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 Scott Carson [part I and part II, to which I responded here] and Mike Liccione [here]. Thanks to the comments and responses of various thinkers around the blogosphere I now see I have expressed my thoughts on the doctrine of Scripture inexactly, so I’d like to take another try at a more precise formulation. Too many different issues and objections have been raised to possibly hope to treat of them all. Instead, I am going to try to do just three things: (I) articulate what I will call The Catholic Moral Objection To Protestantism (hereafter, just The Catholic Objection), (II) elaborate my own view, which I think rebuts the Catholic Moral Objection, and (III) rebut some criticisms.
(I) Articulating the Catholic Objection to Protestantism
Let’s begin not by plunging immediately into disagreement but rather by examining two positions Catholics and protestants hold in common, which are:
(1) Everyone has a duty to believe the truth of the Gospel.
(2) The original apostles, i.e. the Twelve and Peter, were faithful witnesses to the content of divine revelation and the New Testament is a reliable written record of their testimony.
We could make this statement more precise with a bit of NT history, but this additional precision seems unnecessary for the argument that I would like to make.
Now it also seems to me that:
(3) Realistically speaking, you will never as an individual figure out what you ought to believe on your own.
This is true for lots of good practical reasons. The brevity of life, the difficulty of the subject matter, the lack of education (for the vast majority of human beings through history), etc. But, if you have a duty to believe the right things and the inability to figure all of them out on your own, then:
(4) You must depend on someone or something else to teach you the revealed truths you were incapable of finding out from the Bible by yourself.
Now notice further that:
(5) Since God requires you to believe the right things, then he must intend on furnishing you with the means by which to come to believe the right things.
Because it would presumably be unjust for him to find fault with you for failing to do something you were incapable of in the first place.
So far, so good. I believe (1)-(5) are so uncontroversial that the protestant and the catholic can both agree upon them. Let’s agree to take them as brute facts of which any theory of spiritual development or ecclesiastical authority must take account. Now, where I take the protestants and the catholics to part ways is in what will come next.
Suppose that I believe (1) – (5). I note that many different kinds of churches can affirm (1)-(5) and yet they disagree on important theological matters. The Western Churches and the Orthodox seem to disagree on the Trinity; Lutherans and Catholics on the nature of justification; etc. etc. I am faced with an epistemological crisis since all of these competing groups appeal to the idea of scripture to authorize their conflicting doctrines.
It seems to me that the Catholic is committed to a position like this one:
(6) The one and only way to know with certainty the revealed truths of the Christian faith is the infallible teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church.
I don’t know any good arguments for (6). (Obviously. If I did, I’d be a Catholic.) You can’t derive (6) from (1)-(5), but that by itself shouldn’t be reckoned a defect, since (6) would at least cohere well with them. There may be a long historical argument to be made for (6) about the development of the role of bishops in the early church and the primacy of the bishop of Rome and so forth, but we have no room for that inquiry here and I don’t have the qualifications to speak on the subject, so it must be left to the side at the moment.
What exactly is it that (6) commits the catholic to? Well, it seems to me that the word ‘infallible’ implies that:
(6.a) If x is a doctrine taught authoritatively by the Roman Catholic church, then x is the case.
Now the first thing to notice here is the (6) and its corollary (6.a) cannot be solutions to the epistemological problem. From the fact that the catholic church teaches that the catholic church is the true church I cannot derive that the catholic church is the true church. (For the same reason, for instance, that one cannot prove that the Bible is inspired from the fact that the Bible itself claims to be inspired.)
Now, the classical Protestant way of attacking the catholic position here would be to point out that (6) must be false because the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church conflict with the teachings of Scripture, which both protestants and catholics agree are true by (2). Instead of concluding that the church is infallible, the Reformers insist that the Scriptures are sufficient, clear and self-interpreting, and that therefore one must judge the adequacy of church teaching and tradition (the norma normata) by the scriptures (the norma normans).
The catholic counterclaim is that in rejecting (6), the protestant has reduced religion to nothing more than private subjective religious experience. In other words, the protestant rejection of the authority of the magisterium is tantamount to a rejection of ecclesiastical authority as such. Having thrown off the tradition, so the story goes, the historical career of protestantism thus ends in atheism and unbelief. Now, who makes that claim? Well it is so ubiquitous in the catholic blogging world that I originally did not see it necessary to name names, which has lead to the accusation that I’m tilting at windmills. Let’s look briefly at the Decrees of the First Vatican Council, Session 3, §5.
“Everybody knows that those heresies, condemned by the fathers of Trent, which rejected the divine magisterium of the church and allowed religious questions to be a matter for the judgment of each individual, have gradually collapsed into a multiplicity of sects, either at variance or in agreement with one another; and by this means a good many people have had all faith in Christ destroyed.”
