Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Never Erring Story P. III

Apparently Gregory finds my posts on Catholic doctrine to be misguided, and not worth his time until I correctly define the doctrines I'm contending with. At the same time, in poor debate form, Gregory offers no definitions of his own, so, in some crude, horizontal twist of ultramontanism, I'm supposed to just believe him because he said so. How very Catholic.

More, it seems that Gregory thinks my wife, Imogen, is a voice-piece for my concerns: "Since she decided to weigh in on our discussion, I assumed you two must be working as a unit, and the adjective ['vitriol'] applied on both sides." Still, Gregory did "apologise" if this is not the case. But I can't help thinking that the maxim 'too little too late' applies nicely here. For why would Gregory even assume that my wife and I are incapable of thinking apart from each other? What measure of presumption leads a person to such a conclusion? And after admitting that he "...didn't have time to read all the way through. Read enough to get annoyed again, though", too! Fine measuring stick, Gregory: get annoyed at an article you haven't fully read, assume later that my wife and I are occupying the same voice, and then mete out a response? Poor form, my friend. Poor form.

Let me be clear about Imogen's position, since you seem not to have understood from her writings themselves: she quite literally does not care what definitions Catholicism wants to place on notions of impeccability, inerrancy, infallibility. That's her last concern, if it even is at all. She is not, never has been, and does not foresee ever being a Catholic, so she is not bound to whatever spin Catholicism wants to place on the words they choose.

What Imogen is concerned with is the lived-out reality of the Catholic Church, the people it effects, and the fact that billions of people are held in sway under a superstructure that enforces manditory beliefs. She's concerned about the intellectual tyranny of Catholicism, to put it in brief. She's concerned that the Catholic Magisterium finds it a viable line of thinking to set out statements that are not only binding on 1.1 billion believers, but that there seems to be no recognition that in the face of 5.6 billion other people there may be a chance that Catholicism could have missed some understanding while it prattles endlessly about its absolutist doctrines.

What I am concerned about is the fact that no matter how much the Catholic church is brought to task by concerned parties, if they are non-Catholics, they apparently don't understand. I'm sure that's probably true in a number of cases. However, I am equally sure it is not the case for everyone who has what they perceive as legitimate concerns.

This is where I charge Catholics, loosely, with gnosticism. To be clear, however, Catholics are not one of the historical groups of Gnostics. Catholics practice gnosticism by being a self-selected group that deny understanding to non-Catholics to the point that they are willing to assert that they have "the fulness of the faith", the "one true faith." The formal implications, of course, being that all other non-Catholics are somehow deficient, under the captivity of lies, or unable to enjoy the same richness of faith and understanding unless somehow initiated (e.g., R.C.I.A.) into the rank-and-file of Catholics.

Nevermind that other churches are considered 'valid' (as if that hat-tipping concession really means anything useful at all); they are not as elevated, as close to God, as 'full' or 'near to the truth' as Catholics are. What kind of neurotic hubris goes before such snobbish bullshit, anyway? "Yes, you're Christians. But you're not as high a quality Christian as you would be if you bore the indelible stamp of our papally approved doctrines."

Nevertheless, from the time I started debating with Catholics, I've never witnessed a case where the non-Catholic is validated as understanding this-or-that Catholic proposition. As soon as a Catholic is pushed into a corner by force of another's concerns, the old Catholic stand-by is "you don't understand; your definitions are wrong; you can't understand because you're not Catholic." In other words, I'm concerned that the rampant in-group/out-group mentality of the Catholic Church is belief by social pressure, not necessarily by a clear conscience and a willing conviciton.

More, the fact that Catholic beliefs are conscripted renders the beliefs of Catholics largely "belief in belief", to borrow Daniel C. Dennett's term. I'm sure many Catholics sincerely believe Jesus was real, that he rose from the dead, and all that basic dogma. However, enforcing much more than that (e.g., the assumption of Mary, Extra Ecclesium nulla salus, The Communion of the Saints, et al.) is a coercion of belief. That is, a Catholic cannot truly be Catholic unless s/he willingly takes on the convictions of a brace of dead people that declared this-that-or-another proposition true because they believed it (i.e., Tradition). This degenerative reasoning process is, as I've pointed out before, performative logic (what is said constitutes the thing referred to; or, what is said becomes its own proof, or point of reference).

So, the first and most important error in Catholicism is not that it declares certain of its doctrines free of error, but that it conscripts belief from a largely naive population of well-meaning Christians. The second error is that one of those conscripted beliefs is that Catholics are to believe in the belief that the Catholic Church never errs in matters of faith and morals. That, properly speaking, is not belief, but propaganda and pretence.

