Thursday, October 11, 2007

Is the Protestant concept of authority vicious?

Shane Wilkins sets out to respond to the charge that it is. As I said in response to him earlier, I think he is only digging the hole deeper.

His conclusion of the first section shows that he has almost got to the point of the critique. He says:
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.”

I think it's correct up until the "rather than." There's no "rather than" involved, and if you look at the supporting material he cited, it should be relatively clear that there isn't. Private judgment is destructive of faith (as a cognitive faculty), period. Now, I don't think that is self-evident by any means, so I think it might be going far to say that believing otherwise is vicious. But it's necessary to back this reasoning up to the common assumptions he gave, because it's not clear that Shane sees the implications of his conclusion for his argument.

As to the first assumption:
(1) Everyone has a duty to believe the truth of the Gospel.

I assume that the purpose of this is to note that it is vicious (violates a moral duty) to deny divine truth. I'll concede that, although I worry that it might obscure some issues. In particular, I think everyone has a duty to believe the truth only insofar as he knows it.

(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.

This one is more troubling, because Shane evidently doesn't realize that this turns on the disputed point. Catholics believe that Protestants believe this through private judgment, which is erroneous. In fact, to the extent they know divine truths at all, it is only parasitically off the Catholic Church (through the gift of faith in baptism and the Scriptures). And they believe in such a way that inconsistently undermines their very basis for knowing them.

(3) Realistically speaking, you will never as an individual figure out what you ought to believe on your own.

This is true, but immediately misleading in the present context. In the Catholic view of divine truth, there's no "realistically" involved. You necessarily will not figure out what you ought to believe theologically on your own, because human nature is necessarily incapable of grasping divine truths apart from supernatural grace. The problem is worse in premise 4.

(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.

Given that the Catholic view says that you can't find revealed truths at all, the premise looks equivocal at best. Indeed, a good statement of the disputed premise would be "You must depend on someone or something else to teach you revealed truths," period. That is certainly the Catholic teaching on grace. Our belief if that the only way you found out those things was parasitically off the Church, not on your own, and your mode of knowing them inconsistently undermines the very source from which you received them.

(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.

Certainly, I agree that it would be wrong to judge those without the means, and since we have no reason to think that God would widely or universally deprive people of the means to know divine truth, I think this is not an unreasonable expectation.

Let's skip ahead a bit to the argument:
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.

Shane states the point admirably here, and indeed, I couldn't come up with a better argument for why Protestantism would be vicious. For on the Catholic reading of (1)-(5), absent the supernatural source of authority, one has no way of knowing divine truth in the first place, which precludes any such thing as a practical need or rationale for authority. Ontologically speaking, his affirmation of (1)-(5) is out of order, because he presumes knowledge of divine things to judge the practicality, but he has no source to know them. And practically speaking, he never had a good reason to render judgment on (1)-(5) in the first place; in an "epistemological crisis," as Shane put it, he should have reserved judgment and remained agnostic.

Shane seems to believe that the Catholic Church doesn't resolve the "epistemological problem" merely by making the claim, but the problem here is that Shane has no way to resolve the epistemological problem even in principle. If there exists a divine institution with an ontological rationale, it is certainly capable of resolving the problem, and it isn't irrational to believe that it does exists and did resolve the problem. Indeed that is what Catholics believe to be the case. And that's where I think Shane's criticism comes back to bite him as follows:

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.

Why on earth would one look to a church to teach one a natural virtue like how to walk the mean between skepticism and naivete? One can learn that from one's parents, one's school, and the like. The question is not how the Church teaches it, but what the practice of this virtue leads one to conclude about the Church. And here it just gets ugly for the Protestant, because the problem for the Protestant isn't that he is too skeptical, but that he is too credulous. Therein lies the hubris of private judgment. He is believing something that he couldn't possibly know for certain for no good reason but simply because it seems right to him to do so.

The Catholic refuses to believe anything unless forced to do so by certain knowledge, which is exactly what the practical man ought to do. Regarding divine truths, there's no practical reason to render judgment unless one is certain, so the logical thing to do is to wait until one is certain. The Catholic is simply affirming that something outside himself causes him to be certain, so that he was no longer capable of withholding judgment. There's no epistemological problem, because the Catholic refuses to judge until he receives certain knowledge from something having the correct ontological structure to give that knowledge. Certainly, the basis for that knowledge is incommunicable, just like the belief in the Trinity is incommunicable. But interiorly, what the Catholic is affirming is the presentation of certain knowledge of the divine by the instrument of the Church.

So the Catholic critique of the Protestant is not that he is too skeptical, but that he is not skeptical enough. We don't believe he has any reason to believe that Scripture is divine revelation or that he has certain knowledge about God. We believe he should have exercised better judgment, but instead, he believed something before he knew it to be the case, on a subject about which no one should ever render judgment without certainty. We believe he has been reckless, elevating his own confidence to the level of divine authority. He doesn't know whether he is wrong, but he believes anyway, and if that is not hubris, it is not clear to me what is.

Shane has repeatedly asked me what exactly the epistemic advantage of Catholics is, and while I can't communicate that, I can at least point out the difference in consequence. When we describe our belief, we do not describe it as the resolution of an epistemological crisis or uncertainty by faith. Rather, we describe it as the absence of an epistemological crisis, so that we could no more deny having received the divine truth than we could deny the experience of our own senses. And we encourage anyone who does not even believe he has such knowledge to reserve judgment. If you don't think you can match the Catholic conviction in this regard, don't commit, because it is imprudent to believe something is divine for less than that.

