Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Fr. Al Kimel and Dr. Michael Liccione have already left comments on Shane's recent post about submission to authority at Scholasticus, but I thought it would be useful, at least for me, to work through the argument there to see what's what. We are told at the outset that
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.


Shane said...

Prof. Carson,

Thank you for this very extensive response to my post.

At first I began to read your article with great interest because I think you correct point out an inadequacy with the very way I pose the question. I've been careless here--of course, submitting to God is a good thing.

You are indeed right that this article is part of a larger project in which I'm trying to get at something like the classical protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. I will try to rectify some of my earlier lacunae:

By 'catholic apologists' I do not have a specific author in mind because I have seen a statement like the following regularly defended on catholic theology blogs:

"To be a good Christian you have to automatically accept what the catholic church teaches just because it is taught authoritatively by the church."

You find fault with the overall thrust of my argument, which you label The Principle of Adolescent Posturing (an ad hominem attack at my age?) and find fault with the analogy of a child being instructed by his parents. My argument was that just as a child must submit in his youth and then grow to a level of maturity characterized by independent practical reasoning, so in the same way a new believer should submit to church authority and then grow to a level of independent reasoning about spiritual matters.

Instead you suggest that a more apt analogy would be to think of the relation of the lay catholic to the magisterium as analogous to the relation between a patient and a doctor. Obviously it is rational for a patient to follow the regimen a doctor prescribes for him without him understanding why the drugs the doctor prescribes for him are used. It is precisely the notion of the expertise of the doctor which you choose to highlight as the relevant similarity between the doctor and, e.g. the pope.

Your analogy fails for two reasons: First, nobody has a duty to learn anything about medicine. I can be completely virtuous and completely and willfully ignorant of the practice of medicine. If I have a spiritual duty to continually increase in knowledge and love of God, then I cannot be willfully ignorant about spiritual things. Please also note that the sort of knowledge it is my spiritual duty to pursue is a practical (or almost exclusively practical) kind of knowledge. Just as one need not be a virtue ethicist to act virtuously, so too one need not be a theologian to possess spiritual knowledge of the relevant sort. Second, the essence of the catholic claim I am opposing is that the pope (or the councils) is authoritative ex officio (X is to be believed "just because" it is what the church teaches), not because he possesses a certain sort of expertise.

Imagine golfing with Tiger Woods. At a certain point in the game, Tiger reaches over and shifts the club in your hand and says, "Loosen your grip just so." You loosen your grip and bang, you are hitting much better. You go back to the clubhouse after the round and the local golf pro sees you swinging and comes to correct your stroke back to the way it originally was. You object, 'But when I do it Tiger's way, then I get better results.' The pro says, "I don't care who told you to do it that way or what the result is: I'm the pro and I said do it so!" Tiger has an authority based on experience and the golf pro has an authority merely ex officio. I don't deny that the same person can possess both kinds of authority, but the catholic claim, as far as I can tell is that the ex officio is all that matters.

The rest of your arguments are beside the point or are mischaracterizations of my position. Take, for instance, this one:

"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."

I deny no such thing. I do recognize a role for authority in the church. However, it is the kind of authority you yourself are outlining, namely an authority based on expertise. I developed the account I did precisely to take into account our dependency on hearing the word of God spoken to us by those more mature in the faith than we are. Likewise, I outline an example of a virtue, which I call humble deference, which ought to characterize the Christian's relation to his forefathers in faith. But, and here is where I really ought to have been more explicit in the past, that deference comes from a recognition of the expertise of the authority--in other words, from my private, personal, individual and rational judgment that this person possesses an expertise that I lack. To recognize the Pope as an authority because he has a certain kind of expertise demands that I myself make the judgment that he possesses that kind of expertise. And that is something I think a catholic apologist would have a hard time swallowing.

I think the position you have attacked is a straw man mischaracterization of my position. My position is that blind faith is bad. Informed faith, recognition of my own dependence on others and the ability to judge who is to count as possessing the expertise I lack are all good things.

Vitae Scrutator said...

Hi Shane

I appreciate your candor, and while I'm sure you mean well, I don't think that I've either misunderstood or mischaracterized your argument in any way. If I may be permitted to return to the theme of expertise for just a moment, I will summon what little modesty I can lay claim to and note in passing that I read and critique argument's such as yours every day for my living, and until I get fired for incompetence I will allow myself to believe that I know what I'm doing.

