Virtues are those habits of characters which enable a human being to live well. This claim means that a just person’s justice is a habit by virtue of which he or she is a good person. Something is fulfilled in the just person that is lacking or deformed in the unjust one. The difficult task then is specifying a list of the virtues–which habits of character are those which enable us someone to live well? The most common way to set about elaborating this list of virtues, or investigating whether a particular concept deserves to be called a virtue, is to specify a moral psychology.
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.
So let’s begin with 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.
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.
Now I think it is clear that a child’s relation of submission to his parents’ is usually either A or C (children are seldom distinterested.) In a child’s case A may even be a virtuous response but note that what makes it virtuous is the element of trust and love it involves.
The case, however, is different when the subject in question is an adult and not a child. For 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. The case would be different if he had broken up with his fiancée for good reasons his mother had adduced–but note that in that case the man is still judging for himself what is right to do, so he is not ‘submitting’ in any meaningful sense to his mother (i.e. not in either sense [A], [B] or [C] elaborated above).
We could elaborate several other analogous cases to illustrate this general phenomenon. For instance, 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.
But what does this have to do with the question of catholicism and protestantism? The claim of the catholic apologist is that the protestant believer is doing something vicious by presuming to sit in individual judgment over the theological pronouncement of the pope and councils. The counterclaim of the protestant is that the catholic, by refusing to judge the correctness of the popes and councils, is doing something vicious because it is naive.
It is clear from the examples I’ve adduced before that I think the answer here depends upon contextual elements, such as the age/knowledge/maturity of the person in question. Submitting to the Pope’s authority in sense [A] that I elaborated above might be a virtuous action under certain circumstances. (I’ve written about this at some considerable length before.) However, I don’t think submitting to the Pope’s authority in sense [B] (through disinterest) or [C] through fear would ever be virtuous. However, there could also obviously be a case in which ‘submission’ is a vice since it opens the individual up to being deceived. Obviously submission is vicious only in those cases in which a person is supposed to have attained a level of maturity and independent judgment. At precisely this point many catholic apologists are willing to say that lay people cannot be reasonably expected to know or think about much of anything. I’ve also written before that a desire not to have to think for oneself is a bad reason to convert to catholicism. In other words, many catholic apologists (I deliberately avoid saying ‘the Catholic Church’) relegate the mass of humanity to a permanent infantilism which must can hope for nothing more than passively acquiescing to authority for authority’s own sake.
By contrast, 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. Note that this does not lay on everyone’s shoulders the necessity to become a theologian because there is a difference between spiritual maturity (which is something like practical reasoning) and theological sophistication (which presupposes a theoretical discourse). One can be spiritually mature without a great deal of theology although perhaps a minimum amount is required. Likewise one can be theologically sophisticated and spiritually handicapped.
In other words, I see now that I was earlier too hard on Calvin and therefore I can adopt one of his statements as my own and say that vicious submission is not ‘faith’:
Bedecking the grossest ignorance with this term [sc. “faith”], they ruinously delude poor, miserable folk. Furthermore, to state truly and frankly the real fact of the matter, this fiction not only buries but utterly destroys true faith. Is this what believing means–to understand nothing provided only that you submit your feeling obediently to the church? Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge. (Institutes 3.2.2)