Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Catholic Church: infallible, liar or lunatic

It has hit me (and no doubt I am not the first) that the Lord/liar/lunatic argument can be adapted to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church claims immense dogmatic and practical authority over Christians. She claims infallibility. She is, thus, either infallible, or liar, or lunatic.

Is she a liar? Then we have the puzzle that she has done so well at preserving early Christian doctrines in the face of heresy after heresy. In our time this is particularly clear, I think, in the case of her teachings on sexuality and the protection of human life, her unyielding insistence on the infallibility of Scripture, and the central preaching of the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation.

Is she a lunatic? Then we have the puzzle that lunacy would be the domain of the Church of such men and women as Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Descartes, Pascal, Terese de Lisieux and John Paul II. The Church with the most intellectually seriously worked out intellectual tradition that the Christian world has known (and probably that the world has known) would then be a lunatic. That is not so plausible.

So the most plausible story is that she is infallible.

We may supplement this argument as follows. Paul talks about the Church as the pillar and bulwark of truth (1 Tim 3:15). Jesus talks of the Holy Spirit's guidance for the Church. All this at least suggests that there is a Church which is a reliable guide. But which Church has a plausible claim of being a reliable guide over the centuries? In the end, I think only the Catholic Church, though a case (I believe in the end somewhat weaker) can also be made for the Orthodox Church. But if the Catholic Church is a reliable guide, it is implausible that she is also a liar or a lunatic. And so she's infallible.

If I am right in this post, then earlier, less ecumenical Protestants, in their condemnations of papistry, may have been onto something important: one can't be ambivalent towards the Catholic Church, just as one can't be ambivalent towards Christ. For if the Catholic Church is not infallible as she claims, she is a liar or a lunatic.

29 comments:

Drew said...

I would just use the legend defense, also I would run this argument by James White to see what he thinks.

Andrew said...

I think many people (particularly non-theistic anglo-american philosophers) are more than comfortable in claiming the Church as lunatic.
But, it does strike me odd given the prominent historical academic figures in the Church as you mentioned, who as individual academics were clearly well above par. To which I think most ango-American non-theist philosophers would simply shrug their shoulders...at least that is unfortunately what happens at my department.

Adrian Woods said...

Not a liar therefore infallible? The Catholic Church has done some atrocious acts in its history. Pope's have been absurd declarations and have done some terrible things. All quite fallible it seems. What about Vatican II, is not there some concession that the Catholic Church has been slow to develop in light of the Reformation?

"In our time this is particularly clear, I think, in the case of her teachings on sexuality." You seem to assume that the CC is correct on this point and that is hardly clear. Slow to change, obviously, correct or infallible is altogether different.

"her unyielding insistence on the infallibility of Scripture" There is not a unified commitment within the Christian tradition of the infallibility of scripture.

For all the brilliant thinkers, we could name a dozen more nutcases within the Catholic history.

"The Church with the most intellectually seriously worked out intellectual tradition that the Christian world has known" How do you figure this?

gnosiskaisophia said...

I don't see why these would be the only options. As humans, we make mistakes. I feel that this logic is what we have used, and CS Lewis made somewhat famous in Mere Christianity, about Christ. And while I think it works in that case, since God by definition would be infallible, and Jesus claimed to be God, it seems that the Catholic Church could simply be mistaken on this, and while for the most part reliable and consistent, could still be fallible.

The reason I lean this way is because I see a few theological assertions that seem unbiblical, like the sinless of Mary mother of Jesus, the questionable nature of Catholic Doctrine on justification, concepts of Purgatory, just to name a few that Protestants have had issue with over the years. I think that all Christian denominations likely have at least one mistaken doctrine, just like it is highly likely that at least every human, besides Christ, has at least one false belief. And yet just because we may think that we a consistent belief set, we may in fact have some contradictory beliefs that are not apparent to us. And yet surely that does not make one a lunatic, and if one does not know otherwise, they could not be a liar either. And since they are wrong, they are not infallible.

