Is submission to (the Pope’s) authority a virtue?

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)

13 Responses to Is submission to (the Pope’s) authority a virtue?

  1. scholasticus says:

    Of course, it would also help the protestant side to point out the times in the history of the church when the catholic faithful have been bilked, robbed, mistreated by their ecclesiastical hierarchy. Examples could be multiplied ad infinitum but it feels a bit mean-spirited to point them out.

  2. wtm says:

    Nice post, Shane. It warms my heart to see you coming back around toward Calvin! I hope that some Catholic apologists show up to debate this with you, as I would like to see what they have to say about it.

    Anyway, I’ve linked you chez moi, and include therein some ramblings of my own concerning the relation of faith to knowledge, etc.

  3. mliccione says:

    Shane:

    As you know from my writings, I argue that the supernatural virtue of faith requires divine authority as its proximate object. The question then becomes how that authority is to be recognized as such. My argument at SV was that if such authority is not visibly embodied in the Mystical Body of Christ, i.e. the Church, then religion is ultimately a matter of human opinion. From that it follows that the virtue of faith is impossible.

    Of course, and as I said in the post, that does not rule out a believer’s having theological opinions. The Catholic Church is full of theological opinions; in my opinion, some are even true. But the question is not whose opinions are true or whether developing opinions is desirable. The question is what God has revealed. If that too is just a matter of opinion, then we cannot assimilate revelation—only opinions about it.

    OTOH, if we do assimilate revelation and that does depend, at least in part, on submission to ecclesial authority, does that rule out adult faith? Of course not, and I’ve been quite open in the past about how I developed an adult faith. To the extent one can, one must develop one’s own reasons for believing and freely choose faith partly for those reasons. And even when one thus chooses to submit, one is not doing so regarding areas that are left to opinion. One does so in matters where the Church speaks with her full authority. And I’ve often explained how one tells the difference.

    Best,
    Mike

  4. Pontificator says:

    Was submission to the living Apostles a virtue in the first century? I suspect that an adequate answer to this question would go a long way to answering the question you have posed in your title.

  5. wtm says:

    In brief:

    Mike – you seem to be working with ‘revelation’ as a ‘deposit of truth’ as opposed to an interpresonal event of the knowledge of God. That is where the argument really is. See my post, where I riff on Shane’s post and get into some of this.

    Pontificator – The line you seem to want to go down implies a very strong form of apostolic succession: that which applied to the apostles applies to the current hierarchy, that is, the current hierarchy = the apostles. I’m Protestant; I don’t buy that. Not least because the Apostle Paul tells us that if even he proclaims a different gospel, we ought to chuck him out on his rear end.

  6. Pontificator says:

    wtm, let’s put aside for the moment the question of apostolic succession. Was submission to the living Apostles a virtue in the first century? If so, why?

  7. wtm says:

    What we need to figure out is what sort of authority the apostles had. My answer is to say that they had the same sort of authority that Scripture has now, since I believe that apostolic teaching authority is divested into Scripture as the written form of their testimony. As I believe Scripture today to be the source and norm of Christian doctrine, I think that the apostles functioned in their day as that source and norm. They were (and are in Scripture) the creaturely derivative form of revelation (Jesus’ humanity being the primary and original form; what Barth calls God’s secondary objectivity), namely, that which Jesus Christ uses to further his self-attestation in the power of the Holy Spirit.

    So, submission to these unique witnesses is an important aspect of faith, for it is through these media that God addresses us and we know him. Submission to these creaturely forms, however, is limited because it is based solely on the fact that God uses these forms as instruments. Thus, it is submission to God.

    Apostolic succession, then, clearly becomes the sticking point. It just so happens that Protestants place the current hierarchy beneath the testimony of Scripture in terms of authority.

  8. mliccione says:

    wtm:

    What I have said hardly rules out what you want to affirm. As a matter of fact, I agree with the Pope when he says that Christianity is not primarily an ethos or a doctrine, but an “encounter with a Person.” But of course, if it is left to private judgment to decide who that Person is and what the encounter means, then there is no public revelation, only private opinion. I should rather say, with the Church, that the encounter is also corporate and expresses itself partly in orthodox doctrine. That is not sufficient for any individual’s having the virtue of faith, but it is certainly necessary.

    That said, I’d be interested in seeing your reply to the Pontificator’s question.

    Best,
    Mike

  9. wtm says:

    The necessary ‘public revelation’ is Jesus Christ himself, as witnessed to in the testimony of the Apostles communicated to us in Holy Scripture. You don’t need a hierarchical magisterium to secure objectivity; the self-witness of the living Jesus Christ does that.

