Trusting in One's Own Meaningfulness

Although I try to make it a point to read Jonathan Prejean's excellent blog, the CrimsonCatholic, every day, I owe a hat tip to Fr. Al Kimel for drawing my attention to the most recent post over there, on the question "Is the Protestant concept of authority vicious?". Although Jonathan does not raise the question himself, he answers it very well. I will pass over the rather worrisome project of trying to characterize particular religious beliefs as either virtuous or vicious (a project that is, again, not Jonathan's but another's), since I cannot make any sense out of it. But I will say that Jonathan does a good job of raising an important question: what exactly is the epistemic relationship between our cognitive faculties and the content of our faith? John Paul II, famously, blogged on this very topic, here. A question that I have put a number of times, but to which I have never received any answer, let alone a compelling one, is relevant here: how can an individual, relying on his private judgment, discern the difference between orthodoxy and heresy during the years A.D. 33-50? For that matter, given some discussion I have seen in my comboxes, I also wonder how some folks would answer that question for any period in the Christian era, let alone the earliest. It could be that the folks to whom I have posed this question simply do not see its importance, and for that reason they have not bothered to answer it, thinking that they have bigger fish to fry; but it is difficult to tell, since I have heard nary a peep on this topic since first posing the question.

That is is, in fact, the central question in the debate at hand, however, is obvious. Without a normative criterion that is external to the individual believer, there is literally no means at all for determining whether a particular teaching is true or false. If, on the one hand, you should happen to believe that your own private judgment is as good as anyone else's, then you have reason to believe, perhaps, that others are as likely to screw up as you yourself are, but you have as yet no principle for distinguishing between true and false judgments. If, on the other hand, you should happen to believe that your own private judgment is better, at least in principle, than any other external judgment, on the grounds that your private judgments are aided by the direction of the Holy Spirit, pick up your phone and call Elvis right away, he needs you in his band.

Granted, if it were really the case that some particular individual really did have a private line to the Holy Spirit, that would presumably be a big help in deciding whether to endorse certain teachings rather than others. But the question remains: according to what criterion are we to judge the truth or falsity of the judgment that we are genuinely guided by the Holy Spirit in our private judgments? There is a very real danger of vicious circularity here.

Does the same danger exist for those who defer authoritativeness to judgments made by institutions outside of themselves? Clearly not. We may begin, perhaps, by noting that there is already a rather interesting substantive difference between someone who thinks of himself as the source of authority (albeit, with the help of the Holy Spirit), and someone who thinks of some institution as the source of authority (also with the help of the Holy Spirit). Since the names for that difference aren't always pretty, I'll simply point out that the danger of circularity is not present here because when the source of authoritativeness is within oneself, it will never be the case that you find yourself thinking the following:
I do not believe X, and yet I must, and do, believe X because my inner source of authoritativeness with respect to belief compels me to.
.When the source of authoritativeness is external to oneself, it becomes possible to wonder whether what is taught authoritatively must be believed, and pretty much for precisely the reasons that some Protestants reject the authority of the Church qua institution: they claim that they not only don't know for sure that the Church is teaching authoritatively, they go so far as to claim that they know it to be teaching what is false. A Catholic may say, "I know X to be true because the Church teaches it authoritatively", and in this sense the Catholic and the Protestant say the same thing, except that where the Catholic says "Church" the Protestant says "I and my inner source of authority". But a Catholic may also say "I find it very difficult to believe X, but the Church teaches it authoritatively and so I will submit my will to hers and give intellectual assent to it anyway." No Protestant can say this, even if he swaps out the word "Church" and replaces it with "I and my inner source of authority". If he leaves the word "Church" in, obviously, he fails to make any sense qua Protestant. If he swaps it out for the suggested replacement, he fails to make any sense qua epistemic agent. It is precisely because he believes X that he believes it to be authoritatively true, so it is simply not the case that he finds it difficult to accept; indeed, he fools himself if he thinks it true that he really finds it difficult to accept, for he has in fact already accepted it, and that is precisely why he says that he gives his assent to it. So the Protestant, in making any kind of claim about authority, must say something that is meaningless in one way or another.


Pontificator said…
Pontificator's Ninth Law:

"If a Catholic cannot name at least one article of faith that he believes solely on the basis of the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium, he’s either a saint or a Protestant."
CrimsonCatholic said…
Thanks to Fr. Kimel for the notice, and thanks to Dr. Carson for the exposition.

The only answer I have thus far received is "Well, Scripture is external to me, and I accept Scripture as an authority." My response is two-fold:
1. One's view of Scripture as an authority was not authorized externally.
2. Interpretation is an internal operation as well, and without some external authority over the process, it still amounts to the authority of one's own internal witness.

I think that pretty much exhausts the possible answers.
Kevin said…
how can an individual, relying on his private judgment, discern the difference between orthodoxy and heresy during the years A.D. 33-50?

