Thursday, April 30, 2009

Infallibility and the Church - One More Time For Now

TF suggests that I missed the point in an earlier post where I replied to a post of his. I certainly concede the fact that this is possible. But this could be due to error on my part, or to a lack of clarity on his, or to some combination of these two. The only way to resolve the matter, of course, is to revisit "the scene of the crime." So let's do that. Warning - this will probably be a lengthy post.

The first thing that you, my reader, must do, is to read TF's first post. Go ahead. I'll wait. :-)

Okay, now that you have done so, let's see if I can summarize what TF said in it:
  • 1st paragraph - statement of the problem: an archbishop's reported error.
  • 2nd paragraph - concession that orthodox ("conservative") Catholics don't agree with the error, followed by a question: "Doesn't this event say something about the fallibility of your magisterium when an archbishop and top-ranking German bishop ... can say something like this?"
  • 3rd paragraph - Rhetorical question combined with his emphatic certainty about the answer: "a lot of my Roman Catholic readers ... will exercise their private judgment and reject the public teaching of this important bishop within their church."
  • 4th paragraph - Statement of his wish that Catholics would become Protestants, with a denial of the infallibility of bishops of any sort
The post concludes with a sort of postscript, consisting of various concessions and assertions:
  • concedes that the archbishop is liberal;
  • concedes that (some number of) Catholics disagree with and criticize the archbishop's opinion;
  • insists that the archbishop has more authority to proclaim the teaching of the Church than the average Catholic;
  • "having ecclesiastical authority doesn't lead one to correct doctrines";
  • Assertion of "absolute assurance" re: the Bible
Here is a list of what I think one could justifiably claim as the points that he appeared to be making:
  • The Catholic view of the Magisterium's infallibility is compromised by the archbishop's error
  • Catholics who reject the archbishop's error are exercising "private judgment" to do so, and really ought to admit that his error has compromised Catholic teaching about the infallibility of the Magisterium
  • Assertion of the archbishop's authority to teach in the Catholic Church
  • Denial of a connection between ecclesiastical authority and correct doctrine
  • Assertion of sola scriptura
Does it seem reasonable, based upon his post, to suppose that these were his points? I think so. What do you think?

Now the first thing that should be obvious is that my relatively short reply here didn't address literally everything in TF's post. Nevertheless, we'll look at what I said, and I think that it will be clear that what I did cover was really the "meat and potatoes" of his post. I think it will also be clear that if I missed his point, the blame does not rest on my shoulders but rather on his failure to clearly state his point.

If you haven't already done so, you should now go and read my reply to TF.

All done? Good.

Here's a summary of what I wrote:
  • 1st quotation from TF (his question from his second paragraph; see above)
  • replies to that question (see below)
  • 2nd quotation from TF (his 3rd paragraph; see above)
  • replies to that (see below)
  • Affirmation that if the news report is true, it appears that the archbishop is wrong
  • Conclusion - re-affirmation that the answer to TF's question in the 2nd paragraph is "No"; observation that TF appears to have misunderstood Catholic teaching

We'll get to the specifics of my replies to the quotations in a moment. First, though, I want to observe the possibility that because I didn't respond to literally everything in his post, I might have "missed the point" because it was contained in the stuff I didn't address. I do not believe this to be the case, as we shall see, but more importantly I think that the "meat" of TF's first post is contained in what I did address. I'm happy to leave that to the judgment of the reader. In any case, though, I think it is beyond question that TF's statement of the point(s) in a subsequent post simply are not to be found in the first post.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's a summary of what I said by way of reply to TF's first post. With regard to the first quotation, I replied by:
  • observing that the question in the first quotation suggests a lack of understanding of Church teaching;
  • granting arguendo that the article in question is accurate;
  • asserting that the archbishop's errors do not imply anything about the magisterium's infallibility;
  • defending that assertion from history, from the CCC, and from Vatican II.
With regard to the second quotation, my response was that it was a false dilemma: we are not bound by a choice between the archbishop's errors and private judgment.