Of course, people are free to not become Catholics (now) but they are still considered second-class Christians, which is the third error in the teachings of Catholicism, and it effectively equals bigotry. The same charge of bigotry can be levelled against almost all Christian denominations, so Catholicism is, in this instance, not uniquely isolated. However, Catholicism makes it a point to absolve itself of this error by immodestly claiming its inerrancy in matters of faith and morals, so it opens itself up to freethinking criticism, and cannot escape the attention given to this issue no matter how proficient it is at back-pedaling, splitting hairs, and jumping between literal and figurative meanings when it suits its interests, or serves its purposes.

Yes, we can modify the statement "without errors in matters of faith and morals" to read, as Ed suggested, "The Catholic Church has never, can never, and will never err in HER OFFICIAL TEACHING ON matters pertaining to faith and morals," but that does next to nothing to alleviate the spuriousness of such a claim. As Ed continued to note, the Catholic Church considers certain teachings to have a special status. But so what? So they are claimed to have a special status. This simply implies the notion of a hierarchy of truths in Catholicism, which is purely notional and not demonstrable as actual.

And the fact that truths are ranked by some pre-determined levels of certainty (hierarchy of truths) requires that the stated case that there is a hierarchy of truth would form the ultimate truth about truth, the ultimate certainty about certainty. That is another reason for that particular teaching to be held in suspicion: truths of that magnitude, that is, truths that are so truly true that they are undeniable would be self-evident, one might reasonably assume. Kind of like noting that everyone dies: it's simply obvious and undeniable. The immaculate conception of Mary? Not so much. It's simply propositional, and then somewhere along the line of Catholic hermeneutic convolutions it becomes performative. I don't buy that kind of rigorous nonsense, no matter how neatly packaged in fancy rhetoric it is.

Which brings us back to Gregory's desire for me to define the terms I take difference with: impeccability and infallibility. And unless I use the Catholic doctrinal definitions, what I have to say is not worth his time. Why? Because unless I do that, I am apparently setting up a straw man argument. Very well then, here are your church's definitions:
  1. Infallibility: "In general, exemption or immunity from liability to error or failure; in particular in theological usage, the supernatural prerogative by which the Church of Christ is, by a special Divine assistance, preserved from liability to error in her definitive dogmatic teaching regarding matters of faith and morals."
  2. Impeccability: On this point, I admit that I confused infallibility with impeccability (sinlessness) when I was criticizing the errors of the Catholic church, even after I made note that they are often confused. I suppose that is a truth now proved. What is more, I cannot find any reliable sources (at this point) that lay out a concise Catholic definition of impeccability. So, I offer Wikipedia's definition.

Nevertheless, my contentions about the claim that the "Catholic Church, in her official teachings, has never, can never, and will never err" remain. Especially concerning "can never" and "will never", for unless such sophistry is divine prophesy, the Catholic church simply has no place to spout such trumpery.

What is more, I reject and utterly refuse the notion of impeccability being a quality of Mary, as do some Catholic theologians. It is a quirky irony that Catholicism condemned Pelagianism (people in co-operation with divinely revealed truths can live without sin), but allowed that Mary was able, through her co-operative will, to avoid sinning. Why condemn the one, but allow the other? And even if we consider the official teaching of the Magisterium that Mary was 'preserved' from sin by a special dolloping of grace, even at the time of her conception, we are left with the question, 'Why would he kill his son to save the rest of us, when it is at least anecdotally clear that he could've just tweaked the grace-factor in everyone's favour to begin with?' It seems from that that either God is a sadist, or the Catholic Church is wrong. In this case, I'm willing to wager on the latter.

In the end, however Gregory decides to respond, he still has his work ahead of him. My criticisms are still the same despite the confusion in terms I admitted. In fact, they are more pressing for the occasion. Catholicism, as I have observed, has erred, continues to, and will probably carry-on erring as long as it holds to the mixed up teachings it currently enjoys.


Edward said...

Are you two more interested in a pissing contest or in a dialog? I'll repeat a previous comment, since nobody bit:

[It's probably worth looking into the role Natural Law plays in all this.The RCs think that their official moral teachings are known by reason. And it's probably worth noting that the "2nd level" precepts of Natural Law can change.

JPII's encyclical "Fides et Ratio" makes the RC position on... well, *faith and reason*, seem pretty sophisticated and interesting. A good and fairly quick read, as I recall.

