Saturday, December 11, 2010

Thoughts on Infallibility (Article IVc): Who Speaks for the Church?

The Series So Far

  1. Article I
  2. Article IIa
  3. Article IIb
  4. Article IIc
  5. Interlude
  6. Article IId
  7. Article IIe
  8. Article IIIa
  9. Article IIIb
  10. Interlude II
  11. Article IVa
  12. Interlude III
  13. Article IVb


As I mentioned in Interlude III; I have come across in my research of those explaining Sola Scriptura, a tendency to contrast what they believe with what they say Catholics believe about Scripture. 

The arguments sometimes used are of the type that: because the Catholic Church believes [A], they cannot be considered infallible or even (on occasion) authentically Christian.  However, if the Catholic Church teaches [B] and not [A], then it is wrong to accuse them of believing [A].

Since I have found many misunderstandings about what Catholics believe written by recommended non-Catholic theologians, I thought I should make a statement about this discrepancy and making clear the issue of authoritative teaching.

Let’s begin with two issues of logic I think will be important to consider here, the Straw Man fallacy and the structural problem of drawing a conclusion from false premises.

On the Straw Man Fallacy

While I’ve referenced this fallacy before, I would like to remind the reader of the Straw Man. This is a fallacy where a person’s position, we’ll call it [A] here is misrepresented as [B]. The challenger to [A] then refutes [B] and then claims that he has refuted his opponent.

The problem is, the position was [A] and not [B], so the refutation of [B] has not refuted position [A].

On the Problem with False Premises

From here, we need to move forward to one of the principles of logic: If the Premises are False, and the Argument is Valid, then the Conclusion is Unknown. In other words, if the premises are false, even if the argument has a logical form which is correct, we cannot prove the conclusion is true from the argument because false premises do not prove truth (“You can’t get there from here.”) It is only if the premises are true and the argument is valid that we can say the conclusion is true.

So what?

So some of you might be wondering what this has to do with anything when it comes to Sola Scriptura vs. the authority claimed by the Church that I’m supposed to be getting into (and I admit, when I got into writing this series, I had no idea how long it would stretch out). Others, who have followed me for awhile are probably wondering where I am going with these preliminary definitions.

The importance is, just because someone says a thing about Church teaching does not make it so. If a person misrepresents what the Church teaches (willfully or accidentally — what needs to be recognized is the fact of misrepresentation, not the motive) then any “refutation” of that misrepresentation does not refute the Catholic teaching. Moreover, if these misrepresentations are used as premises in an argument against Catholic teaching it means that because the premises are false, the conclusion cannot be proven true.

Thus before attacking the Catholic position (or for that matter, any position), we need to be certain that the source used accurately understands and interprets what the Catholic Church believes.

Preliminary: Dissent from Church is Different than Denominational Disputes

One trend I notice is that sometimes a non-Catholic cites a dissident Catholic as an alternate view within Catholicism to support their view that the Church errs.  I don't think this is done with malice to present a distorted view (unlike the anti-Catholic vitriol which exists out there), but rather because there is a misunderstanding on the authority of the Church to teach for the faith vs. dissenting views where one claims the Church got it wrong.

If I understand it correctly, within Protestantism there are differing opinions on what is the right way to interpret the Bible for example.  Within Protestantism, there are different movements, including Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, Non-Denominationalism, certain Mainline denominations, Liberal Protestantism (I'm talking about the school of thought, not Protestants who happen to be politically liberal) and so on.  However, a person writing about Protestantism in general could discuss different "movements," within Protestantism, and nobody would object to the idea that such a view is within the general umbrella of Protestantism even if they disagree with one or more of those views.

For example, Arminianism is in dispute with Calvinism on the role of Free Will. From what I have seen on internet articles, I get the feeling there is no love lost between them (and yes I freely admit my perspective is that of an outsider — which will lead to a point to consider below). However, people within Protestantism do not appear to view holding one or the other view as ceasing to be Protestant[1]. Instead, if someone cites a view one disagrees with the common reply is “They don’t speak for me,” and nobody accuses them of denying what is inconvenient.  Why?  Because we recognize the person who says this does not recognize said view as authoritative.

On Official Teaching vs. Dissent

Exactly, and the Catholic objection to the citation of a dissenter is, “They don’t speak for the Church.”

Since we believe that the Magisterium (the college of Bishops in communion with the Pope and never apart from him) has the authority to determine what is and what is not in keeping with the Catholic faith, anyone writing on the what the Catholic faith teaches (myself included) has credibility only through accurately explaining the magisterial teaching.

Therefore, if you have a theologian who claims to be a Catholic but teaches in opposition to the teaching of the Catholic Church itself, one cannot say the dissenter is teaching Catholic Theology, even if he is a Catholic teaching theology.  Fr. Küng has taught in direct contradiction to what the Catholic Church teaches to be true.  As a result he has been stripped of their license to teach as Catholic Theologians. (I mention Küng by name because his book Infallibility? seems to be popular with non-Catholics who disagree with the Catholic teaching on the subject).

A good document to read on the subject of the role of the theologian within the Catholic Church can be found here.  The point is if, for example, Fr. Küng says one thing about Catholic teaching and the Pope formally teaches another, you don't have two views on Catholicism.  You have one right view (the Pope's) and one wrong view (Fr. Küng's).

Because of this, the person who cites the dissenting Catholic against the Magisterium does not have a case against the Magisterium. (Certain Protestant theologians who like to cite Fr. Küng against the Magisterium fall into this error).

Furthermore, It is the Magisterial Teaching and not the Non-Catholic's Interpretation of Church Teaching which is Authoritative

Since it is the magisterial teaching, not the interpretation from the outside, which matters, the same principle applies to outside commentator on Catholic teaching: it is only correct if his interpretation matches what the Church believes

Therefore, the denunciation of the Catholic Position cannot be considered proven true if it is based on a non-authoritative source which disagrees with the magisterium, or if the non-Catholic misstates or misunderstands the teaching as taught by the Magisterium. This includes the ex-Catholic who has left the Church. He does not bear special witness for having once been a Catholic unless his claims match what the magisterium teaches and intends with its teaching.

The Reason for this Explanation

The reason I bring this up is not to attack Protestantism.  Rather I want to point out that dissent differs from denominational disputes or differences of opinions.  Just because a person claims to be a Catholic does not make his views a valid opinion in challenging the Magisterium.  So if Fr. Küng says a thing on Scripture or Infallibility, if it contradicts the official teaching of the Church, it is not an alternate view, but an erroneous view.

Likewise the non-Catholic or the ex-Catholic who says something about the faith which we do not believe, then his statements are wrong whether he believes them to be true or not.

As a result, when it comes to determining the Catholic teaching on a subject, one looks to what the Church officially says and not how it might have been stated or misstated by a member within the Church.


The point of this (possibly repetitious) article is to make the reader aware of the fact that whatever the motive may be (good will or bad). A person writing about Catholicism can be in error if they misunderstand. Therefore any claims against the Catholic teaching needs to be investigated first of all to see if it is what we believe before assuming what is true.

[1] There is always an exception to the rule. For example, while I have heard Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be Protestant, most Protestants would not accept that claim. I think they are right on this, and would not label these groups “Protestant.”

No comments:

Post a Comment