    Of course, the encounter of faith expresses itself in a corporate way and carries with it certain cognitive aspects (the affirmation that Jesus is Lord and that we have God for a father because of Jesus). But, this is a confession of faith that the church makes and there is no external objective standard against which to measure the ‘private opinion’ of others. All we can do is bear witness to the Gospel as best we can, and trust to its own self-explanatory power (the very power of Jesus Christ).

  10. scholasticus says:

    Thank you gentleman for some interesting thoughts all around. I’ve been puzzling over how to reply. I think I agree with Scott Carson that my initial way of posing the question was a bit confused. Of course it is good for a Christian to submit to God’s authority. The question is whether the pope or a council exercises God’s authority ex officio.

    I’ll confess that I haven’t yet achieved clarity about all of this because I’m having trouble breaking down how I want to respond into discrete units. I don’t see yet how to synthesize a coherent whole . . . which is perhaps why the comments to follow have a very tentative character.

    Let me begin by responding to Mike that I’m suspicious of anything like ‘objective revelation’, because I think we’d want to hash out quite clearly what ‘objective’ means in this context. I take it that you mean ‘objective revelation’ is a set of propositions which can and indeed must be believed with certainty. You suggest that we need a visible magisterium to act as that ground. Luther and co, with good NT support, would respond that the Holy Spirit is our teacher. Travis locates that objectivity in Christ himself. I have to say that all three options sound attractive, but I’m not sure about ‘objectivity’ = ‘certainty’. At any rate, I don’t think the pronouncements of a Pope or Councils is going to help the RC any more than an infallible Bible helps protestant fundamentalists just because Papal pronouncements are themselves written documents requiring interpretation ad infinitum. I think somewhere in there even the RC is going to have to appeal to something like perspicuity, clarity, self-interpretation, etc. to make the papal pronouncements actually *function* as authorities. And if the RC has to appeal to these same problematic concepts, then in what way is his account any superior to the protestants?

    Now, in response to Fr. Al, I think I want to agree with Travis’s way of answering the query about whether it would be virtuous to submit to the authority of the original apostles. Also, I don’t think you can prescind from the question about apostolic succession. Just because it would have been virtuous to submit to Peter doesn’t mean that it would automatically be virtuous to submit to someone who claims to speak on Peter’s behalf–that’s the sort of naïvité I think we ought to be growing out of. Self-reflectivity, critical evaluation, and so forth are not the marks of adolescent rebellion, (pace Dr. Carson), but rather the marks of a properly functioning adult reason.

    Of course, nothing I’m saying should be taken to mean that I believe that all catholics are necessarily committing this vicious sort of submission that we could call ‘blind faith’. But I think some of them are.

  11. Pontificator says:

    What we need to figure out is what sort of authority the apostles had. My answer is to say that they had the same sort of authority that Scripture has now, since I believe that apostolic teaching authority is divested into Scripture as the written form of their testimony. As I believe Scripture today to be the source and norm of Christian doctrine, I think that the apostles functioned in their day as that source and norm. They were (and are in Scripture) the creaturely derivative form of revelation (Jesus’ humanity being the primary and original form; what Barth calls God’s secondary objectivity), namely, that which Jesus Christ uses to further his self-attestation in the power of the Holy Spirit.

    So, submission to these unique witnesses is an important aspect of faith, for it is through these media that God addresses us and we know him. Submission to these creaturely forms, however, is limited because it is based solely on the fact that God uses these forms as instruments. Thus, it is submission to God.

    If I am reading you right, wtm, your answer to my question is yes. Submission to the living Apostles in the first century was a virtue because their testimony was the “source and norm” of the revelation of Christ. Is that right? We accept their authority because they were the primary witnesses to Christ Jesus and the original recipients of his teaching. If the Apostles didn’t get the revelation right, nobody did. The buck stopped with them. Precisely because of their position, their word was the final word–revelation in the form of inspired, inerrant testimony.

    The nice thing about having living Apostles around was that one could always ask them to clarify and expand their testimony and to correct misinterpretations.

    So is it not fair to say that in the first century, submission to the testimony of the Apostles was a virtue? And if this is so, does this not undermine any construal of submission to authority that construes such submission as immature?

  12. wtm says:

    I don’t want to talk about what is or is not a ‘virtue’ because I’m no expert on virtue ethics, nor do I care much about them. Also, you need to pay special attention to the final caveat in my comment which you quoted: “So, submission to these unique witnesses is an important aspect of faith, for it is through these media that God addresses us and we know him. Submission to these creaturely forms, however, is limited because it is based solely on the fact that God uses these forms as instruments. Thus, it is submission to God.

    Submission to the various creaturely forms as such is NOT an important aspect of faith.

  13. […] Protestantism is not inherently vicious. My former post Is Submission to the Pope’s Authority a Virtue? seem to have sparked an unsuspected amount of commentary. The most important bits of it were from […]

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