Infallibility and the Church
A few weeks back I started digging into Catholicism pretty deep, due to some discussions I was having. Much of what I have been doing is trying to understand just what the Roman Catholic Church teaches, in order to evaluate it. I have tried to be as “objective” as possible, but as I am presently learning about what the RCC teaches based on talking with others and reading web sites, I realize that it is very possible that I may be fed information that is not consistent with what the RCC actually teaches. In my quest for understanding, I was pointed to a web site which contains the “Catholic Encyclopedia”, which sounded very encouraging to me as it sounded very “official”. However, this is the internet and anyone can claim to be anyone (more on this later), and so I have approached this new “resource” with the realization that it may not be genuine at all. Therefore, I will state right at the outset that I welcome input from any and all individuals who would like to tell me why I should or should not reference this particular portion of this particular site in order to learn about what Catholicism teaches.
Given this background, I do intend on critiquing a section of what I have come across on this website. I make no claims that this is also a critique of the position of the RCC, because I (as of yet) do not know if this is what the RCC teaches. However, if it is actually the position of the RCC, then it is very relevant to my studies.
The site in question is www.newadvent.org, and the section I am going to look at in this post is titled “Infallibility”. The section is titled “Proof of the Church’s infallibility” and the paragraph I am going to discuss is found under “Proof from Scripture – 1”. What I am not going to do here is address the proof texts which are listed, because there is a more foundational question that needs to be asked and answered here – namely, how do we know scripture is true? This is not intended to imply that I do not believe scripture is true (even though I no doubt disagree with many of the RCC’s interpretations of scripture.) However, if a belief system relies upon scripture for proof, then one needs to be able to provide proof that what scripture states is more than just opinion.
So, let’s consider the paragraph in question in its entirety before breaking it down.
In order to prevent misconception and thereby to anticipate a common popular objection which is wholly based on a misconception it should be premised that when we appeal to the Scriptures for proof of the Church’s infallible authority we appeal to them merely as reliable historical sources, and abstract altogether from their inspiration. Even considered as purely human documents they furnish us, we maintain, with a trustworthy report of Christ’s sayings and promises; and, taking it to be a fact that Christ said what is attributed to Him in the Gospels, we further maintain that Christ’s promises to the Apostles and their successors in the teaching office include the promise of such guidance and assistance as clearly implies infallibility. Having thus used the Scriptures as mere historical sources to prove that Christ endowed the Church with infallible teaching authority it is no vicious circle, but a perfectly legitimate logical procedure, to rely on the Church’s authority for proof of what writings are inspired.
Please remember that the section is titled “Proof of the Church’s infallibility” and the paragraph is under the subsection “Proof from Scripture.” I point this out because it is important to note that the author is implying by using the word “proof” as they have, that there is a strong reason to believe that the Church is Infallible, and that this reason can be found in scripture.
Let’s proceed now to break this down and see what we find.
In order to prevent misconception and thereby to anticipate a common popular objection which is wholly based on a misconception it should be premised that when we appeal to the Scriptures for proof of the Church’s infallible authority we appeal to them merely as reliable historical sources, and abstract altogether from their inspiration
The author wants us to know right at the outset that some people have taken issue with the “proof” in question, and that their complaints are (wholly) based on misconception. If true, this is indeed a helpful thing to know up front, as it will hopefully serve to help us, the readers, not make the same mistake that these others have made. The author then proceeds to identify what the misconception is – viewing scripture (for the sake of this exercise) as inspired. Now, I (as a Presuppositionalist Apologist) have a major issue with this, but will leave it be for now as there may be value to this. The author clarifies that we will not be viewing scripture as the inspired word of God for this exercise, but “merely as reliable historical sources”. I appreciate the author’s use of the word “merely” here, because it seems to indicate they understand that scripture that is not inspired is inferior to scripture that is.
Even considered as purely human documents they furnish us, we maintain, with a trustworthy report of Christ’s sayings and promises
There are many who would take issue with this, and when offering a proof it is important to try and address all the objections that may be raised (either individually or all at once). However, there is a much more problematic statement coming up, so I will not spend any more time here. Suffice it to say that the author “maintains” (i.e. asserts to be the case) that the Bible accurately represents what Jesus said.
and, taking it to be a fact that Christ said what is attributed to Him in the Gospels, we further maintain that Christ’s promises to the Apostles and their successors in the teaching office include the promise of such guidance and assistance as clearly implies infallibility.