Now we should ask what exactly the Pope means by ‘faith’ in this statement. He doesn’t explicitly define it, so let’s look at the Catholic Encyclopedia article on protestantism by J. Wilhelm (published in 1911 with a nihil obstat). This article comes from a similar time as the decree of Vatican I and shares its concern to show why protestantism leads to the loss of faith. Here is the author’s argument:
“Again, it is illogical to base faith upon the private interpretation of a book. For faith consists in submitting; private interpretation consists in judging. In faith by hearing, the last word rests with the teacher; in private judgment it rests with the reader, who submits the dead text of Scripture to a kind of post-mortem examination and delivers a verdict without appeal: he believes in himself rather than in any higher authority. But such trust in one’s own light is not faith. Private judgment is fatal to the theological virtue of faith.”
[NB that Wilhelm is making a distinction between believing and judging, such that doing one precludes the other. Mike Liccione claims that “Shane is clearly assuming that submission to Church authority, as his unnamed ‘Catholic apologists’ would have it, is incompatible with ‘maturity’ and ‘independent judgment,’ thus relegating the Catholic laity to an ‘ignorance’ that precludes growth ‘in knowledge and love’ of God.” I assume no such thing, in fact, I hold the contrary position that virtuous submission requires and goes hand-in-hand with exercise of good judgment. The dichotomy belongs to the catholic position of Wilhelm, and perhaps Vatican I, which hold that private judgment is inimical to faith.]
Let’s read on in Wilhelm’s article:
“Where absolute reliance on God’s word, proclaimed by his accredited ambassadors, is wanting, i.e. where there is not the virtue of faith, there can be no unity of Church. It stands to reason, and Protestant history confirms it. The “unhappy divisions”, not only between sect and sect but within the same sect, have become a byword. They are due to the pride of private intellect, and they can only be healed by humble submission to a Divine authority.”
Wilhelm then quotes Newman about the folly of protestants, “‘They are as children tossed to and fro and carried along by every gale of doctrine. If they had faith of Catholics as if unworthy the dignity of human nature, as slavish and foolish.'” and then adds, “Yet upon that simple, unquestioning faith the Church was built up and is held together to this day.” So, according to Wilhelm, Newman, and Vatican I, ‘faith’ means submission (perhaps even “immediate submission” or “unquestioning submission”) to the divine authority of the magisterium in a way that precludes the individual’s right to judge.
At the risk of belaboring the point, I’ll put one more piece of evidence forward to corroborate my claim about Vatican I.
- 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.
- 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. (Session 3, Chapter 2, §§8-9)
In summary of this first section, The Catholic Moral Objection to Protestantism is that “protestantism is inherently vicious insofar as it destroys faith because it relies upon private judgment rather than submission to the divine authority of Pope and magisterium.”
II. My Own View
Now as an interpretation of the Reformers, I doubt the Catholic Objection lands with much force at all. However, my original post does not take the usual Protestant tack in responding to these criticisms by turning to the pages of Luther and Calvin and ferreting out all the good things they have to say about church authority and so forth. Nor have I launched the frontal assault trying to prove catholicism false by showing how authoritative catholic teachings contradict the Bible or one another. I don’t do the former because there are others much more qualified than I to do that work, although it is probably true that at some point I’m going to have to give an proper account of the perspicacity and sufficiency of Scripture. I don’t do the later, because–as I’ve said already somewhere else on the blogosphere–I don’t see the point. If you assume by faith that the magisterium is the only competent authority to interpret the scriptures or the other teachings of the magisterium, then there is no way (even in principle) for me to show you that the magisterium is in error because any argument you would produce would depend upon my making an interpretation that you believe me (ex hypothesi) incapable of making. Therefore my argument against the magisterium always necessarily fails, regardless of its contents or merits, just because of the initial assumption. This is another problem for the catholic position to which we must return in section III.
My response to the catholic objection is different. What bothers me about the Catholic objection is the sense of assumed moral superiority of those who put it forward. According to the Catholic objection, Protestantism is not merely a theoretical mistake; it is immoral, because it promotes a vice (call it “hubris” or “presumption”) which is inimical to “faith.” The goal of this section of the paper is to show how protestantism can embody a virtuous mode of submission to authority. The object is not to prove catholicism false and protestantism true, nor is it to urge catholics to renounce the Pope’s authority. However, if I am successful in showing this, then I will have refuted the Catholic Objection outlined above and will have undercut any putative assertion of the moral superiority of catholicism over protestantism. My argument here will have 2 parts. First, a discourse on the nature of virtues leading to my presentation of what it would mean to possess something like a virtue of judgment. Second, an examination of the concept of ‘faith’
II.1 The Virtue of Mature Judgment
In my original post I elaborated a succint definition of ‘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.
After this definition, I proceeded to specify a developmental account of human nature and dependency:
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.