4 Comments:

At 7:22 PM, Blogger Shane said...

"Private judgment is destructive of faith (as a cognitive faculty), period. "

I don't think Mike Liccione agrees with you. Perhaps it would behoove you to examine his recent posts on this issue.

"Shane seems to believe that the Catholic Church doesn't resolve the "epistemological problem" merely by making the claim, but the problem here is that Shane has no way to resolve the epistemological problem even in principle."

Right. I believe and trust, as opposed to demonstrate and know.

"Why on earth would one look to a church to teach one a natural virtue like how to walk the mean between skepticism and naivete?"

I don't know. Maybe because the church is supposed to teach people lots of other 'natural' virtues too--kindness, patience, temperance.

"There's no epistemological problem, because the Catholic refuses to judge until he receives certain knowledge from something having the correct ontological structure to give that knowledge."

And how do you know which ontological structure is correct? 'The church told me so?' Circularity is a harsh mistress.

"Shane has repeatedly asked me what exactly the epistemic advantage of Catholics is, and while I can't communicate that . . ."

The reason you can't communicate the reason is because you don't have one. What you would need is a "proof" (in just the same sense as a mathematical proof) that catholicism was true, which you don't have and cannot in principle ever have. How are you going to 'prove' transubstantiation to me? You'll point me back to some church pronouncements. And why do you know those are true, then you'll point me back to others. However, I can always keep asking, "and how do you know X?" So what you need is either: (1) to bite the bullet and admit that you have 'faith' and not certain knowledge or (2) come up with some rock solid argument from self-evident first principles that demonstrate the truth of something by which you can prove the rest of catholic theology. If you were to succeed in (2) you would be the greatest theologian of all time.

Let's change the whole question around a bit--why in the world is it that you think you have to be "certain" about the truth of catholicism?

 
At 3:01 AM, Blogger TJW said...

"He doesn't know whether he is wrong, but he believes anyway, and if that is not hubris, it is not clear to me what is."

That perfectly describes what a friend of mine considers 'faith' to be. When I ask him questions that he cannot answer he says it's 'faith'. For him, faith is a machine that you use to convert the inadequacies of your own position into a display of loyalty to God.

I asked him what the different between 'faith in God' and 'faith in yourself that you have come to the right conclusion regarding God's intent' and he answered that there is no difference.

I'm not suggesting that he is typical of Protestants, only that this is how some do view the subject.

 
At 8:27 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

"Private judgment is destructive of faith (as a cognitive faculty), period. "

I don't think Mike Liccione agrees with you. Perhaps it would behoove you to examine his recent posts on this issue.


It could be, but I doubt it. I think you simply don't understand what he is saying.

Right. I believe and trust, as opposed to demonstrate and know.

Why on earth would you adopt a religious theory you didn't know to be true?

I don't know. Maybe because the church is supposed to teach people lots of other 'natural' virtues too--kindness, patience, temperance.

As an aside to providing the theological virtues, of course, but why would you think that this is the primary purpose?

And how do you know which ontological structure is correct? 'The church told me so?' Circularity is a harsh mistress.

No, because I know from experience that the Church is what She says She is. I'm not exactly sure what is confusing about that. I'm not saying that faith internally witnesses to me; I'm saying that the Church caused that knowledge in me through the faculty of faith.

The reason you can't communicate the reason is because you don't have one. What you would need is a "proof" (in just the same sense as a mathematical proof) that catholicism was true, which you don't have and cannot in principle ever have.

No, it's just because you lack knowledge of the reason. I can't communicate anything to you that is completely outside your experience, and this would be completely outside your experience. What you're asking is every bit as absurd as if you asked me to prove "red." If someone can see it, I can point to red things, and we can have common experience of reality. But there wouldn't be any way to demonstrate "red" to a blind man. I could come up with an analogy, but it certainly wouldn't prove the existence of "red" to him.

How are you going to 'prove' transubstantiation to me? You'll point me back to some church pronouncements. And why do you know those are true, then you'll point me back to others. However, I can always keep asking, "and how do you know X?"

And I would hope that all of these things would point out the simple answer: the Church caused me to know it. That is what I want to understand: what caused you to believe?

So what you need is either: (1) to bite the bullet and admit that you have 'faith' and not certain knowledge or (2) come up with some rock solid argument from self-evident first principles that demonstrate the truth of something by which you can prove the rest of catholic theology. If you were to succeed in (2) you would be the greatest theologian of all time.

If I were to succeed in (2), I would be God. There's no way to get there but grace, and I can't give anyone that. The problem is that you have the bizarre idea that someone can't have certain knowledge of their own experience, when in fact, that's probably the only certain knowledge most people have. Indeed, all certain knowledge comes from this. What you can't seem to get your head around, although I can't understand the conceptual difficulty, is that one CAN have certain knowledge by faith, and indeed, if one DOESN'T have certain knowledge by faith of God, then he shouldn't submit to any form of divine revelation. He should just stick to what little we can grasp of God qua Creator and source of being, and wait until he finds divine revelation of which he is certain.

Again, why would you ever make a religious profession if you weren't certain of its truth? That's imprudent at best.

 
At 10:44 AM, Blogger CrimsonCatholic said...

Mike Liccione has a good post on the subject, and I think it would be advantageous to consolidate the discussion there:
http://mliccione.blogspot.com/2007/10/accidently-vicious.html

 

<< Home