I don't see how the Roman Catholic position fares any better to this question. I presume your answer would be that the people could look to the apostles and, trusting in their authority, say such-and-such is orthodoxy. Of course, James and others (including Peter for a time) didn't do a good job with the whole orthodoxy thing, until Paul came along and set them straight. But then you will say that the Jerusalem council has the authority, so the people look to the ecumenical councils; but you're just reading back later developments, not countenancing that it was hardly clear for a long time that ecumenical councils have infallible, binding authority (e.g., Nicaea largely ignored, indeed refuted, by most of the Church for a century or so). The councils were ultimately believed to be infallibly guided insofar as the parties agreed to its orthodoxy and submitted (though this was exegetically-grounded to the extent that they took the Spirit's guiding of the church to be the premise). Of course, the "universal jurisdiction" of the pope, with his ex cathedra infalliblity, would have been helpful during this time, but that didn't exist yet (sorry, I had to throw that in). Regardless of whether you take my historical gloss as valid, I am of course going to come back to the boogeyman in your argument, "I and my inner source of authority." I truly don't see such a qualitative difference that you see between the Catholic and Protestant position. The Catholic is bound just as much as the Protestant to investigate the claims of his church. Many a Catholic has determined the Petrine, Marian, Soteriological, etc. claims of the RCC to be illegitimate and thus have left; many a Protestant has found such claims to be valid and have converted. In each case, the judgment (a mix of historical, rational, and, above all, spiritual discernment) of the individual decides. For example, the Catholic convert builds a probabilistic case mixed with a spiritual strengthening that results in an act of faith -- or to put it in Balthasarian terms, the convert sees the (aesthetic) form and assents. Regardless, the convert decides that each teaching coheres with a predetermined whole, thus all difficulties are trusted to fit -- this trusting, that you find the great advantage of the Catholic position, is still grounded in an ultimately rationalist case that could easily be toppled if the Catholic discerns a difficulty to not fit. Of course, you say that the Catholic cannot conceive of this as a possibility, but can we not agree that the Catholic should be open to such a possibility? But if so, we're back to private judgment. I think Newman saw this in one of his sermons (can't remember which one, from Mixed Congregations I believe), and thus resorted to the position that the Catholic simply cannot allow this possibility since such is doubt, the antithesis of faith (i.e., the Catholic would no longer be Catholic). I don't see how you could argue for this.

Well, there's much more to be said, but I got to go to bed. It's 3AM here in Scotland.
Scott Carson said…

Thank you very much for the comment--you make some very good points, and I certainly do not deny the very important historical arguments that you have mustered. Indeed, I very much agree that such historical considerations are essential to any assessment of this problem, and I would even agree with you that "Papal infallibility", as you put it, "didn't exist" back then, if by that what you mean is that it was not a doctrine that had fully developed in the Tradition. Indeed, it is not clear that it even makes sense to refer to such an ontological correlate as "Pope" in the years from 33-50, so a fortiori there could be no papal infallibility, at least not operationally.

Indeed, Holy Orders as such cannot really be said to have existed in the way in which Catholics now believe that they do, there were only those who were "sent out" by the Lord (the apostoloi). To recognize that the institutions of the Church evolve and develop over time, however, is not to assert that they are not real, and that they do not have the ontological status that the Church says that they now have.

But our central disagreement appears to remain. On the one hand, I don't think that any respectable Roman Catholic thinker would deny your assertion that it is the duty of every Christian "to investigate the claims of his church". Our difference lies rather in the meaning of such an investigation.

For you, if I'm understanding you correctly, even the decision to become a Roman Catholic and to believe what the Roman Catholic Church teaches is itself an act of private judgment, or, as you put it, "a probabilistic case mixed with a spiritual strengthening that results in an act of faith". (We may want to talk about what you man here by "spiritual strengthening"--if it is from the Lord, who would dare not become Catholic? But let's save that one for another day.) In short, it sounds to me as though you are denying the possibility of the sort of assent that Newman describes in his Grammar of Assent. Now, since you mentioned having read that work, I know you'll know what I mean when I say that I don't fully agree with you here:

Regardless, the convert decides that each teaching coheres with a predetermined whole, thus all difficulties are trusted to fit -- this trusting, that you find the great advantage of the Catholic position, is still grounded in an ultimately rationalist case that could easily be toppled if the Catholic discerns a difficulty to not fit. Of course, you say that the Catholic cannot conceive of this as a possibility, but can we not agree that the Catholic should be open to such a possibility?

In my view, it is quite possible for a Catholic to find himself in the position of bewilderment upon discovering a massive cognitive dissonance between what he thinks is coherent and what the Church authoritatively says is true. Indeed, it is precisely because I think this is possible for the Catholic but impossible for the Protestant (or perhaps a better word would be something like Private Judgment Defender, I don't suppose they have to be, technically, Protestants in the strict sense of the term--certainly there are plenty such folks who claim to be Catholic) to be in such a position. This, to me, is evidence in favor of thinking that there really is such a thing as authority beyond one's own inner sense of rational coherence.