This account provoked some criticism. In specific, Scott Carson accused me of loading the dice in favor of my own conclusion by adopting childhood as the metaphor for the process of Christian development. I find that objection a bit bizarre because the metaphor of childhood, growth, and maturity in faith is a thoroughly biblical one. Paul uses it (Eph 4.13, Phil. 3.15). The author of Hebrews uses it (Heb 5.14). James uses it (1.4). You begin in the faith as a child, and then through the instruction of your elders you become mature.
In what does this maturity in faith consist? Well, let’s return to my original account of human development in the purely natural sense.
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.
We might also say, I suppose that just as naïvité is a vice of deficiency with respect to one’s critical powers, there is also an opposed vice, let’s call it “over-suspicion” which is an excess of criticism and an inability to trust any thing. The virtue of “mature judgment” lies along a mean. The person who has the virtue of maturity is the one who is critical at the right moments about the right things and in the right way. Now I think this ordinary pattern of development is also an appropriate one to understand the process of developing in faith for to be a person of mature faith is, in the words of Hebrews, to have the ability to discern between good and evil (5.14). 1 John 4.1 seems to indicate that this kind mature discernment (or “judgment”) is needed to defend the church from false teaching.
My catholic interlocutors are ready to pounce. According to Scott Carson, I have created a “Principle of Adolescent Posturing” implying that maturity is an act of rejecting all authority in an act of juvenile rebellion or some such nonsense. Indeed, I think that the person with mature judgment would wholeheartedly endorse the truth of propositions (1)-(5) enumerated in section (I) above. The person of mature judgment recognizes her dependence on others (“Faith comes through hearing.”) so she isn’t going to reject authority as such. Indeed my developmental account above was intended to do precisely the opposite–to point out its necessity!
In a similar vein, Michael Liccione claims that I’m falling into a false dichotomy by assuming that maturity and submission are opposite things. Once again, I am in fact claiming precisely the opposite thing. It was Vatican I and Wilhelm that separated submission and judgment, not me. In my view, maturity and submission are brought together because they are both capable of being done virtuously. On my view, the mature person is the one who knows when to submit or not to submit his judgment to the right others about the right things in the right way at the right times. The concerns elaborated in (1)-(5) above are relevant concerns which the person of mature judgment should have in mind. If this is the case, then it is evident that that Catholic objection that protestantism is inevitably linked to ‘hubris’ or ‘presumption’ is false.
II.2 The Virtue of Judgment and the Virtue of Faith
Obviously not all submission is virtuous. Examples are easy to find here. Governments are to be respected, but when they command evil actions the virtuous thing to do is to resist governmental authority. But, of course, my interlocutors are right to point out that there is also at least one case in which the relevant authority is always to be submitted to, i.e. the case in which God is the authority. However, the concern of our inquiry is not with whether one ought to submit to God’s authority; it is whether one ought to submit to the authority of the magisterium. It is certainly the case that the magisterium claims for itself divine authority, but once again the mere claim is insufficient to convince anyone. And it is also clear that not everything the magisterium has taught is good. My interlocutors have even agreed to this point. (One is required to believe only those statements of the magisterium pertaining to faith and morals and taught with full authority, etc. etc.) So presumably my catholic interlocutors would agree with me that the church’s practice of burning heretics, authorized by medieval church teachings ought not to have been submitted to. (How ‘heretics should be burned’ is not a matter of ‘faith and morals’ and therefore not a part of the binding teaching I don’t know, but I presume some catholic has invented a rationale for why this was never ‘authoritative’ teaching.)
The catholic objection suggests that whoever reject the authority of the magisterium, rejects authority all together. However this is false. To try to show why, I introduced earlier a distinction between authority ex officio and the authority of expertise. This seems to have been the subject of some confusion so I’ll expand a bit more upon it now.
Authority ex officio is mechanical or procedural in nature. The President of the United States is the president because he was put into office by the recognized procedure for electing presidents. As president he has the legal right, for instance, to be the chief the American military. If you are a member of the American military and George Bush is elected president you must obey his authority just because he has the right to command you by virtue of his due election (if that was what happened) to his office.
The authority of expertise, by contrast, seems to lack formal decision procedures. It isn’t that authority by expertise lacks rules all together, it is merely that these ‘rules’ are not like legal rules, they are ‘rules of thumb’. The rules of English grammar mandate that one should never begin a sentence with a conjunction. But some good writers do it all the time anyway. It is also clear that a person may possess some kinds of expertise about which he could never give a theoretical account. You do not need to know physics to know how to hit a golf ball. You just have to know how to hold your hands, how to flex your knees, etc. There exists a theoretical explanation for why all of these bodily motions correlate into greater force exerted on the ball, but those are unnecessary to the good golfer, nor is the possession of that theoretical explanation itself sufficient to make one a good golfer.