So - did I miss the point of the portions of his post that I quoted in my reply? I don't think so. But I will leave it to the reader to judge. It might be instructive to revisit the list above of what I suggested were TF's apparent points in his original post. You will see that I denied and argued against the first (whether the archbishop's error compromises the Magisterium's infallibility), and that I denied (and argued against) the second (that we exercise "private judgment" in denying the archbishop's error). No Catholic would question a bishop's duty to teach, so I would affirm the third point (although that authority doesn't extend to teaching that which is contrary to the faith). I ignored the fourth point, concerning TF's denial of a connection between ecclesiastical authority and correct doctrine. Perhaps by his peculiar expression ("having ecclesiastical authority doesn't lead one to correct doctrines") he meant to concede that on the Catholic view the archbishop's position doesn't guarantee that his teaching will be infallible. If so, then I did indeed miss this point, but in my own defense I will claim that it was poorly put. Catholics don't talk about the question in those terms. What do you think? Lastly, I ignored the fifth point (his assertion of sola scriptura), which was really a statement of his own position; and I agree that this is his position :-) Am I obliged to address every point he makes? I don't think so. What do you think?

The last thing I'll say about it for now is that if TF's entire point was contained in that lone, ill-put observation, then I think I could be mostly if not entirely exonerated of the charge of "missing the point" because of a failure to comprehend. I will let the reader judge.

At any rate, TF thinks that I did miss the point - if not of those quotations, at least of the post as a whole. He said so in a followup post here. You should go read it now.

Okay, now that you've read it, let's take a look. After claiming that I missed the point, he writes:
Reginald seems to have mistakenly concluded that I imagine the Roman Catholic position to be that individual bishops (other than the bishop of Rome) are infallible. Of course that's not what I think or what my previous post suggested.
That's good to know, but that is hardly clear from his original post. Let's take a look at that the question from the second paragraph of that first post again:
Doesn't this event say something about the fallibility of your magisterium when an archbishop and top-ranking German bishop (no, not the one in the Vatican - yet) can say something like this?
Now I ask you, gentle reader: if a man suggests that an archbishop's error "says something" about "the fallibility of your magisterium," would you be inclined to suppose a) that he thinks it does, or b) that he thinks it doesn't?

The fact is, as I pointed out, an individual archbishop's errors say nothing about the infallibility of the Magisterium. Personally, I would say that TF's question suggests that he thinks the contrary. Because the only way that an individual bishop's errors could "say something" about the Magisterium's infallibility is if infallibility extended to the individual bishop. But it doesn't, as I showed. But if he knows that this is not what the Church teaches, why ask us a question that insinuates that this is what the Church teaches?

He insists in his followup that he knows what we believe about this, and based upon his summary of the teaching in that second post I have no reason to doubt him. I submit, however, that this is by no means clear from anything he said in the original post. What do you think?

TF goes on in the second paragraph (after reasserting that I missed the point) to tell us what the point(s) of the original post was/were. Excellent! I thank him for this, since I have seen other Protestant critics of Catholics say that we "missed the point" without ever telling us what the point was supposed to be. He says:
The point is not that the Archbishop in the story is fallible: the point is that he's dead wrong. He's wildly wrong. He's ridiculously wrong. And Roman Catholicism hierarchy has by and large approved of this guy - he holds a position of high regard within the German branch of the Roman Catholic church - and is not about to do anything regard these teachings of his.
It's not exactly clear to me where "the points" come to an end in the followup post, but as far as I can tell this is it. Let's address them one by one.