Having said all of that, I do acknowledge that the historical case will seem problematic to the non-Catholic. Indeed, I agree that it is somewhat problematic. But I think it is problematic for everybody, not just Catholics. Because if the Church does not have the authority to say what must be believed, then there is really absolutely no reason to be a Christian at all, beyond simply thinking to yourself "Well, seems good to me!" But that would be silly, and it would put the Christian believer on precisely the same footing as the Jew, the Muslim, the Druid, or indeed the atheist. In short, if the Church has no authority to teach the truth, then the Joseph Campbells of the world are exactly right about the documents of our faith: they are an interesting sociological record of a fascinating movement in human history--but they are nothing else.

In short, if I were not a Catholic, I would be, not a Protestant, or Anglican, or Orthodox, or Jew--I would be an atheist. Because there would be no rationally compelling reason to believe anything that the Christians or any other religious folks say to be true about the world.

It is, of course, the stock answer here to say: "Ah yes, but an act of faith is required, and that act is a supernatural one, I don't need the Church for that." Yeah, right. It's interesting to me that the Private Judgment Defenders are wiling to make such claims about the authoritativeness of their own "supernatural" abilities to believe what they already think to be true on the basis of their own private judgment, but then they have the temerity to poke fun at the Catholic account of authority as "circular".

Maybe it's a standpoint thing. If you're a Protestant, the Catholic position looks silly or circular or ahistorical or just plain made up politicization of religion. But I can assure you that from the Catholic standpoint the Protestant view looks much worse, if only because it's so much more hubristic. At least from a Catholic standpoint--I understand that from the Protestant standpoint it doesn't look bad at all.

I'd like to point out, by the way, that it is now 3:00 here in the states, too--PM, though, so I'm still awake, if only just barely after having read through my comment. I hope to hear more from you, however, because I value your critique and I think you do an excellent job of keeping me on my toes, even though I recognize my own shortcomings as an apologist!
Kevin said…

It would be interesting to go over some of those historical arguments some time. Do you know of any high-level theological works that deal with these issues? Of course there's Newman, but he was only providing a guideline or methodology, with short historical glosses, hardly an adequate account of the various developments. Next to Newman, I've found Zubiri fascinating, but he still largely leaves it at the theoretical level. I don't know anyone else. Bloggers do this type of stuff more than the academics are willing to.

As for the issue at hand, yes, I do disagree with Newman. I found the essay/sermon that I was referencing (and it is from Discourses to Mixed Congregations):

This is truly one of the most insightful of all of Newman's works. Basically the argument is that the Catholic cannot question the divine authority of his church -- such doubt equates to loss of faith. So any, as you say, cognitive dissonance, is a failure on the part of the human -- all is to be trusted to cohere. This, as I read it, rules out any possibility of the Catholic becoming a non-Catholic. A Catholic can investigate certain difficulties, but at no point is he allowed to say that those difficulties add-up to negating certain allegedly infallible claims of the Catholic Church. Like I said, I don't see how one can seriously argue this, but I do see how Newman was forced into this position (and this is a tribute to Newman's genius). The haunting spectre of private judgment is categorically ruled-out of play. So, investigate the claims all you want but regardless of what conclusions you come to, you have to leave it to Mother Church. So, indeed, when I say that both the Catholic and Protestant have the duty to investigate the claims of his church, we certainly mean two different things, since I believe this statement to only have real meaning if the investigated claims can actually turn out to be illegitimate. The Catholic can't allow that. It's more of a curiosity exercise for the Catholic.

Now we can get into the fact that I, of course, believe Protestants to have an adequate external authority which actually includes a necessary role for the visible church, but I want to get this faith-doubt issue down first.
Kevin said…
Ok, the Newman link was cut-off. Here it is again:

I should know this, but how do you link on a blog?
Kevin said…
Oh, bloody hell. The last bit after /discourses is /discourse11.html

As in:

Mike L said…

I don't think it follows from Newman's account that it is impossible for a Catholic to cease to be Catholic. What does follow is that, when a Catholic does cease to be Catholic, that is because he has chosen to abandon the principle of faith that is necessary for being Catholic. But his having chosen to do so while being Catholic would not be because he has exercised private judgment. Given Newman's account of faith and private judgment, the exercise of private judgment would be the result, not the cause, of that abandonment. The person who loses the gift of faith would, in other words, be choosing to reduce religion to a matter of opinion for reasons other than and possibly deeper than his so treating it in fact. His ceasing to trust the Magisterium is not the inevitable result of academic difficulties; rather, his treating such difficulties as doubts, which already involves loss of the gift of faith and thus of trust in the Magisterium, is the result of something else.

In my observation, that is how "difficulties," which are compatible with the gift of supernatural faith, become "doubts," which are not. You might want to have a look at my essay Faith, Private Judgment, Doubt, and Dissent. If you have any comment to make on it, please e-mail me (mliccione[at]gmail[dot]com) and I should be happy to blog a reply.
Kevin said…

Thanks for clarifying Newman a little better. I'm still not sure exactly what to make of it, and I think the Protestant could use the same idea in a modified form (namely, the object of assent). But, I'm going to have to think on it for now and see when I can get some relief from school work in order to work out a fuller reply.

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