This leads me to think that there must be another option, possibly as simply as "mistaken." This would allow for error, such as believing themselves to be infallible and entirely correct on every doctrine, and yet would be consistent with many of their doctrines and being correct and consistent.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Andrew:

I think the argument I gave is only--and is only meant to be--very appealing to Christians. In particularly, the lunatic disjunct is one that the non-Christian is apt to embrace.

Mr Woods:

1. The Church claims doctrinal infallibility, not impeccability. Atrocious things were done by prominent members of the Catholic Church (indeed, 17% of the Apostles betrayed or denied Jesus), but that only makes the consistency of doctrine and fidelity to early Church teaching more remarkable, as in this argument.

2. The Catholic Church's teachings on sexuality are faithful to the beliefs of early Christians and to Scripture. It's pretty plausible to think that the changes in views on sexuality in other denominations, especially in the 20th century, are driven by dubious cultural forces rather than convincing new arguments (of positive arguments for the new positions in sexual ethics there are very few, apart from obvious consequentialist considerations which will carry little weight in a tradition as strongly deontological as the Christian one) or scientific data.

gnosiskaisophia:

Merely being mistaken is no sign of lunacy, but mistakenly making grand claims of immense authority is a sign of megalomania.

brian_g said...

I think there's something to this argument, but I have reservations. What does it mean to say a church is a "liar" or a "lunatic". I know what it means to make those claims against a person, but I don't know that it would mean to say the Catholic Church is a liar or a lunatic. If one Pope was found to have lied about a doctrinal matter, would that make the Church a liar? If one pope was a lunatic, would that mean the Church was a lunatic?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Brian:

The Communist Party of the USSR, and its media organs, was a paradigm case of Liar.

If the Flat Earth Society is not a joke, it is a paradigm case of Lunatic.

So an organization can be a Liar or a Lunatic.

Tim Lacy said...

To Professor Pruss:

Absolutely! Why? Simply because the Church claims to be Jesus Christ present on earth via its sacraments. Ergo, all arguments applicable to Jesus apply to the Church.

The limitations, of course, come with the fact that the Church is populated with fallible individuals, in its hierarchy and lay population, who are limited by time and circumstance in bringing the fullness of Christ to the world these people populate.

The trick, of course, is deciding whether the Catholic Church represents the true lineage of sacramental dispensation. So, why has fragmentation occurred in history? And what's your take on that fragmentation? [As an aside, that historical study for myself is what led, in part, to my decision to become a professional historian altogether.] I have decided that the Catholic Church is true to that lineage, but I know that time, circumstance, and human subjectivity prevent others from agreement.

Incidentally, this post goes to your point the other day about intra-Christian dialogue and evangelization. By claiming to be Catholic, you evangelize on behalf of the Church to ~everyone~ because you believe it to best represent Christ on earth. Others can represent Christ, of course, but how and to what degree?

Yours,

Tim

Alexander R Pruss said...

I do think the following rough and ready conclusion can be derived from Frank's post on intra-Christian dialogue: intra-Christian arguments, especially ones in a public forum, should be focused on providing evidence for one's view rather than providing evidence against the other's view. (The distinction isn't always clear, and I am happy in this context with some fogginess.) To simply provide evidence against the other's view does run the danger that it might lead them to abandon Christianity.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Drew:

What is the legend defense?

Tim Lacy said...

It is always and everywhere true that arguments against others are uninspiring. It's always better to make a positive case for something---anything---in which you believe. And since evangelization---and hence Christianity---is a total body experience, then we must be sensitive to all perceptions inasmuch as you are able. Understood completely. - TL

gnosiskaisophia said...

I guess my issue would still be with the possibility of incorrect doctrine. If the Church is infallible, then incorrect doctrine is necessarily impossible, and that seems like a huge leap even if they are extremely thoughtful and careful about things.

My second issue is with the idea of lunacy. If the Church were a lunatic, would that make the people part of it lunatics? Just leaders? Lay people as well? We know it doesn't run the other way, that is, that since individuals are fallible, then the Church is not. And we obviously don't want to say that all people that have been part of the Catholic Church are lunatics, but does it follow then that the Church cannot be a lunatic from that?