Which sort of authority is the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic magisterium? Well, it is clearly the case that there are many gifted theologians and able pastors who have been Popes, as Mike Liccione so aptly points out, when the Pope teaches ex cathedra, catholic theologians do not claim infallibility for his pronouncements in virtue of his expertise as a theologian or pastor, but because he is a duly elected Pope exercising his canonical right to promulgate doctrine. From which it is clear that the claim of the infallibility is tied to an authority held ex officio. So that’s the catholic position and it is clear that protestants reject that claim. However, my object was to show that protestants do not reject church authority as such, so in what sense do Protestants affirm church authority?
I was seduced earlier by the apparent ease of putting ‘catholic’ and ‘ex officio‘ in one column and ‘protestant’ and ‘expertise’ in another. But it isn’t the case that catholics reject all authority by expertise, nor that protestants reject all authority ex officio. Indeed, in practical point of fact there is always de facto a mixture of authority ex officio and authority by expertise in both protestant and catholic contexts. I hold that a devout catholic might be ‘justified’ in accepting some statements from the Pope ex officio just because the tradition as a whole has such a good track record that the Pope is likely to be right about any particular disputed point. (In other words, I’m asserting that authority by expertise in some collective sense provides a ‘justification’ for accepting authority ex officio in a particular instance.)
And I think ecclesial authority works in the protestant context in a very similar way. Thus the protestant can affirm propositions (1)-(5) and can recognize the need or something like canon law and therefore one can also recognize the need for there to be authorities ex officio. Herein lies the rub: the Protestant understands these structures of authority as contingent and historic, supported by a pragmatic rationale; whereas the catholic views the authority structures of the church as necessary and divine institutions with an ontological rationale. For the Catholic, the church is infallible because it is divine.
And herein lies my beef with the catholic church. For if my catholic interlocutors have agreed with me that one ought not always to submit to the Pope, then the burden is on them, I think, to show how viewing the church as a divine source of revelation encourages (or at least does not hinder) the development of the virtue of critical discernment of the individual believer. The protestant view, the church as contingent, (ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda) I think does encourage that development. I’m not asserting the superiority of protestantism over catholicism, because, just as I think catholicism can tend towards producing the vice of naïveté in its laity, so too the protestant church can tend towards producing that vice of hubris or presumption in its laity. The virtue lies along the mean. But I do not hold that catholics are invariably naïve or that protestants are invariable presumptuous. Indeed, it seems to me that catholicism in its better moments and protestantism in its better moments look more like one another than we oftentimes suspect.
If the foregoing argument has been broadly correct, then I think the charge of The Catholic Objection has been refuted.
III. Answering a Few Objections to My Position
“But if protestant churches are, by the own admission, not infallible, how could we ever be certain that their teachings are, in fact, correct?” The short answer is that one cannot be “certain” that their teachings are correct. But, you can be a member of a church whose pastor possesses some spiritual expertise that helps you learn to read the Bible and live out its teachings. Thus, for the protestant authority by expertise provides a ‘justification’ of a sort for the authority of the pastor in virtue of his office. This ‘justification’ does not imply ‘certainty’, but I think ‘certainty’ is both unnecessary for the living of the life of faith and is unattainable anyway whether one protestant or catholic. For, at the end of the day, I think the Catholic is forced to say that he believes (6), not on the basis of some historical argument or the exegesis of the NT, but on faith–i.e. one makes a decision to trust the Church without any sufficient evidence. (Mike Liccione comes to a similar conclusion at the end of his post, and recommends that I read Thomas on the virtue of faith.) As it turns out, I’ve read Thomas on faith before and I could have employed Thomas’s distinction between formed faith and unformed faith to pursue my point earlier–in short you could say that I believe that the Protestants are asking for something quite like ‘formed faith’, cf. Arvin Vos’s book on Thomas and Calvin, which argues that though Calvin is explicitly rejecting the distinction, that he misunderstands Thomas and ends up wanting to affirm pretty much the same thing Thomas did.
Since we are speaking now about faith, it may be helpful to bring back to mind the definition of faith that Wilhelm pronounced earlier. Wilhem defined faith as submission to the (Roman Catholic) Church. Thus, somebody still operating with this definition of faith might accuse me of having misunderstood the catholic objection, since protestantism rejects the Roman Catholic church ex hypothesi, therefore it must be inimical to ‘faith’ in Wilhelm’s sense. This objection fails, however, because it is an attempt to win by definitions. Why should it be the case that “faith” is defined as “submission to the church of Rome”? The definition is completely ad hoc therefore the objection fails.
There are more objections to be raised. But this post is overlong already. So if you have further objections to raise, by all means do so. Constructive criticism is always appreciated, though I cannot promise that it will always be responded to.