Also, I think we need to distinguish between tradition as truth-indicator and truth-maker. The RC will think that a teaching's belonging to the tradition doesn't make it true, though (so it goes) it is a reliable indicator of its being true.

So much in all this depends on fogginess with respect to possibility and necessity. Is it possible for the Magisterial to err? Well, in a certain sense, yes, they have it within their power (in the completely ordinary sense) to assert falsehoods, right? But, in another sense, God providentially guides history such that they won't be allowed to err (so it goes). In that sense, it is impossible that they err. These sorts of possibilities and impossibilities are perfectly compatible, right?

I just think it's false that tradition works this way. In fact, I'm pretty sure the Magisterium has erred in damming ways, al a Galatians 1. So, um, DON'T BE RC!!!

Edward said...

obviously "Magisterial" should read "Magisterium". My spell-checker hates that word for some reason.

Kane Augustus said...


I'm not interested in a pissing contest. I do enjoy the thrust of a polemical style debate, however.

As to your comments on Natural Law are concerned, I don't know enough about that. Do you have any worthwhile resources I can link to, to start learning a little about what you're suggesting?

I think if you look into the teachings of the RCC, you'll notice that the truth-indicator (tradition) and the truth-maker (God) basically equal the same thing. Catholics believe that the living word as transmitted from the apostles to their successors, and guided by the Holy Spirit, is Tradition. That same Holy Spirit is the one who makes truth, according to his self-discolure in the world. Thus the Holy Spirit is both the one who "makes" the truth through self-disclosure of his character, and indicates the truth to the people he trusts to teach it.

Yes, the Magisterium can err in an ordinary sense, just like everyone else. But God's providential guidance in history is, to me, another question altogether.

Edward said...

"...basically equal the same thing"

I think you're right about that. But the intellectual RC person, armed with JPII and Newman, can throw together a fairly intellectually supple, albeit idealized, RC view of Tradition that's not so crazy.

From the outside looking in upon your spat, it's a little frustrating trying to sort through the personal jabs for the substantive disagreements.

How 'bout reading through fides et ratio:

For me, nothing's made RCism seem more attractive/reasonable. Though it is probably quite alien to the real lived experience of RC life. As far as I can tell, the closer you get to real working Bishops, priests and parish life, the worse it gets?

Or am I BSing, since, in truth, I don't have much direct experience of the real lived experience of RC parish life.

I think the RCC is seriously wrong, even wicked, in a number of very serious respects. But they're gigantic, full of saintly people, and not going away anytime soon, and so bringing change will be impossible if driven by anger. I try to be dispassionate about it. Trying to conquer and defeat them by (intellectual) force probably won't work and will probably lead me to being a worse person than I already am! (Even now, I'm not convinced I'm not being passive-agressive. Ha!)

Tag-photos said...

Oh blah blah blah....

It really does not make much difference since organized religion is dying a slow painful death. As literacy, access to information, and education increase religion dies.

Since Al Gore invented the internet access to information is at all time high (albeit not always reliable), and just hastening the death of all religion.

Sorry, just wanted to chime in even though I really don't have anything productive to say :)

Also Kane, glad to see your blog still going strong and even more pumped about your spiritual growth.

Have fun and continue your interweb squabble :)

Edward said...


I wonder if that's true? If you look into it, I think you'll find the adequacy of the "secularization thesis" is very much up for debate in the world of mainstream sociology of religion. The key question: who is the outlier, America or Europe? The global south is modernizing, and they are exploding with religion. Or is a post-revival burnout coming fast?

Then again, what rightly counts as the religious or the secular? Depending on how we define these, Dan Dennett might come out as 'religious' and myself as 'secular'. I don't mean this in any trivial sense -- as matter of fact, very serious philosophical/theological moves have to be made if we are to make any real sense of talk about the religious and the secular. These very serious philosophical/theological movies are not optional.

Gregory said...

Kane, I'm done.

I might comment more fully on my being done after I've rested up and gone to Confession. The simple fact is, I am incapable of continuing this or any discussion with you for the time being.

Tag-photos said...

Ed.. I base those claims on an article I read a long time ago about beliefs in creation.

Seems like the numbers of people that believe in creationism is falling sharply in Canada and Europe.

United States seems to be a bit behind. While more people are believing in evolution and less in creationism, the decline of creationism is slower in United States.

Just give it time. Organized religion as we now know it will fade away like alchemists and their four elements.

Kane said...


That's unfortunate. I was looking forward to some sporting debate with you. I'm sorry the pressure was so upsetting to you that you feel it was leading you into sin.

