to avoid being bilked. We call the lack of this critical faculty naïvité. The naive person is obviously liable to many harms from strangers but she is also equally likely to suffer from her inability to distance herself from the prejudices and failings of her own upbringing. Naïvité in the adult then is a vice because it prevents its possessor from living well.I would say that, in addition to being "incredibly brief" this "moral psychology" is also incredibly naive, indeed, it is really more of a "folk moral psychology" than a genuine moral psychology, but perhaps most accounts of moral psychology have their folk element. What is more important from the perspective of the argument at hand is that this passage really tips the author's hand and reveals what, in the end, will be the greatest weakness of the overall position he is trying to stake out. Judging from the rest of the post, there is a principle being built up here that I will call the Principle of Adolescent Posturing. According to PAP, it is appropriate for children to be under the authority of their parents because, well, their parents know better than they do what is best for them. So far, so Aristotelian. But as children grow in maturity and rationality, they become capable of reasoning for themselves, and it would be unseemly for them to depend too much on others for making prudential judgments, since adults who defer to the judgment of others are, in a sense, failing to take responsibility for things that they ought to take responsibility for:
To submit to someone else’s authority might have several meanings. [A] In the first place, I might have my own opinion about some matter, but trust that my interlocutor knows better than I and therefore I defer to her judgment. [B] Or it might mean that I have no interest whatsoever in the issue at question and I am willing to let another person’s statements stand because I’m not interested in pursuing the topic any further. [C] Or, in the third place, it might mean that I still maintain my previous opinion but I would be bringing trouble on my own head by publicly airing that opinion for some political reason.The position marked here as [A] is described as the reason why a child might defer to an authority, but it cannot be the reason why an adult does so:
an adult must be able to make his own decision about, for instance whom to marry, what profession to pursue and so forth. He might solicit his parent’s advice about these questions and place a degree of faith in their judgments. But here the relationship has changed because he is in a position to critically reflect on the reasons his parents adduce for their judgments and he may find them insufficient. For instance, a man who breaks off an engagement with his fiancée because his mother told him so for no other reason than that she was his mother and she told him so is not a virtuous person. He is emotionally retarded by his excessive dependence on his mother. In this case it is clear that his submission to his mother’s authority is vicious rather than virtuous.Real men, apparently, are not going to submit to the authority of others because, dammit, real men know as much about everything as anybody else.
Herein lies the problem. I will pass over the manifestly poor analogy (comparing the decision whether to accept a particular teaching of the Magisterium to the question whether one ought to marry a particular person or make some other purely prudential judgment) and focus on the overall thrust of the passage. On the one hand, the question at issue is whether it is virtuous to submit to the authority of another human being, in this case, the Pope. On the other hand, we are told that, as a matter of principle, one ought not to submit to the authority of another human being because, quite frankly, when it comes to matters of faith and morals, one man's rational faculty is as good as another's, and to let the Pope decide for you what to believe is to abrogate one's responsibility in making such momentous decisions. It is difficult to envision a more clear-cut case of begging the question than this. The author entirely neglects the question of expertise, even though in his own examples it is the question of knowledge and expertise that determines whether or not it is virtuous to follow the (authoritative) advice of another. In the case of children, it is quite clear that parents have greater wisdom and expertise, and they are to be obeyed. It is nevertheless quite obvious that parents sometimes make mistakes, and give their children bad advice. The fact that such things happen does not, in and of itself, vitiate the general principle that it is usually a good idea for children to do what their parents tell them to do. In the case of medical expertise, we find a similar situation. Someone with absolutely no medical knowledge or training who is told by someone who is a genuine expert in medicine that he needs to take a certain medicine, have a certain operation, follow a certain regimen, etc., ought to heed that advice. And he ought to heed it whether or not he agrees with it, because in many instances the doctor simply knows better than he does what is good for him. This is not to say that doctors never make mistakes or that they never give bad advice, but if we are trying to decide what is virtuous and what vicious on a virtue-ethics account of moral psychology, then it is quite obvious that the person who, as a matter of habit, never does what his doctor tells him unless he himself thinks that it's the right thing to do, is not regarded as virtuous but as stubborn and, in some cases, downright stupid. The person, by contrast, who regularly follows his doctor's advice, even when he doesn't fully understand the reasons behind that advice, is regarded as prudent at the very least, and at worst not to be blamed if something goes wrong.