Once again, the author is “taking it to be a fact (i.e. asserting it to be the case) that Christ made promises. In this case, the author asserts that Christ makes promises about guidance and assistance that “clearly implies infallibility.” I have to assume at this point that the author means that the “apostles and their successors in the teaching of their office” will be receiving “guidance and assistance” such that they will be infallible. It can’t be referring to scripture as infallible, as the author just indicated we will not be considering scripture as infallible for the purpose of this exercise.
So let’s stop and see what we have so far. So far it seems that we are to believe that the Apostles and their successors are infallible in their teaching office, due to the promise that Christ made in scripture to guide and assist them. If we grant for now that the Bible does, in fact, present Christ as making this very promise, there is a more pressing issue to tackle; one that we are about to run up against.
Having thus used the Scriptures as mere historical sources to prove that Christ endowed the Church with infallible teaching authority
OK, I have to be honest here. When I first read this I literally said “are you kidding me?” out loud. This is a non-sequitur of gigantic proportions. Just because the Bible makes a claim that Jesus promised to provide guidance to the Apostles and their successors, that does not necessarily entail that this happened. Why is this the case? Well – perhaps Jesus was wrong. Perhaps he lied. Perhaps he was unable to do what he promised. There are so many “possible” alternatives that no proof has been given to this point, unless (and this is critical) we can first demonstrate that the Bible itself is without error. Now, once I again I feel the need to be certain that those of you reading this realize that I believe the Bible is true; not only this, but I also believe it can be shown to be true. My critique here centers around the argument that is being made, not whether or not any given conclusion happens to be true.
Realize something very important here. If the author had not “given up” the infallibility of scripture at the very start of this “proof”, all they would need to do is demonstrate that the Bible does, in fact, teach what they claim it teaches about the promises of Christ. But by giving up the infallibility (and granting “merely” reliability), the certainty of the conclusion is now out of reach. After all, when we say someone or something is “reliable”, we are not stating it is “infallible” (as the author clearly implies at the outset). So what we are left with is a scripture that is “merely reliable”, meaning it can be wrong. If it can be wrong, then it is possible that the promises Christ made (if he even made them) are not true, and if they are not true, then there is no longer a reason to believe that “Christ endowed the Church with infallible teaching authority.”
At this point, I want to look at the closing portion of the paragraph, because it will help us understand just why the author said what they did at the outset.
it is no vicious circle, but a perfectly legitimate logical procedure, to rely on the Church’s authority for proof of what writings are inspired
Notice the phrase “vicious circle”. This seems to be a reference to the problem that this “proof” would have if the author did, in fact, begin with an infallible scripture. Why is this? Because if we assume an infallible scripture in order to demonstrate the Church is infallible, and then we rely upon an infallible church to tell us which scripture is infallible, then we find ourselves in the position of circular reasoning. I suspect this is the very circle being referenced here. Unfortunately, by starting with something less than an infallible scripture, the author has traded circular reasoning for no proof at all.
In moving Infallible Scripture to the level of an unquestionable beginning assumption of reason to try to regain an actual proof of some sort defeats this whole argument on other fronts than just circularity does it not?
As a scholarly document, the Catholic Encyclopedia has its uses. It is, in some respects, dated as a representation of Catholic doctrine and belief as compared with the comparatively recent composition of the New Catholic Encyclopedia. The oldest material in the New Catholic Encyclopedia is from 1967, although it has newer material, including updates to the 1967 articles. The second edition is from 2002, and it is a standard reference work from The Catholic University of America, which itself was founded by the USCCB. It’s going to be too “liberal” for some obscure corners of the conservative Catholic blogosphere, but since that’s overwhelmingly a lay demographic, their complaints matter not within the authoritative framework of Roman Catholicism.
If you are trying to grasp the role of the Magisterium as a member of the Magisterium relates it, I recommend the late Cardinal Dulles’ Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith. (It’s difficult to imagine a man with more Catholic credentials.)
Overwhelmingly the documents of the Magisterium are the only safe source; lay Catholic blogs and websites are generally quagmires of unauthorized laypersons offering up their private interpretations of Magisterial documents, interpretations which can be overturned at any point in time and declared unrepresentative of official Catholic belief and practice.
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