This is not to say that some arguments are not more difficult to diagnose than others, I assure you. I have come across arguments where I had to labor for quite some time simply to discern the structure of the inference being made. But I can tell you in all honesty, and I hope that you will not take this the wrong way, that your argument was not among those that I would count as the most difficult to diagnose. I'm sorry if that seems rude or consdescending; think of it as a professional opinion, a sort of a diagnosis: you are, of course, free to seek second, third, or however many, opinions on the matter. Possibly you will get different diagnoses from different experts.

Now, in some cases I find that people put forward positions that, once put into words, are actually rather different from what they had intended to say, but they don't always see this, because of course they know what they were trying to say and the words that they employed were the words they thought proper or else they would have said something different. But in a case like the argument that you've presented here, where the premises and conclusion are rather straightforward, clearly stated, and not open to a lot of interpretation to begin with, the responsibility for potential misreadings of one's position is arguably that of the expositor rather than the interpreter. I'm afraid that your argument says what I think it says, whether you wanted it to or not.

Now, if you will bear with me just a little more, I will continue with the conceit that I may know a little something about assessing arguments for validity and soundness, as well as about strategies for interpreting the meaning of arguments, and I will suggest that, just as I did not misunderstand or mischaracterize you, you have, by contrast, misunderstood me! Specifically, I claim that you have missed the point of my analogy with medicine. Indeed, if I may be permitted to yank your chain just a little, I would advise you to put the Scholastics on hold for a while and read more Plato and Aristotle--you'll come out ahead in the end anyway, since Scholasticism is just rehashed Platonism. But anywho, your bit about having a "duty to learn about medicine" is entirely irrelevant: the point of the analogy is simply that there does exist such a thing as expertise in matters of faith and morals, and to simply reject the existence of such expertise in the way that you do is question begging. The analogy with medicine is meant to illustrate not the duty of learning a particular body of knowledge, but rather the hubris of pretending that one is an expert when one isn't, or failing to recognize the legitimate expertise of others; it also illustrates rather nicely the possible peril of rejecting the notion of expertise in certain domains (again, reading more Plato will be helpful here).

It is true that the Christian has a duty where the patient has none, and I think you are right to point out this duty. I don't know whether you have read Newman on this matter, but of course every Catholic will agree with you that there is a duty to know as much about one's faith as possible: this is, after all, what it means to be an adherent to the faith. But the Christian is wedded to a view of the world that is essentially sacramental: things are images of things. In particular, Christ is the image of God, and we men, too, are made in his image; the Jewish people are his chosen people because they are the living manifestation of his law in the flesh; those in Holy Orders are chosen from among the Christian faithful to act in persona Christi, and this, too, is a special case of serving as an imago Dei. Because of this ontology, certain things have to follow. We trust in God without knowing any of the things he knows; we trust in Christ without knowing very much of what he knows; and we are permitted to trust in Christ's ministers, even if we know exactly what they know, or even more. To trust one of Christ's ministers is to trust Christ himself. Even if the minister is mistaken, we are permitted to trust him. It does not follow that trusting him is required, only that it is permitted. But when the minister is mistaken, even though we are permitted to trust him, we are also permitted to disobey him, if he teaches something that is contrary to the Ordinary Magisterium.

We are only required to submit to authority when that authority is authentic. This is the true meaning of that nebulous catholic apologist who said that catholics have to accept what the church teaches "just because it is taught authoritatively by the church". You don't want to fall into the fallacy of equivocation here: when something is taught "authoritatively" that does not mean "by fiat". That may be what Protestants think it means in the case of the Church, but what it really means is that the teaching is true. To be authoritative on this view is to "have authority", that is, to be in a position to demand acceptance on the grounds that the thing is actually true, and to reject it would be heresy. Don't conflate "authority" in the sense of "having a position of arbitrary power over others" with "authority" in the sense of "being a genuine source of truth". Only the latter is what the Christian is interested in, and only the latter is what's claimed for the Ordinary Magisterium.

