Why not Roman Catholicism? Part IV

For a while I was very seriously considering becoming Roman Catholic. Then I decided against it. I have in the meantime managed to clarify to myself a number of reasons why I do not think Roman Catholicism is true. In previous posts, I have raised six different issues. Here I will provide a brief summary of a seventh reason. I discuss all these points in greater detail in my forthcoming volume titled Theology of the Manifest: Christianity without Metaphysics.

7. Infallibility One of the central ideas in the Roman Catholic notion of the Church is that of infallibility. “Infallibility” means being divinely protected from error. The Church, or more specifically the magisterium of the Church whose task is the propagation and interpretation of the word of God, is considered to exercise its task infallibly in certain conditions. These conditions are as follows: first, when all the bishops throughout the world in communion with each other and with the bishop of Rome agree on some matter as being essential to the faith; second, when the bishops in communion with each other and with the bishop of Rome gather in a valid ecumenical council and define some matter of faith or morals; third, when the bishop of Rome himself exercises his special privilege as the chief teacher and shepherd of the Church in order to define some matter of faith or morals. In all such circumstances, according to Roman Catholic theology, the magisterium of the Church is divinely protected from error. This means that the statements that it issues are considered irreformable and true.

I disagree with this perspective. I don’t believe that there is any infallibility in the Church. In the first place, I think infallibility about things that appear in the world is phenomenologically impossible for us. There are two reasons why.

First, everything that is presented to us in experience can be variously interpreted. We are always in a position of saying: “This is an X.” Or we could say: “This is something else that only presently looks like an X.” Because the things presented to us in experience are multiply interpretable, we are always in a position of choosing between these two options, and we cannot definitively rule out one or the other. This means that all our opinions about things that appear in the world are fallible.

Second, it is also true that we do not simply encounter things in experience directly. We are rather endowed with various powers of perception and interpretation that make it possible for us to experience things intelligibly. But this means that there is always a little bit of ourselves in all of our experiences, so to speak. I do not simply see a tree as it is, but only ever such as my power of sight allows me to see it. I do not simply understand what a text is saying, but only ever such as my education and prior notions and preconceptions allow me to make sense of it. And because I cannot step outside of myself to compare my experience of a thing with that thing itself apart from my experience of it, I can never be sure that I am grasping things correctly. All of my opinions are fallible and defeasible in principle.

These phenomenological considerations show that infallibility is not possible for us. We cannot be sure that we are right. It’s just the way things are. We are always taking “leaps” whenever we have an opinion about something.

Of course, the Roman Catholic will respond that this is all irrelevant. The claim is not that Roman Catholic dogma is infallible in the sense that it is epistemologically certain or known in a certain way. The claim is rather that God divinely protects the magisterium from error in certain well-defined circumstances. But in fact this is a major red herring. The point is not that the Roman Catholic notion of infallibility is impossible. The point is the Church is actually fallible in another way that undermines the confidence with which it claims to be infallible its own way.

This notion of divine guidance and protection from error is just one more proposition that no one can be certain about as a matter of phenomenological necessity. So the Roman Catholic Church asserts its own infallibility and protection by divine guidance and in the past has even killed many people within its own numbers and outside them for disagreeing with its teachings, despite the fact that it cannot be certain — rationally, evidentially certain, rather than psychologically certain — either of the truth of what it teaches or of the truth of its own self-conception. It has the conviction of being divinely guided without an adequate basis in the things themselves. It is taking very confident leaps while insisting that it is divinely guided to do so. In other words, the Roman Catholic Church is lacking in the necessary epistemic humility.

Beyond that, this pretense to infallibility is not to be found in the earliest days of the Church. There is nothing about episcopal infallibility in the New Testament, in the Didache, or in 1 Clement, for example. Irenaeus is explicit that the bishops of the Church could in principle err and fall away from the truth. This is why the apostles took special care to select persons who were antecedently trustworthy: “For [the apostles] were desirous that [the first bishops] should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity” (Against Heresies 3.3.1; emphasis added). So Irenaeus admits that the bishops are capable of falling away.

Tertullian also is insistent that infallibility and the guarantee of truth belong only to Jesus: “For to the Son of God alone was it reserved to persevere to the last without sin. But what if a bishop, if a deacon, if a widow, if a virgin, if a doctor, if even a martyr, have fallen from the rule (of faith), will heresies on that account appear to possess the truth? Do we prove the faith by the persons, or the persons by the faith? No one is wise, no one is faithful, no one excels in dignity, but the Christian; and no one is a Christian but he who perseveres even to the end” (Prescription against the Heretics 3; emphasis added). So Tertullian likewise admits that anyone can fall into heresy except the Son of God, and that the faith is not proven by the persons who confess it but rather all persons are judged by the faith.

It goes without saying that these sources have no such idea as a distinction between official and unofficial teaching of the Church’s magisterium. There is thus no pretense to episcopal infallibility in the early days of the Church at all. If you limited yourself to these writers and to what they say and how they talk about things, you would not necessarily draw the conclusion of episcopal infallibility. This idea only appears later.

Why should it appear? I think it is because the bishops wanted to be able to put some of their theological opinions beyond dispute. This became an especially attractive notion once the bishops would gather together at a large scale and make “official” pronouncements in councils. They propose a story about their being divinely guided so that, even if they cannot convince people of their ideas by the strength of the arguments, they can at least motivate obedience by the threat of hellfire. Many scholars are of the opinion that, as Jerome himself writes (Letter 146), the monepiscopate arose in the first place because the Church wanted to fortify itself in the fight against the multiplication of heresies. It was a pragmatic measure taken in response to external factors. And it seems reasonable to me that this strategy of combating heresy by means of the institutionalization of the Church could also have led to the idea that the bishops are a special class, specially protected from error.

But my opinion is that it is highly suspicious for people of a certain position or rank to claim for themselves specific rights and privileges that their predecessors never imagined or claimed and even explicitly repudiated. I think it is sooner a “power grab” rather than anything else. It is an attempt to make theological disputes resolvable by appeal to authority rather than by actual argumentation. I don’t accept that as rational. I think it is sooner ideologically driven and contingent historical evolution than anything else.

This is a considerable point that one must take seriously, even if one attempts to justify the change in ideas about episcopal infallibility as a divinely guided “development of doctrine” or some other such euphemism. Appealing to “development” is really a euphemistic way of admitting that the present doctrine was not there from the beginning, but one can still get to it if one draws certain inferences from earlier writers — even though (!) these earlier writers did not make those inferences and may at times have contradicted the present doctrine. And to call it a “development” is to insist that God has been guiding the Church to do make all these extra inferences — even though (!) this notion of guidance presupposes the developed doctrine of episcopal/ecclesial infallibility itself. So the doctrine is a divinely guided development according to its own standards! As David Bentley Hart has argued recently in his Tradition and Apocalypse, this is circular. Why should anyone call it a “development” rather than just an evolution into something different?

This of course raises other questions. If there is no infallibility, can’t the Church ever speak confidently about anything it teaches? Yes, it can, because sometimes human fallibility is compensated for by the clarity of the thing itself. It is clear to everyone that the sun makes warm, ice makes cold, water hydrates, and the like. There does not need to be an “infallible magisterium” in the world of science to know these things. Likewise, Jesus teaches us things that are clear and easy to grasp even despite our fallibility: e.g., that we should believe in Him, that we should love God with all our beings, that we should treat others as we would have them treat us, that we should pray for all things, and so on. God can successfully communicate with human beings, even though they are fallible, by communicating something clear and easy to grasp — just as human beings do amongst themselves every day.