In the end, doctrinal issues seem to be of importance here. Does Catholicism have it ALL right? My answer is maybe, but probably not, and that there is no way to really know... as of now, at least.

Heath White said...

My initial thoughts were along Brian’s lines, that while I understood what ‘liar’ and ‘lunatic’ meant applied to individuals, I was not sure they exhausted the possibilities for the Catholic church. The obvious sense to be made in calling an institution a Liar or a Lunatic is that its leaders and spokesmen are such. This explains the Communist Party and Flat Earth Society cases.

So perhaps it is clearer to focus on individual cases of Catholic leaders, e.g. Pius XII definitively endorsing belief in Mary’s assumption. He might be correct; he might be a lunatic; he might be a liar; but it seems that he also might be mistaken. Why is that ruled out?

Perhaps it is supposed to be ruled out by the doctrine of infallibility; presumably Pius XII knew about this doctrine and endorsed it of himself, and took himself to be exercising his infallibility when he made his pronouncement about Mary’s assumption. Here I suppose the argument is that if he is mistaken about Mary’s assumption then he is also mistaken about his infallibility, and if you are mistaken about that kind of thing you are a lunatic.

Here we might compare the Dalai Lama’s (presumed) belief that he is the 14th reincarnation of a demigod. That is pretty strange; at least as strange as anything about papal infallibility. But does it make the Dalai Lama a lunatic? (He seems nice enough.)

There seems to be a disanalogy between the Church version of the L/L/L argument with the original Lewisian version applied to Jesus, in that Jesus of Nazareth had no institutional context that would lead him to believe that he was divine, but did anyway; in that context you pretty clearly are a lunatic if you’re wrong. Whereas Popes and Dalai Lamas have a great deal of institutional context leading them to believe such things as that they are infallible, so that if you are wrong maybe you are no lunatic but just mistaken, perhaps with justification.

In any case, I don’t see that the clear-headedness or holiness of Aquinas, Descartes, etc. have much to do with the non-lunacy of Pius XII. But here’s another thing—I suspect that, by focusing on individual popes, I am missing some important institutional feature of the argument that occurs to you, Alex. In fact, I think it is a kind of index of Catholic-mindedness that one readily attributes mental states and actions to the institutional church, without some ready-to-hand theory of how these are reducible to the states and actions of individuals. So what am I missing?

Heath White said...

My initial thoughts were along Brian’s lines, that while I understood what ‘liar’ and ‘lunatic’ meant applied to individuals, I was not sure they exhausted the possibilities for the Catholic church. The obvious sense to be made in calling an institution a Liar or a Lunatic is that its leaders and spokesmen are such. This explains the Communist Party and Flat Earth Society cases.

So perhaps it is clearer to focus on individual cases of Catholic leaders, e.g. Pius XII definitively endorsing belief in Mary’s assumption. He might be correct; he might be a lunatic; he might be a liar; but it seems that he also might be mistaken. Why is that ruled out?

Perhaps it is supposed to be ruled out by the doctrine of infallibility; presumably Pius XII knew about this doctrine and endorsed it of himself, and took himself to be exercising his infallibility when he made his pronouncement about Mary’s assumption. Here I suppose the argument is that if he is mistaken about Mary’s assumption then he is also mistaken about his infallibility, and if you are mistaken about that kind of thing you are a lunatic.

(More to follow...)

Heath White said...

Here we might compare the Dalai Lama’s (presumed) belief that he is the 14th reincarnation of a demigod. That is pretty strange; at least as strange as anything about papal infallibility. But does it make the Dalai Lama a lunatic? (He seems nice enough.)

There seems to be a disanalogy between the Church version of the L/L/L argument with the original Lewisian version applied to Jesus, in that Jesus of Nazareth had no institutional context that would lead him to believe that he was divine, but did anyway; in that context you pretty clearly are a lunatic if you’re wrong. Whereas Popes and Dalai Lamas have a great deal of institutional context leading them to believe such things as that they are infallible, so that if you are wrong maybe you are no lunatic but just mistaken, perhaps with justification.