Now, when you start to say things like "The rest of your arguments are beside the point or are mischaracterizations of my position" you really begin to lose your audience, at least, when your audience is me and I'm the "you" of the "your arguments" bit. I'm tempted to say that when you make such observations you only confirm all the more my position that there exists such a thing as expertise, and that non-experts ought to defer to those who have it, but I will resist that temptation on the grounds that I have already done enough to confirm your probably well-founded idea of me as an arrogant jerk, and instead I will merely point out a feature of your alleged counterexample. I had said

"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."

which you quote directly and then add immediately:

I deny no such thing. I do recognize a role for authority in the church. However, it is the kind of authority you yourself are outlining, namely an authority based on expertise...deference comes from a recognition of the expertise of the authority--in other words, from my private, personal, individual and rational judgment that this person possesses an expertise that I lack. To recognize the Pope as an authority because he has a certain kind of expertise demands that I myself make the judgment that he possesses that kind of expertise. And that is something I think a catholic apologist would have a hard time swallowing.

Possibly, but then again you have yet to say just who you have in mind by "catholic apologists" and on what authority we are to take their willingness or unwillingness to accept this point as in itself a feature of Roman Catholicism.

Having said that, however, I will return to my medical analogy. When I go to a neurosurgeon to have a tumor removed from my brain, I doubt very much that I myself can possibly have the sort of expertise that would enable me to tell just how much of an expert my doctor is. Instead, I trust in the credentialing system that is place in the medical field. That system includes the assessments and evaluations of other experts in the same field. It does not include the opinions of philosophers. Similarly, it simply is not necessary to have the same sort of expertise as the Pope in order to be justified in trusting that the Pope has expertise. To begin with, the point you are making here either ignores or misunderstands my point about the office of the Papacy as contrasted with the individual person who occupies the office. The person who occupies the office may not have much expertise at all, but he only speaks authoritatively when he speaks about what he knows and understands to be the case in an objective, rather than subjective, sense. But suppose he does have expertise--why should I consider it my job to determine the extent of it, when presumably there is a similar credentialing procedure in place? The man went to seminary, after all, and I didn't; he has the burden of making sure that what he teaches is consistent with the Ordinary Magisterium. The Ordinary Magisterium was developed over many centuries by other theologians, philosophers, Councils, and the like. And the Pope has many, many theological and philosophical advisors who help him to be sure that he is not saying something that is inconsistent with that Magisterium. You don't think, I hope, that the Pope just sits in his office all day writing down his theological speculations with no more help than the aid of a Greek dictionary and a couple of Expositor's Commentaries? Perhaps some Protestants are such individualists that they do think that the Pope works that way, just handing out directives from on high that everybody has to bow down to, but that is just a red herring--it doesn't work that way, and nobody would have anything like a duty to submit to him if it did work that way. The whole point is that his authority is real because it is grounded in an expertise that belongs to the Church as a whole, not to him personally, just as the expertise that a particular doctor has, if he genuinely has it, is expertise that was gained over centuries by many others in his profession, by trial and error. He is the inheritor of a particular tradition that either works well or doesn't work so well; we trust him if it works well and if he has learned his lessons well. We don't need to learn those lessons ourselves to trust him.

Finally, I've been easy on you because I can see that you're a really nice guy and very sincere and you're trying really hard and you're obviously bright and articulate, but if it really is the case that your position can be boiled down to nothing other than "blind faith is bad", then you are the one with the straw man argument, not me, because no reputable Roman Catholic theologian says that blind faith is good, or that Catholics are bound to accept what the Pope says on blind faith. It may be that there are some "catholic apologists" that you have come across who say such things, but if you haven't learned yet that you can't believe everything you find on the internet, you need to get out a little more. The idea that Catholics accept things on blind faith, or that they have an obligation to do so, or that they regard it as virtuous to do so, really is just a variation on "check your brains at the door", and it is an offensive mischaracterization of the faith of over a billion people, whose collective expertise would appear to exceed your own in the matter.

Strider said...

I would like to invite Scott, Shane, and any one else who'd like to join the party to comment on this long citation from Newman. Is it relevant to the matter at hand? Do you agree or disagree with him?