In the case of faith and morals, then, if we are to continue with the virtue-ethics based account that the author has himself adopted here, it seems clear that it is mere question begging to assert, without any argument whatsoever, that there can be no such thing as an expert in matters of faith and morals. And yet this is precisely what our author would have us believe:
a new student must rely heavily on the research of others and his ability to do so is counted a virtue, but the mature scholar who does so is thought to be slavish. To avoid belaboring the point, I think it suffices to say that the notions of what counts as maturity are contextual, but they all involve the development of some power or ability.In short, our author simply denies the possibility that a mature, grown up person could possibly be in need of the help of an authoritative expert when it comes to matters of faith and morals. Every individual person, on this account, just is an expert in matters of faith and morals, at least when it comes to what each individual person ought to believe in these matters. This is a straightforward rejection of the Catholic position for no better reason than that it contradicts the non-Catholic position. This is petitio principii at its finest.
One seeks in vain throughout the essay for a more sound, principled reason to reject the Catholic position, but sadly none is forthcoming. While stated in slightly more polite terms, this argument is nothing other than the old "check your brains at the door" canard that is the favorite of anti-Catholic bigots. It is nothing short of a fallacious ad hominem: these Catholics, the argument seems to say, are just not thinking for themselves, and to the extent that they are refusing to do what the rest of us grownups have to do every day, they are acting viciously, not virtuously.
Now, it would be another matter if the author had provided reasons for thinking that the Pope simply is not an expert of the requisite kind. If it could be shown that the papal office simply does not have anything like an authority analogous to the authority of a medical school, then we would have reasons for not submitting to the authority of the Pope, but we would not yet have any reason to reject the notion of submission to authority tout court. The great irony here is the emphasis placed by our author on the need for growing in maturity:
I think that God wants (and perhaps even expects) us to grow in knowledge and love of him. In other words, each and every Christian is supposed to be growing towards a maturity in the faith that would allow him to make practical judgments about church teaching.I tagged this argument the Principle of Adolescent Posturing because it is the mark of the adolescent to fail to understand the existence of rational authorities beyond his own ken. I have a 13 year old son, so believe me when I say that the rejection of perfectly sound reasoning simply for the sake of "being a man" about something really is the hallmark of the adolescent who is posturing. And yes, among the things my son often says to me is that I don't, in fact, know any more about anything than he does, and that he can figure things out for himself just fine, thank you. Sound familiar?
Before I start posturing myself and wind up engaging in my own brand of ad hominem, what principled reasons does the Catholic have for asserting that there is such a thing as authoritative teaching when it comes to matters of faith and morals, and that this authority is embodied in the Ordinary Magisterium? This is a very interesting and important question; indeed, the answer one gives to it will often mark the difference between the Catholic and the non-Catholic. It was, in fact, a question that I pondered often myself when I was still an Anglican: it is fair to say that it was thinking about this very question that led to my conversion. At that time I was finishing up my PhD in classics, so the nature of the early Christian community and its texts and teachings formed a part of my every day studies. It seemed quite clear to me that one did not become a Christian without the aid of authoritative experts. The neophyte was not told to simply go off into the desert and contemplate the question "What do I think Jesus was like?" but rather was educated in the faith by people who, presumably, knew the faith better than the neophyte. In the very earliest stages, these experts would have been the Apostles themselves, and it is difficult to imagine not taking any of them at their word, not trusting in their authority, even if one had been a follower of Jesus oneself. Indeed, we are aware of competing groups in the earliest Christian communities, and it seems to be the case that the communities that formed around the Apostles were the ones that survived to produce the texts that we now have in the New Testament. Other communities continued to thrive, and they produced texts of their own, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the like. Why do we (orthodox) Christians accept the authority of the canonical texts, but we do not accept the authority of the Gnostic and other heretical texts? Principally it is because the canonical texts were the ones that were accepted by the communities that produced them, and we ally ourselves with those communities in accepting their texts. But those texts are the byproduct of the teachings of those communities, and in accepting those texts rather than the Gnostic texts we are accepting the teaching authority of those communities over the alleged authority of the Gnostic communities.
There are some who claim that the canonical texts are the only "inspired" texts, and we accept them not because they are the product of a particular community but because they are inspired. But of course the texts themselves do not make any claims to being inspired that cannot be found in the Gnostic texts as well, so to believe the one claim of inspiration rather than the other is rationally unwarranted without the added witness of a particular community that one endorses as having the special charism of handing on the orthodox faith to future generations.