In any case, I don’t see that the clear-headedness or holiness of Aquinas, Descartes, etc. have much to do with the non-lunacy of Pius XII. But here’s another thing—I suspect that, by focusing on individual popes, I am missing some important institutional feature of the argument that occurs to you, Alex. In fact, I think it is a kind of index of Catholic-mindedness that one readily attributes mental states and actions to the institutional church, without some ready-to-hand theory of how these are reducible to the states and actions of individuals. So what am I missing?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath:

I don't have a theory as to how one should attribute mental states, intentions and the like to institutions. But we do in fact engage in such attributions. We can talk of the view or intentions of a legislative body. There need not be a particular individual who embodies the legislature's view or intention. The legislation could be a compromise, but nonetheless one could talk of the legislature's intentions. They are subtly related to the intentions of the individuals, and maybe even reduce to them, but they do not reduce in any simple way (like: the view of the legislature is the view of its leaders, or the view of the majority, vel caetera).

I think it is all too easy to imagine a bunch of reasonable people getting together in a committee and the committee coming out with something that's crazy. Or, more rarely, a bunch of unreasonable people getting together in a committee and their errors all somehow canceling out and the committee coming out with something that's sensible.

It is true, and importantly so, that Catholics take very seriously the Scriptural personification of the Church as the bride of Christ.


The institutional context difference between the Jesus and Catholic Church cases is relevant. However, that difference is only there if we look at particular members of the Catholic hierarchy. If we look at the Catholic Church as a whole, the Catholic Church did not have an institutional context that would lead it to believe it was infallible, apart from the disputed infallibility-supporting passages of Scripture (so, maybe, you'll find my argument less persuasive if you find the Scriptural passages persuasive in respect of infallibility :-) ).

Heath White said...

If we look at the Catholic Church as a whole, the Catholic Church did not have an institutional context that would lead it to believe it was infallible

So my deeper point is this. The average Catholic instinctively looks at “the Church as a whole” and your average non-Catholic does not, and in fact probably believes we need not or even cannot. There are just a series of individuals, whose motivations are explicable without resorting to ascriptions of lying or lunacy. A lot of work is being done in the argument, implicitly, by attributing a stable set of beliefs to an institution—e.g. that the Church believes (timelessly) it is infallible. Whereas people outside that institution are not likely to attribute that set of beliefs that way—a council in 1870 said the Pope was infallible, though I guess there are less binding precedents prior to that. Without an agreed-upon criterion of how beliefs are to be attributed to institutions, there is no way to adjudicate this disagreement.

What is most intriguing to me about this argument is that it brings out how differently Catholics and non-Catholics think about the Catholic Church, and how hard it is for each side to see that.

I think it is all too easy to imagine a bunch of reasonable people getting together in a committee and the committee coming out with something that's crazy.

Unfortunately, this is not something I have to imagine. I just remember. :-(

Mr Veale said...

Well, it leaves Protestants with a similar trilemma. We're either wilfully disobedient to the Spirit (wicked), theologically incompetent spiritually blind or correct.

(Perhaps the Coptic and Eastern Churches would like to lump us both in the second or first category!)

Prods do make some heady claims - that we have captured the version of the Gospel that Christ and the Apostle's intended etc.

Oddly enough, I think that we're all in the same boat on this one...which is reassuring!

Mr Veale said...

However, where I to have the full force of the Papacy behind me...

Well, I've been reading Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" and "The Eternal Man" again. And wishing that someone with Chesterton's witty and whimsical style of argument would publish something similar today.

And then I thought of this blog, and your scholarly work. There are interesting, quirky arguments from humour and suffering. And there are rigorously defined cosmological and design arguments (generously made available on your web site). And you do an excellent job of briefly summarising these, and making them accessible.

So if I had the magisterial authority of the Church , here's what I'd do.