The point is not that the Archbishop in the story is fallible: Actually, I didn't say that it was. Rather, it's the starting point. TF would have us draw certain conclusions from the fact that the archbishop is fallible. One of those conclusions, as far as I can tell, is that the archbishop's error "says something" about magisterial infallibility: namely, that the magisterium does not possess infallibility. What else would one suppose from TF's suggestion that it does "say something"? I surely don't know. What do you think? But in that case, I think that my response was completely to the point: what he said suggested to me that he misunderstood the doctrine, and so I explained the doctrine. It's good to know that he apparently does "get it," but once again I'd say that this was not even remotely clear from the post. So - if I "missed the point" in this respect, it seems that it was not my fault. What do you think?

[T]he point is that he's dead wrong. He's wildly wrong. He's ridiculously wrong. Let's agree that he is. But again, this is only the starting point of TF's original article: that the archbishop was wrong. Perhaps TF wants to suggest that being "wildly, ridiculously, dead wrong" is somehow different by way of degree from merely being "wrong". And I'm willing to grant that for some purposes that might make a difference - but not when it comes to the infallibility of the Magisterium. This should be clear from my original reply, so I won't belabor it here. Even if it is different by way of degree, though, that's still hardly more than the starting point of his post, it seems to me. In this case, he would want us to draw conclusions about the Magisterium's infallibility based upon the fact that this archbishop is "wildly, ridiculously, dead wrong" - but the archbishop's errors have no bearing on it at all. None.

Furthermore, if this really was the/a point of the post, then the only reply necessary would be: "Yes, TF. The archbishop was wildly, ridiculously, dead wrong, if the news reports are accurate." But TF goes on to say much more than this, which is why it seems unlikely that this was the/a point of the post rather than (as it seems to me) a starting point.

So - have I missed the point? I don't think so. What do you think?

And Roman Catholicism hierarchy has by and large approved of this guy - he holds a position of high regard within the German branch of the Roman Catholic church - and is not about to do anything regard these teachings of his. But when he gets together with a bunch of his colleagues (and his supervisor the pope) who seem to have no problem letting him spread his errors via the public media (after all - he's still in office, isn't he?)... This seems to be not a point of his original post (since he made no argument in favor of it) but rather a silent assumption of it (since he made no explicit mention of it). These things being so, is it reasonable to say that I "missed the point" about this? I don't think so. What do you think?

Let's assume, though, that I did miss this point. This, too, says nothing about the infallibility of the Magisterium. The execution of discipline (or not executing it) is not a part of the Church's teaching about its own infallibility, which extends (under specific conditions) to its teaching on matters of faith and morals. Period. Now TF would no doubt say that he knows this, and I'm glad if he does. But if that is so, what part does a question of church discipline - as this unquestionably is - have to do in a post that is obviously devoted (as his was) to the subject of infallibility? Is it any wonder, then, that I missed this point (remember, we're assuming that I did), given the subject matter of his post? Would my "miss" be a function of my failure to comprehend, or of a lack of clarity in his post? What do you think?

Now that's the end of what it seems he is calling "the points" of his first post. I conclude this because he never again mentions anything as being a point of the first post, and because the next thing he does is to address me personally - something that he did not do in the first post.

Reginald is willing to believe that this collection of men is not only not highly likely to err but actually to the contrary is infallible! Well, I'm a Catholic. And given the right conditions - spelled out by the Magisterium - yes, I certainly do believe that they are infallible when they speak. I wouldn't be Catholic if I didn't :-)

Presumably this fact would not be exclamation-point-worthy, though, if it wasn't somehow surprising or unexpected that I, a faithful Catholic, believe this. I suppose that TF explains that worthiness in the first sentence of the next paragraph.
It should be obvious to any reasonable person that when you get a bunch of fallible men who tolerate gross errors by their colleagues together, you are not going to have a body that produces infallible decisions.
I'm afraid that TF is not going to like this, but declarations like this really make it difficult to draw any other conclusion than that he is misinformed as to the nature of the infallibility claimed by the Church.