In solving this difficulty I wish it first observed, that, if it is the duty of the Church to act as "the pillar and ground of the Truth," she is manifestly obliged from time to time, and to the end of time, to denounce opinions incompatible with that truth, whenever able and subtle minds in her communion venture to publish such opinions. Suppose certain Bishops and priests at this day began to teach that Islamism or Buddhism was a direct and immediate revelation from God, she would be bound to use the authority which God has given her to declare that such a proposition will not stand with Christianity, and that those who hold it are none of hers; and she would be bound to impose such a declaration on that very knot of persons who had committed themselves to the novel proposition, in order that, if they would not recant, they might be separated from her communion, as they were separate from her faith. In such a case, her masses of population would either not hear of the controversy, or they would at once take part with her, and without effort take any test, which secured the exclusion of the innovators; and she on the other hand would feel that what is a rule for some Catholics must be a rule for all. Who is to draw the line between who are to acknowledge that rule, and who are not? It is plain, there cannot be two rules of faith in the same communion, or rather, as the case really would be, an endless variety of rules, coming into force according to the multiplication of heretical theories, and to the degrees of knowledge and varieties of sentiment in individual Catholics. There is but one rule of faith for all; and it would be a greater difficulty to allow of an uncertain rule of faith, than (if that was the alternative, as it is not), to impose upon uneducated minds a profession which they cannot understand.

But it is not the necessary result of unity of profession, nor is it the fact, that the Church imposes dogmatic statements on the interior assent of those who cannot apprehend them. The difficulty is removed by the dogma of the Church's infallibility, and of the consequent duty of "implicit faith" in her word. The "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" is an article of the Creed, and an article, which, inclusive of her infallibility, all men, high and low, can easily master and accept with a real and operative assent. It stands in the place of all abstruse propositions in a Catholic's mind, for to believe in her word is virtually to believe in them all. Even what he cannot understand, at least he can believe to be true; and he believes it to be true because he believes in the Church.

The rationale of this provision for unlearned devotion is as follows:—It stands to reason that all of us, learned and unlearned, are bound to believe the whole revealed doctrine in all its parts and in all that it implies according as portion after portion is brought home to our consciousness as belonging to it; and it also stands to reason, that a doctrine, so deep and so various, as the revealed depositum of faith, cannot be brought home to us and made our own all at once. No mind, however large, however penetrating, can directly and fully by one act understand any one truth, however simple. What can be more intelligible than that "Alexander conquered Asia," or that "Veracity is a duty"? but what a multitude of propositions is included under either of these theses! still, if we profess either, we profess all that it includes. Thus, as regards the Catholic Creed, if we really believe that our Lord is God, we believe all that is meant by such a belief; or, else, we are not in earnest, when we profess to believe the proposition. In the act of believing it at all, we forthwith commit ourselves by anticipation to believe truths which at present we do not believe, because they have never come before us;—we limit henceforth the range of our private judgment in prospect by the conditions, whatever they are, of that dogma. Thus the Arians said that they believed in our Lord's divinity, but when they were pressed to confess His eternity, they denied it: thereby showing in fact that they never had believed in His divinity at all. In other words, a man who really believes in our Lord's proper divinity, believes implicitè in His eternity.

And so, in like manner, of the whole depositum of faith, or the revealed word:—If we believe in the revelation, we believe in what is revealed, in all that is revealed, however it may be brought home to us, by reasoning or in any other way. He who believes that Christ is the Truth, and that the Evangelists are truthful, believes all that He has said through them, though he has only read St. Matthew and has not read St. John. He who believes in the depositum of Revelation, believes in all the doctrines of the depositum; and since he cannot know them all at once, he knows some doctrines, and does not know others; he may know only the Creed, nay, perhaps only the chief portions of the Creed; but, whether he knows little or much, he has the intention of believing all that there is to believe whenever and as soon as it is brought home to him, if he believes in Revelation at all. All that he knows now as revealed, and all that he shall know, and all that there is to know, he embraces it all in his intention by one act of faith; otherwise, it is but an accident that he believes this or that, not because it is a revelation. This virtual, interpretative, or prospective belief is called a believing implicitè; and it follows from this, that, granting that the Canons of Councils and the other ecclesiastical documents and confessions, to which I have referred, are really involved in the depositum or revealed word, every Catholic, in accepting the depositum, does implicitè accept those dogmatic decisions.