What is the nature of that witness, exactly? After all, the Gnostic communities had preaches and teachers, and they were attempting to hand on a version of the faith as well. Is it, as our author would have us believe, nothing more than a matter of individual judgment, made separately and uniquely each and every generation, to decide which set of texts to accept, which teachings to adopt, which beliefs to hold de fide? Am I to believe that our author has himself examined each and every one of the surviving Gnostic texts, and has decided literally on his own authority, and for no other reason, that it is the canonical texts of the New Testament that are authoritative? If so, how on earth did he come to know that? Frankly, I'm not at all sure that he has in fact conducted such an investigation, but even if he has I see no compelling reason for him to choose orthodoxy rather than heresy on the basis of these texts alone. Some folks may say things like "Oh, the canonical texts present a much more plausible picture of Jesus than the Gnostic texts," but that really is a desperate little argument, grasping at the frailest of straws. There's nothing in the canonical gospels that is intrinsically more plausible than anything in the Gospel of Thomas, for example. People accept the canonical texts, whether they like to admit it or not, for no other reason than that these are the texts that the Church has preserved for us. In short, the texts are accepted on the basis of the Church's authority to determine the content of our faith.
Ah, but "we are the Church". Sure we are, but we are not a bootstrapping Church, we are a Church that is built upon the foundations of earlier generations, and we accept, by faith, the teachings of the earlier generations, whether in the form of Conciliar pronouncements, papal teachings, or synods of bishops. Show me a Protestant who accepts the doctrine of the Trinity, and I will show you a Protestant who is accepting the authority of mere men to tell him what to think. Show me a person who rejects the doctrine of the Trinity because it's not in the Bible and he cannot make sense of it and will not having anybody telling him what to believe, and I will show you a person who has left the fold of Christianity entirely.
Some claim that certain non-obvious teachings, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, really are in the gospels, just not directly--but anybody with a mind of their own can find them for themselves, no need for the Church to dictate them to us. This is mere wishful thinking, of course, but even if it were true, it raises the difficult problem of relativism. Anything that is not directly stated is going to be something in need of interpretation, and while some folks may think they've found the doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament somewhere by indirect evidence, we know from sad experience that whole communities have grown up around folks who decided that, as a matter of fact, that doctrine is not in the New Testament either directly or indirectly, and these communities think that they are right and that everybody else is wrong. Surely even our author would agree that both sides on this particular issue (the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity) cannot be right, but if it is true that they cannot both be right it is equally true that if we are to accept as authoritative only our own private judgments about the faith then there will be know way to adjudicate the question of what to believe. It will not do to say "Well, the doctrine of the Trinity is true for me, but not true for them," because that makes evangelization impossible. What are the neophytes to be taught? We can't just send them off with a Bible and say "Decide for yourselves," since that is like sending a first year medical student out into the hospital with a medical textbook and telling him to "heal those people yourself". They need guidance, and they need it from those of us who are already well established in the community that we are trying to bring them into. But if we are arguing amongst ourselves about what it means to belong to the community, who are we going to put in charge of telling the neophyte what it means to belong? We need to decide what the teachings are before we can teach them to anyone else.
All of this may be persuasive to some, but it obviously is not persuasive to everybody. Still, it is a view of what it is for the Church to be the thing that it is--the Body of Our Lord--that is widely shared in Christendom. Much more widely shared, in fact, than the alternative view. Still, we have a slightly different question at hand here, one about which there is much less of a consensus: What about the Pope? It is one thing to argue that a community of humans--the Church--has some authority over us and we ought to obey that authority as a matter of virtue, but it is quite another to say that we ought to defer to the authority of a particular person within that community, namely the Pope. But it is precisely here that things begin to be much less interesting, because if the argument is over whether one ought to obey the Pope then the fallacy changes from being one of begging the question to being one of ignoratio elenchi. As it happens, the way this particular position is being staked out depends upon a rather serious misunderstanding of the nature of the Pope's authority and of the Catholics' moral duty to defer to that authority. It is not qua particular human being that the Christian owes intellectual assent to papal teachings, but qua authentic Magisterial teaching. In fact, plenty of Popes have taught things that were not authentic Magisterial teachings, and nobody ever had any duty to submit themselves to such teachings. When a Pope teaches heresy, he ceases to be Pope, and there is certainly no virtue involved in submitting oneself to the teachings of a heretic who is not the Pope but who claims to be.