I'd have all your work put on hold, and have you locked in the bowels of Baylor until you had produced your own little enchirdion of apologetics. Your own version of "Orthodoxy".

You're just the man to do it.

In fact, you'd be fed nothing but bread and water until it was written.

And, while I'm not a prophet, nor a prophet's son, I'll bet my last Soda Farl that most of your regulars would agree.

And I'm only half in jest.

I think we're really due your first popular classic.

Sam Pack Gregory said...

This is precisley the tack taken by now-LA governor and then Rhodes Scholar Bobby Jindal in this piece:

http://www.newoxfordreview.org/article.jsp?did=1296-jindal

"Just as C.S. Lewis removed any room for comfortable opposition to Jesus by identifying Him as either "Lord, liar, or lunatic," so the Catholic Church leaves little room for complacent opposition to her doctrines"

Syllabus said...

I recall Prof. Kreeft from Boston College making a similar argument once. I, myself, remain undecided.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Undecided whether "infallible, liar or lunatic" are the only three plausible options, or undecided which of the three options is the correct one? :-)

Syllabus said...

Undecided as to whether the latter is true, mainly. Though the "mistaken" seems to jump out at me. Having been raised in a sort of broad non-denominational Protestantism, I have some problems with the Catholic version of justification. The explanation that most Catholics give of it makes a good deal of sense to me (that it is the Grace of God actually motivating you to do the good works) , but I'm not sure whether that's an accurate understanding of the actual doctrine decided upon in Trent (at least I think it was Trent), which seems to me to indicate that the good works in themselves don't really proceed from the Grace of God, but are done by us to merit salvation. I'd need a further explanation of that, of course, since I think that a Catholic who truly understands the doctrine could be most helpful.

Apart from that one, I rather agree with a lot of Catholicism, though I'm not sure about transubstantiation and have a whole world of questions regarding Papal authority. I did grow up in predominantly Catholic countries, though, so I have a huge measure of respect for Catholics. I'm not one of those people - cough**SouthernBaptists**cough - who think that Catholics teach pagan and idolatrous doctrine.

At the moment, my theological leanings can't be described by the theology of any one denomination - though I thoroughly abhor a lot of Calvinist doctrine.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Hey, I teach at a Baptist school (technically not Southern Baptist, technically, but Baptist General Convention of Texas), and none of my colleagues thinks Catholicism teaches paganism.

As for justification, have you read the Council of Trent's canons on justification? We could have a conversation about those.

You might also find Rob Koons' big article on justification helpful.

Syllabus said...

Yeah, I don't think that all Baptists think that, though many of the ones I've conversed with on the subject think so. I think the mistake comes when they think that the Catholic Church worships idols - which, of course, is false; to Catholics they are icons meant only to symbolize, from what I understand - and therefore equate the perceived "idolatry" with paganism. But that's just a quibble.

I haven't read the full canons, so I can't definitively say. I profess nothing if not incomplete knowledge on the subject, so getting further recommendations is gratifying. Could you refer me to materials that discuss the issue of Papal Authority in more detail? A sort of explanation of the ins and outs of the doctrine would be most appreciated.

Alexander R Pruss said...

An in-depth account of infallibility is in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

The relevant canons of Trent on justification are here (scroll to the end).

Syllabus said...

Many thanks for your time and suggestions.

Glenn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Glenn said...

The lunatic option does not require that everything the person in question says is crazy. It only requires that the person (or church) in question believes at least some things that are crazy, to the point where a person is marked for their holding to some really crazy ideas. People who are not already Catholic may wish to supplement the claim to infallibility with other things like transubstantiation or the bodily assumption of Mary. So while this line of argument will have some sway with people who are already Catholic, it should not be surprising that it has no sway with those who are not. They will have little problem with the lunatic option - and madmen may be right about many things.

Alternatively they may say that the church gets many of its grandiose claims right, but not infallibility. Surely being very good and mostly right will do the trick here - given how many qualifications infallibility has been whittled away by anyway.