I say, "granting these various propositions are virtually contained in the revealed word," for this is the only question left; and that it is to be answered in the affirmative, is clear at once to the Catholic, from the fact that the Church declares that they really belong to it. To her is committed the care and the interpretation of the revelation. The word of the Church is the word of the revelation. That the Church is the infallible oracle of truth is the fundamental dogma of the Catholic religion; and "I believe what the Church proposes to be believed" is an act of real assent, including all particular assents, notional and real; and, while it is possible for unlearned as well as learned, it is imperative on learned as well as unlearned. And thus it is, that by believing the word of the Church implicitè, that is, by believing all that that word does or shall declare itself to contain, every Catholic, according to his intellectual capacity, supplements the shortcomings of his knowledge without blunting his real assent to what is elementary, and takes upon himself from the first the whole truth of revelation, progressing from one apprehension of it to another according to his opportunities of doing so.

Shane said...

@Dr. Dr. Carson,

1. “I'm afraid that your argument says what I think it says, whether you wanted it to or not.”

On what grounds do you claim this? I put forward an argument, you claimed (without any corroborating argumentation) that it had a conclusion such that no adult person ever needs the expertise of others. I denied this because I still do not see how you think that conclusion follows from what I’ve put forward.

My statement: We are all initially dependent upon others, but, in at least some areas of human life, we have a duty to grow towards thinking for ourselves.

I gave an example of this: a man trying to decide whether to marry a particular woman or not acts vicious who simply accepts his mother’s verdict on the matter because of her authority ex officio as his mother because it is good for him to learn to make his own decisions.

Now, what I’m asking you is how you think this relatively weak statement implies the fallacious conclusion: “No adult can ever virtuously consult the expertise of another person.” In fact, I don’t think it does and I give a good reason why: when I realize that I lack some expertise that another possesses I am myself utilizing my own power of judgment and submitting to an authority qua expert, not an authority just qua that authority. (In my original post I noted that the situation of a man who listens to his mother’s advice about women because she has good reasons [i.e. mother qua expert] is different than one who listens to his mother just because she is his mother [i.e. just because she is his mother ex officio].

I acknowledge that the original post was not as clear as it could have been, but I also wonder if your standards of rigor and clarity are a bit high for an off –the-cuff amateur theology blog post. I’m happy to accept correction from my elders, but I’ll confess that rational, argumentative correction helps me more than the bald assertion that my argument has a conclusion completely contrary to the one I think it has because you are an expert in logic and I am not. I’m a protestant. Demonstrate my error to me and I’ll relent, otherwise, here I stand, etc. etc. . . .

2. “You don't want to fall into the fallacy of equivocation here: when something is taught "authoritatively" that does not mean "by fiat". That may be what Protestants think it means in the case of the Church, but what it really means is that the teaching is true.”

This is where you start to lose me. I can’t understand any way to construe this that doesn’t make the Catholic position question-begging. Suppose you are trying to convert me to RCism. I ask, “Why should I believe that the teachings of the catholic church are true?” Your response it seems, would be: “The teachings of the RCC are authoritative and since everything authoritative is true by definition, therefore the teachings of the RCC are true.”

Hardly a persuasive argument.

Now I’ll agree that part of what it means to be a catholic (at least according to some catholics, like the Pope) is to believe that all of the authoritative teachings of the RCC are true, but this simply means that:

“All the authoritative teachings of the RCC are true.”

is a premise for any catholic theological argument. It is obviously impossible, however, to move from that premise to the conclusion, “All the authoritative teachings of the RCC are true” without begging the question. Therefore, if someone wishes to convert me to RCism (maybe you are, maybe you aren’t, I can’t quite tell) then he or she needs to demonstrate this proposition to me without presupposing it. Of course, if you aren’t trying to persuade me of the truth of RCism v. Protestantism what exactly is it that you are doing in this post and comment?

3. “It simply is not necessary to have the same sort of expertise as the Pope in order to be justified in trusting that the Pope has expertise.”

This is actually interesting. In the medical example I recognize my lack of medical knowledge and I am more or less forced to trust that the hospital has hired a good doctor with good credentials obtained from a certification board that know what they are doing. Lots of trust involved. I’ll have to think about the limits and appropriateness of this analogy to the case we are discussing a bit more before I want to comment further.

4. “No reputable Roman Catholic theologian says that blind faith is good, or that Catholics are bound to accept what the Pope says on blind faith.”