To "be Pope" is a predicate that involves a deeper ontology than merely sitting in a particular chair at St. Peter's in Rome. Perhaps it is a feature of Americanized Protestantism that a lot of American Protestants seem to think that "to be Pope" is like--or ought to be like--being the President--it's a role you're elected into and then you pass laws and write position papers and everybody is supposed to stand up when you enter the room but it's really all just for show and he ought to be more like the British monarch, a kind of figurehead that we show respect to but we don't really need to pay any real attention to. But that isn't what it is "to be Pope". That's what it is to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, maybe, or the Presiding Bishop of the ECUSA, but not the Pope. To be the Pope is to fill a certain role in a larger ontology that is a part of the overall economy of salvation, and you can't just teach any old thing from that position. You can only teach what is as a matter of fact, not as a matter of private judgment, authoritatively true. As soon as your teachings begin to reflect nothing more than your own private judgment, they begin to be less authoritative. Now, of course, a particular Pope may have private judgments that are perfectly consistent with what is authoritatively true, but they are not authoritative in and of themselves simply by virtue of being his private judgments. If it can be shown that his private judgments do not follow, in a certain way, from what is authoritatively true, then the necessity to be obedient to them is much less.
A good example here is the Papal teaching on the death penalty. The Church does not say that capital punishment is per se wrong, but beginning with John Paul II the popes have argued that it is never necessary, and that it ought to be avoided. That "ought to" represents a private judgment that there are "better" ways to punish capital criminals than by killing them. That may, as a matter of fact, be true, and I believe that it is true, but others disagree with me, and they are not acting viciously simply by virtue of the fact that they are disagreeing with two Popes as well as with an armchair pontiff like me. This is an empirical matter in which the Pope may have more knowledge than I do, but he may not. His charism extends to the protection of the deposit of faith, not to prudential judgments about what sorts of punishments have the net best effect on the overall security of the common good. More to the point, if a Pope were to teach that the death penalty is per se wrong, he would be mistaken, and I would have no duty to accept his statement.
So the Catholic is not to grant intellectual assent to the Pope's teachings on the grounds that they are the private judgments of a person who just happens to be the Pope and we have a slavish desire to do whatever that person says we should do, no matter what he says. The duty is to the office, not the person, so the duty can never be to any particular instantiation of private judgment but must always be to what is universal, namely, the Ordinary Magisterium itself. And if there is a Church at all in the sense that was argued for above, there is an Ordinary Magisterium, and if there is an Ordinary Magisterium at all, there is a duty to defer to it, and the Pope qua Pope is not an individual but an instrument of that Ordinary Magisterium. hence we have a duty to submit to his authority whenever he speaks authoritatively. Indeed, Catholics disagree amongst themselves all the time about which Papal pronouncements have what degree of authority. If the Pope's authority were absolute, such disputes would be moot.
The Principle of Adolescent Posturing balks at this line of reasoning, and says that it is fine to do what the Pope says if your own judgment says the same thing, but if your conscience tells you to do something else, you will be acting viciously if you obey the Pope and violate your own conscience. The fallacy here is an equivocation on the term "conscience", because properly speaking every Christian, even those who most strongly disagree with me on the whole Papal thing, would agree that it is never right, for example, to kill violently and with great pain and suffering an innocent human child who presents no threat to anyone else and who is, in fact, just minding his own business and being virtuous in his own right. But if I happen to believe that my "conscience" is not only giving me permission to do just that but, indeed, is requiring me to do that because I am psychotic and believe the person is "out to get me", clearly I am not within my rights to do what my "conscience" is dictating. Everyone will agree that the conscience that is to be obeyed is the properly formed conscience that is not acting irrationally. Well, just what is that, if it is not a conscience that has been properly brought into the Christian community by the process that I discussed earlier for the neophyte? If my conscience is telling me that it is OK for me to fornicate with my neighbor's wife because "we really love each other, and he's a jerk", then my conscience is, in a word, "mistaken". And before you start accusing me of dredging up straw men, let me just tell you that I had a friend who was an ordained, married, Presbyterian minister, who told me with a straight face that he and another woman were having a relationship but that it was not adultery because they had not had vaginal intercourse. They had done just about everything else you can imagine, but they had not done that, and he regarded the definition of "adultery" as "vaginal intercourse", therefore he had not done it and therefore he had not sinned. What about the betrayal, I asked. That was when I heard the bit about "we really love each other" and "my wife is..." well, you can just imagine. I think he was well intentioned, I really do, and I really think he believed every word he said, but I do not believe his conscience was well formed.
On this view, the conscience that tells you to disobey the Pope when he is speaking authoritatively is not to be trusted, and you are not violating any principle by refusing to submit to the authority of your own conscience when your own conscience is not properly formed. Indeed, the view that one's own conscience is always right strikes me as nothing more than another manifestation of the PAP.
This is much longer than either I intended or, perhaps, than was strictly necessary, but I think it is important to see that the argument on offer is both ideologically motivated and flawed by several fallacies. It may be possible to make an argument against submitting the authority of the Pope, but the present argument is not that argument.