Thursday, October 04, 2007

Consensus Fidelium

Dr. Michael Liccione has posted a follow-up to some of the things that I wrote in my posts of last week on the Principle of Adolescent Posturing (here and here). Mike thinks that we disagree about a certain entailment relation that exists between the Church's teaching charism and the authoritativness of her teachings, but in fact we do not have any genuine disagreement regarding the substance of the matter, as far as I can see. Whether that is good news to him or not is probably not my place to say. However, there is one point he makes that suggests where, perhaps, he thinks our difference may lie:
And so I must disagree with Scott when he claims, without qualification, that our accepting certain teachings as authoritative has to do only with their truth, not with the office of the person or persons propounding them. In at least some cases, we recognize the truth of a teaching partly on account of the authority propounding it, in this the case the Magisterium. Otherwise the Magisterium would be superfluous, at least for the purpose the Church has in mind. I doubt Scott would disagree.
As usual, Mike is right: I don't disagree at all. In fact, I'm quite certain that if one were to work through all of the posts I have put up on this rather complex topic (going back to last November and December, when Mike and I were discussing the development of doctrine), it would be rather simple to confirm that I see the consensus fidelium, here understood as a manifestation of the authentic Ordinary Magisterium, as an essential element in the confirmation of the authoritativeness of doctrine. Indeed, this is a point that I was emphasizing in my PAP posts, that it would be impossible to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy if one did not rely on the authoritativeness of the Church qua institution. That Mike suspected that we disagreed on this point is arguably my own fault, since I do not have the gift for exposition that he evidently has.

So our difference, if it is one, is only this: I draw a distinction between the metaphysical question and the epistemological question regarding authoritativeness. One question, the metaphysical one, has to do with what it is that is constitutive of authoritativeness in the Church, that is, what is the ontological correlate that gives meaning to the term "authoritativenes". The other question, the epistemological one, has to do with how we can come to know that a teaching is authoritative, given that we are mere men and the people who fill the teaching offices of the Church are also mere men. On this latter question I believe Mike and I are, together, in full agreement with Cardinal Newman.

Although I don't think that we actually have any real disagreement in this matter, I am, as usual, grateful to Mike for his clarity of thought and the care with which he has stated our position.


CrimsonCatholic said...

I think the confusion was more in the initial question than what you were saying. I took you to be saying that the reasons for believing in the objective sense were not simply that some particular person said it (in positivist fashion) but that what they said necessarily conformed to reality by the action of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the authority of the Magisterium is based on the certain truth of what they say, rather than vice versa. In that respect, the dogmatic teaching authority is somewhat unlike the case of the legislator, because we do not believe that the statement because (ontolologically or formally) authoritative because of the act.

I'd be inclined to bisect the baby as between you and Dr. Liccione and point out that even if there are other ways that we might have known what the Magisterium taught, the practical reality is that we will not know them apart from the Magisterium.

As St. Thomas says before anything else in the Summa (ST 1.1.1):
'I answer that, it was necessary for man's salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason. Firstly, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: "The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee" (Isaiah 66:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man's whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.'

Given the inevitable error in reasoning, particularly due to the possibility of sinful denial of theological truth, it is a moral necessity to have a Magisterium even if not a matter of strict ontological necessity. As an ontological point, it is probably true that one could have extracted the conceptual content if one had such a flawless grasp of divine revelation that one could immediately identify every pertinent aspect of the life of the Church, could avoid error entirely in one's logical reasoning, and could avoid inadvertently denying any bit of truth along any step of the way through any taint of sin. For the rest of us, I believe that we are stuck with identifying the relationships and reasons behind theological truths after they have already been made clear to us. In the strict ontological sense, this was already implicit within our experience of the life of the Church, but as a practical matter, we never would have known it.

CrimsonCatholic said...

Typo: "because (ontolologically or formally) authoritative" should be "BECOMES (ontologically...."

Pontificator said...

Scott, would you agree with the following statement by Fr James T. O'Connor?

"Infallibility does not render a doctrine of the Church more true than it ever was Infallibility is formally concerned not with the truth as such but rather with the certitude with which the truth is known."

Scott Carson said...

Fr. Al

Your comment came in while I was still working on a longish post on infallibility. I've just now posted it, so perhaps it will serve as a response to your comment.

Mike L said...


Let's leave aside the cases where Church teaching is "authoritative" only in the bald sense of being propounded by Church authority. The Church has never said that all such statements are authoritative in virtue of being set forth infallibly, or even of being true. There are different degrees of authority, and not all exercises thereof call for the assent of faith. The case I have in mind are teachings that the Church has propounded with her full authority. Those are set forth infallibly, are true, and require the assent of faith. What are the relevant conceptual relations here?