Perhaps the best way of showing what I mean is to change the wording slightly:
It should be obvious to any reasonable person that when you get a bunch of fallible men together, you are not going to have a body that produces infallible Scripture.
See the point? Now of course TF will say (and he did, in his first post) that Scripture is inspired by God. Likewise, we Catholics say that the infallibility of the Magisterium is something that is done by the Holy Spirit. It is a supernatural thing no less than the inspiration of Scripture. TF obviously disagrees. This is neither the time nor place for attempting to persuade him otherwise. In any case, it ought to be no more shocking to suppose that fallible men are used by God to infallibly proclaim the truth through the Church than it is to suppose that fallible men (like David the murderous adulterer, or Paul the accomplice to murder, or Peter the coward) were used by God to write the Bible. We would of course agree that by nature fallible men are no better equipped to govern in an infallible Church than they are by nature able to write down God's word infallibly. But with God all things are possible, aren't they? :-)

Unfortunately, however, Reginald (and others) simply accept the idea that their church is infallible as an article of faith and refuse to submit their teacher (their church) to the higher authority of Scripture Well, the original post seemed to be addressed to us Catholics. But here it seems that TF has turned to addressing his co-religionists. Yes, we Catholics do believe the infallible dogmas of our Church. That's what makes us Catholic. We are non-Catholic to the extent that we do not. And as Catholics, we flatly reject the false Protestant idea of "sola scriptura" that TF evidently has in mind here. We disagree. He says we're wrong; we say he's wrong. Yes.

(even denying - some of them, I cannot say whether Reginald has done this yet - that Scripture IS a higher authority). Well, let's clear it up for him. :-)
"Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith." [CCC §86; emphasis added]
But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.
[Dei Verbum 10; emphasis added]
Now, that is really all I have to say about the subject for now (and I know that you, gentle reader, have had your patience terribly tested, so I thank you for getting this far!) I am unlikely to say more even if TF responds to this. I believe that my original reply was a succinct answer to the apparent points of his original post. I believe that if I did in fact miss something it was due more to a lack of clarity on his part than to a failure to comprehend on my part. I believe that the points he suggests in his second post that he was making in the first are either non-existent in it, almost completely hidden, or really more in the way of starting points to what he really had to say, and that I can hardly be held responsible for "missing" them.

As to whether I am right about all for you, my reader, to decide. :-)


Mike Burgess said...

I, for one, am glad you expended the effort to interact with his points. What's interesting to me is that TF throws these posts out there, knowing that they do not bear on the issues he wishes they did. It is quite clear to me that he is kicking against the goads, and I shan't be surprised to one day find him interceding for folks down here on earth when he goes to his great reward. Invincible ignorance is becoming increasingly doubtful in his case, so conversion it is! Let's redouble our efforts, and as St. Paul said, make a spiritual son. Every unanswered argument, every unpublished comment, every straight-flying arrow are leaving a mark. Love believes all things, don't you know. (1 Cor. 13)

St. Paul, pray for TF and for us! St. Timothy, pray for TF and for us! St. Jude, pray for TF and for us! Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for TF and for us! Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hi Mike,


You set a good example for me, and I appreciate it. I should remember that it wasn't all that long ago that my friends said I was the last person they thought would ever become Catholic :-)



agellius said...

Nice job. It's great that you take the time to answer him point-by-point. Normally when things get that tangled I just throw up my hands and walk away.

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hi agellius,

Thanks. Ordinarily I doubt that I would go to such lengths, but upon closer inspection it seemed pretty clear that the account TF was giving of things just wouldn't bear scrutiny, and it wasn't just a question of differing opinions (at least, not so far as I can tell).

I'm not really inclined to go into things to this extent, on average, for a variety of reasons. Long posts like this are generally boring (I'm not even sure that I would read it if I was just visiting!), and getting into quarrels about stuff like this isn't generally a win-win sort of thing, it seems to me. Things start getting personal before long, and that's not what I'm interested in. It's usually better IMO to just make sure that my own stuff is clear, and not to worry too much about "replies" that really don't address the substance of my posts.