If you accept that “all the authoritative teachings of the RCC are true” as a premise, as a given, etc. then you are accepting the authority of the pope and councils ex officio rather than on the basis of expertise just because the formal procedure by which something is known to be an authoritative teaching is based on some mechanical rules. In other words, X is an official teaching of the catholic church if and only if it is taught ex cathedra by a validly elected pope . . . etc. and so forth.

Now, lest you accuse me again of attacking a straw man, let’s turn to one of those authoritative teachings from the First Vatican Council:

8. "Now since the decree on the interpretation of holy scripture, profitably made by the council of Trent, with the intention of constraining rash speculation, has been wrongly interpreted by some, we renew that decree and declare its meaning to be as follows: that in matters of faith and morals, belonging as they do to the establishing of Christian doctrine, that meaning of holy scripture must be held to be the true one, which Holy Mother Church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true meaning and interpretation of holy scripture."

9. "In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret holy scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers."

(Vatican I, Session 3, Chapter 2)

I take these two statements to mean that the (magisterium of the) catholic church alone has the right to judge the meaning of anything in scripture and that therefore the individual catholic’s duty is to accept, without evidence or argument required, whatever interpretation the magisterium puts forward as the true one. An individual catholic might formulate his own reasons after the fact to agree with the magisterium, but he or she may not ever question whether an authoritative teaching is correct or not. (Of course catholic can have their own opinion about adiaphora, but that is beside the point.)

My position is that accepting X as true, just because the magisterium teaches it and claims to have an infallible teaching authority, is an act of blind faith. As such, the point of my argument is that blind faith embodies submission to authority in a vicious way. So yes, my argument does boil down to: ‘blind faith’ is bad, but with several (I thought fairly clear) distinctions drawn to avoid committing the protestant to the fallacious view you take to be my conclusion that any and all submission as such is bad.

Now, if you want to try to claim that this kind of submission to the authority of the magisterium is not an example of blind faith or that it is virtuous rather than vicious, you are welcome to do so.

Shane said...

P.S. Who's this Plato guy? He sounds interesting.

CrimsonCatholic said...

Fr. Al:
By fortunate coincidence, I was in the middle of drafting a post along those lines when Scott wrote this response. I've drawn a distinction between faith as practical and faith as speculative, and your Newman quote fit in so well that I included a link to this post. It also fits with Mike L.'s explanation of the proximate object of faith.

I think you're overcomplicating the argument. The reason that you wouldn't rely on someone ex officio or otherwise is that you thought that you had better knowledge. That's why Dr. Carson identified your view with the teenager who thinks he knows better. The entire point of Michael Liccione's response was that there is no possible way that you could have better theological knowledge based on Scripture, because interpretation of Scripture is ultimately reflexive (it would amount to having faith in yourself).

Sola scriptura is a circular knowledge theory, just like appeals to the witness of the Holy Spirit and the like. The difficulty is quite simple: in the case of sola scriptura, you are claiming knowledge of external reality from the operation of your own mind. Catholics reasonably say this is impossible, that individuals only receive knowledge from direct experience of outside reality (i.e., knowledge must be caused), and that anything you actually know for certain about other things must be from some direct experience (or a logical deduction therefrom), else it is mere opinion.

Note that this does not prove that the Catholic Church is the proximate object of faith; only faith can do that. What it does is to respond to your objection by pointing out (1) that there is no way that someone could rationally claim to have better knowledge that one's own proximate object of faith and (2) that someone with no proximate object of faith would not even be in a position to judge the veracity of someone else's claims of divine truth, because he would have no basis for theological knowledge. Clearly, it is virtuous to submit to someone whom you know to have greater knowledge than you when there is no way that you could gain better knowledge and when the submission would produce some real good. Indeed, it would be vicious and self-destructive to rely on your own medical judgment ("well, I don't feel bad, so I don't believe you, Doc."). Dr. Carson's response is a defeater for your argument because it attacks the claim to have better knowledge that you can't possibly have.

In general, it troubles me that you would display contempt for this sort of reliance on a proximate object of faith as immature, when the faith of children in this manner is commended by Christ Himself in Scripture (see, e.g., Mark 10:14-15). Our dependence on the Son who reveals the Father is a bedrock belief for Christianity, and you appear to be claiming knowledge of God by an immediate operation of your own intellect (the so-called "internal witness"), bypassing the Son. That's Gnosticism, not Christianity.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...