Again, let's leave aside the question how one can tell when a given teaching has been propounded with the Church's "full" authority. There are many clear cases of that, and many that are not so clear. The question before us is simply this: if a given teaching T has in fact been propounded with the Church's full authority—if, that is, T is what I've been calling 'authoritative-1'—then how is that fact about T related to the truth of T?

My claim is just that one can be justifiably certain that T is true precisely in virtue of knowing that T is authoritative-1, whereas the converse does not hold. If I know that T is authoritative-1, then I am justified in being certain that T is true; but if T is true, that fact alone does not indicate that it's authoritative-1 or not. Hence truth and authoritativeness, even the highest degree of authoritativeness, are not only not the same; in some cases, I recognize the truth of a given statement by its authoritativeness, but not vice-versa.


Scott Carson said...


Thanks for your comment. You seem to be saying several different things here, and I confess that I'm not entirely sure I understand what exactly it is you're trying to say in each and every case, so I'll just make a few random comments of my own here.

To begin, your first paragraph seems to me to be playing on an ambiguity in the word "authority", so I'll just stipulate that I have the technical meaning in mind, not the colloquial and, with you, I'm particularly interested in what you're calling instances in which the Church teaches with her "full authority".

On the ontological side, of course, the relation is an equivalence, that is, if T is true and a matter of faith or morals, then were it to be formally taught it would also be authoritative, and if it's authoritative it is also true. But this leaves open the question, if it is a legitimate question, What degree of authority does it have? I will put that on hold for a second, because it seems to me to be more relevant to the epistemological aspect.

On the epistemological question of how the believer is to recognize such an instance (i.e., authoritative teaching), that is, how we can be certain that teachings are true, I agree with you that we know them to be true when we know them to be authoritative. I don't believe there was ever any question about that level of epistemic causation. The question that was raised (not by you, of course, but by someone else) was rather, how is a Christian believer to know that this relation holds. But that question (at least as it was originally formulated in the context to which I was responding) is an instance of ignoratio elenchi, since grasping this relation is a matter of divine grace, not a feature of human cognition. That is, it is a matter of divine grace that the Christian is able to come to believe that the Church has the teaching charism that she has.

This means, I take it, that what you say in your last paragraph is possibly trivially true, at least on the epistemological side, unless we disambiguate some cases.

One case that we can put aside as irrelevant, is the case where I know T to be authoritative (in our sense). If I am a Christian who has been given the divine grace to believe that such teachings are also true, then I have warrant for thinking T to be true. The problem is rather going the other way, from knowing T to be true to knowing whether T is also authoritative.

I can think of three distinct cases that are relevant here. The first case is relevant only from a strictly logical point of view: suppose the content of T has nothing to do with faith or morals. Obviously in this sort of a case T will not be, strictly speaking, a "teaching" of the Church. I'm not at all sure what exactly it would be--matters of discipline are not, strictly speaking, true or false, and points of historical clarification are not, strictly speaking, teachings. But anywho, clearly, in this kind of case, if I know T to be true I do not have warrant for thinking T to be authoritative since the charism of the Church does not extend to cases that have nothing to do with faith or morals. If anything, I have warrant for thinking that T is not authoritative in this kind of case, since we are restricting our sense of "authoritative" to the technical sense.

That leaves two sorts of cases in which authoritativeness (in our sense) remains a question: (a) cases in which T has to do with faith and morals and is fully authoritative, and (b) cases in which T has to do with faith and morals and is less than fully authoritative.

It is just here, in this sort of a case, that we may have some sort of difference of opinion, but I'm not at all sure what it might be, since I'm having a hard time coming up with a taxonomy of "teachings about matters of faith or morals" that I'm comfortable with. But clearly, in order to assess the differences between (a) and (b) one would want such a taxonomy. So, if you think that this is where our difference lies, perhaps you can help me out: a list of three or four "teachings about matters of faith or morals", ordinally ranked from "fully authoritative" to "least authoritative", would be very helpful.

My own suspicion is that, for the general purposes of the average believer, cases of (a) and (b) represent a distinction without a difference. You are quite right that, simply knowing T to be true and pertaining to matters of faith and morals, I do not yet know how authoritative T is, but it seems to me that I do know it to be authoritative in some relevant sense, and I ought to act accordingly. Theologically, of course, there is a difference between the two kinds of cases, and the difference will represent something of the degree to which theologians may faithfully explore the limitations of the teaching in question. So I would be fairly interested in hearing your taxonomy, because having such a taxonomy to hand would be a great starting point for a conversation about theologoumena in general.