Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Fear of Falling

In a recent, interminable thread of comments on Jimmy Akin's site (in regards to schism and the SSPX) one traditionalist Catholic made the following rather un-traditional comment:
I understand your point about how the notion that the pope would teach something erroneous contradicts the understanding of faithful Catholics that the pope and the Magisterium are divinely inspired and could never teach error.

What bothers me about this notion is that it seems to put our faith on something rather precarious. If a future pope were to promulgate immorality, most of you posting here would probably lose your faith instantly. You'd want to die if such a thing should happen, because it would mean that everything you ever believed to be true has turned out to be a huge lie.

In asking about an "escape hatch," I am trying to see if faith can be rested upon something a little less precarious than the public statements of the guy who happens to be elected by the majority of the Cardinals gathered at a conclave in Rome. Should this happen in the future, the SSPX might provide a model to follow-- that is, a way to remain Catholic and loyal to the Church even if the "smoke of Satan" has indeed entered it.
Now, unless I am much mistaken, it seems to me that the general drift here is: "If at some future date it should prove that Catholicism is false, how can we revise what Catholicism is believed to be so that we don't actually have to admit that our religion has proved false?"

Hanging out as I do, at times, in science enthusiast/skeptic circles, I hear all too often the claim that religion doesn't attempt to say anything that is really "true" about the world, but rather just provides a codification of peoples feelings and hopes. This strikes me as a deeply wrongheaded and ignorant summary of religious belief, and one which suggests very little acquintance with the history of religion. And yet, there are folks like this who do indeed seem to be playing that game.

What, the commenter asks, if "the guy who happens to be elected by the majority of the Cardinals" should teach error in a matter of faith and morals? The answer seems to me pretty clear: If that should happen, then the doctrine of papal infallibility is false. And if that doctrine is false (which though it was not formally declared until the 1870s was clearly understood with increasing clarity for at least a thousand years) then Catholicism is also clearly false in one of its rather basic precepts. Perhaps many would, based on this, conclude the Orthodoxy's critique of Catholicism is correct. But at least as likely, many would be forced to admit that Christianity as a whole was false.

Yet this author's instinct of trying to revise doctrine in order to put in an unfalsifiable form strikes me as deeply wrongheaded. In the end, a faith so defined as to say nothing which can be found to be untrue is a faith in one's self and one's preferences, not in some set of real statements about the nature of the world.

One hears the same sort of error out of the extreme 'progressive' end of the spectrum at times, when some fool or other says that the truth of our faith does not simply rely on whether or not some man actually rose from the dead in 1st century Palestine. St. Paul would be all over that in a moment. Without the cross and resurrection, in what is our faith? However warm, fuzzy, and inspiring Christianity might be as a story, it can hold no weight as a faith unless it is true in some deeper sense than the artistic one.

Perhaps the temptation to bolster our faith in ways that rob it of meaning is built into some of the common elements of our understanding of faith as a virtue. We are reminded of the importance of remaining solid in our faith, of not being shaken or losing faith. Losing faith in this sense is a matter not of seeing your faith proved false, as a loss of nerve in the face of elements of the faith which are difficult to live. If after the death of a loved one, a Christian begins to lose faith in God's love, it is not because Christianity states that one's loved ones will not die, but because Christianity asks us to do a difficult thing: believe that God love us while at the same time understanding that there is great suffering in the world. However, according to traditional Christian theology, there is no sense in which this suffering disproves God's love or existence. This is not a case of the faith being falsified, but rather being difficult.

If, on the other hand, we should come face to face with clear evidence that the faith we have held simply is not true (as would be the case if a pope were to teach heresy ex cathedra) rationalizing some way to coontinue clinging to it would be no virtue. If the correct object of faith is truth, then having faith in that which is false is a mis-use of it.

5 comments:

Tony said...

In asking about an "escape hatch," I am trying to see if faith can be rested upon something a little less precarious than the public statements of the guy who happens to be elected by the majority of the Cardinals gathered at a conclave in Rome. Should this happen in the future, the SSPX might provide a model to follow-- that is, a way to remain Catholic and loyal to the Church even if the "smoke of Satan" has indeed entered it.

Interesting. The actual question, as I see it is:

"Can I become Protestant while still remaining Catholic?"

The answer, unfortunately, is "no".

By saying "the guy who happens to be elected by the majority of the Cardinals gathered at a conclave in Rome", he is reducing the Papacy to a political office. He is not acknowledging that in the choosing of a Pope, prayerfully, deliberately and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Jesus remains with us as He promised unto the end of time.

"Can I be Catholic while minimizing the proper authority and role of the Vicar of Christ?" The short answer is no.

The long answer is: If you don't believe in papal authority and infallibility, why are you Catholic?

Kip said...

Is there no gap between Papal authority and Papal infallibility?

Accepting Papal authority sounds reasonable enough to me -- that's a gesture of humility and love -- but the doctrine of Papal infallibility seems to be a doctrine with a definite political heritage, an unfortunate one at that (that's an understatement).

It wasn't the belief of the church fathers, nor is it so much as alluded to in the Bible - quite the opposite, Peter, often cited as the model for the Popes, is a distinctly fallible and flawed example of fallen Man. Furthermore Christ repeatedly emphasises the personal moral responsibility we have for our deeds, and not once suggests that we can delegate these to any man.

Catholics who seek to gently move their church away from such unchristian doctrines are actually doing you all a great favour.

Sailorette said...

Kip, you do know that Papal Infallibility doesn't mean that he's always right, right? It means that when he goes through a HUGE process and announces a very carefully worded statement that is very carefully specified to be ex cathedra, he's always right.

In such a case, you might argue that the New Test. is an EXAMPLE of the notion that was eventually limited to Papal Infalliblity.

Darwin said...

Accepting Papal authority sounds reasonable enough to me -- that's a gesture of humility and love -- but the doctrine of Papal infallibility seems to be a doctrine with a definite political heritage, an unfortunate one at that (that's an understatement).

I suppose it's all in how you're using the terms. From a Catholic standpoint, I'd almost reverse the use of terms that I think you're making.

I would say the pope certainly deserves respect, deference and attention due to the ancient nature of his office, but that his authority in the worldly sense is not something which Catholics need to defer to in every case. So I'm not pushing for a return of the papal states (not that the pope is either) and I might come to different conclusions than the pope in some matters of economics or politics.

However, Catholics consider 'infallibility' to be a strictly doctrinal protection promised to the pope, as the vicar of Christ on earth, by Jesus and confered by the Holy Spirit. The essence of infallibility is that the pope is preserved from teaching error when speaking solemnly on a matter of faith and morals.

In that sense, the interaction of Peter and Paul in Acts is actually a good example of how infallibility vs. authority is meant to work. Paul believed strongly that gentile converts did not need to keep all of the Mosaic code, and argued publically against Peter on the topic rather than simply deferring quietly to him. However, it was the revelation that came to Peter which actually decided the matter and ended the controversy.

While in the early Church the successors of Peter certainly did not necessarily appoint bishops or set administrative regulations for the rest of the Christian world, there was from the very earliest time that sort of doctrinal deference to the judgement of Rome.

David L Alexander said...

The issue at hand, and the problem facing groups like SSPX, is the inevitable outcome of failing to recognize the authority of a living magisterium in favor of a dead one. The former was defended by previous popes -- you know, Pius V, Pius X, the good guys -- while the latter can be bent and twisted to fit the needs of the one pontificating without a pontiff.