I look forward to your return, and a renewed mind for debate.

I realise, so you know, that I am a cynical person, and that you have a hard time with that. I also know that you probably feel sad, maybe even angry at me for inviting you to a polemical joust that you naturally hold in personal regard. Nevertheless, I don't hold Catholicism sacred, and thus the reason for inviting you: to hash-out some classic tensions between those that hold Catholicism in high-regard (you), and those that don't (me).

Take care for now.

Edward said...


So much depends on what you mean by "creationism".

Here's a rule of thumb: if a leading light of the fundamentalist movement agrees with it, then it's compatible with "religion".

B.B. Warfield was a leading light in the northeastern intellectual (as opposed to the backwater southern cultural) fundamentalist movement, and he thought evolution was perfectly compatible with the doctrine of creation.

Kane said...

Tag, Edward:

On the issue of rise and decline in faith issues in the world, what do you think of A.C. Grayling's article Faith's Last Gasp?

At points, I find his summation on the dying breath of faith oversimplified (perhaps the fallacy of hasty generalization). I simply don't believe that demographic poling can accurately gauge the mindset of an entire country with any precision. Statistics, as any student of logic knows, are highly erroneous, and the bedfellow of marketting.

That being said, however, I think Grayling has a point when he mentions this:

"The historical precedent of the counter-Reformation is instructive. For over a century after Luther nailed his theses to Wittenberg’s church door, Europe was engulfed in ferocious religious strife, because the church was losing its hitherto hegemonic grip and had no intention of doing so without a fight. Millions died, and Catholicism won some battles even as it lost the war. We are witnessing a repeat today, this time with Islamism resisting the encroachment of a way of life that threatens it, and as other religious groups join them in a (strictly temporary, given the exclusivity of faith) alliance for the cause of religion in general."

Do you have any thoughts on Grayling's observations?

Edward said...

Quote: "Europe was engulfed in ferocious religious strife, because the church was losing its hitherto hegemonic grip and had no intention of doing so without a fight."

I say it's anachronistic to name early-modern Europe's "wars of religion" as "religious" wars. The key actor in this conflict was the modern nation state, no? Sure, the rhetoric was undoubtedly "religious" (in the Christendom sense), but how naive do you have to be to take all that at face value? Please!

Napoleon and the various Marxist revolutionary movements were undoubtedly irreligious (in the Christendom sense), and as a matter of historical fact they slaughtered far more people, no?

What Napoleon, the Islamists, the Marxists, the would-be-imperial modern nation states, and the superficial "religious" rhetoric of early-modern Europe's "wars of religion" all share in common is a false eschatology. They all err in their theology -- even the "irreligious" (in the Christendom sense) amongst them.

As I've been hinting at here, this discussion typically proceeds as if we're perfectly clear about what counts as "religion" or the "religious". I'd like to call that into question.

Still, reading between the lines, I'm pretty sure I'm on Grayling's side in terms of being worried about large groups of people with dangerous eschatological ambitions.

I suppose he thinks these sorts of dangerous eschatologies JUST ARE religion -- or are the purest kind of religion. But I say this displays that he's a bad theologian. (Yes, of course he doesn't think he's a theologian, but he's making all these substantive theological moves whether or not he's aware of it.)

Kane said...

"I say it's anachronistic to name early-modern Europe's "wars of religion" as "religious" wars. The key actor in this conflict was the modern nation state, no? Sure, the rhetoric was undoubtedly "religious" (in the Christendom sense), but how naive do you have to be to take all that at face value? Please!"

If you're right, Edward, then I can agree with you that Grayling is naive on this point. However, I take an especial enjoyment of the Reformation period as an historical study (being as I was a Lutheran minister, and this was a large component of my seminary studies that I happened to really enjoy), and understand the nation-states of the time to have been explicitly religious. There was no separation between church and state, and most churches were state churches. Hence the key actor in these conflicts, while being the nation-state, was also the religious factions of the time. For example, the German electorates during the Reformation were divided between who was Catholic and who was Protestant. They thought, talked, politicked, and levied critical decisions for the general populace along religio-political lines.

Far from being 'rhetoric', these nation-states were deeply invested in their religious views and were motivated to fight because of them moreso than because of purely political charges.

Still, I would like to read more of your thoughts on this issue. For now, I'm not sure that Grayling is wrong for making the statement that he did so much as too quick in making it; perhaps not overly clear because of his hastiness.

Would you mind explaining more of your thoughts on this?

Edward said...

Here's a historical claim that I can't defend in any helpful way, but which I think is pretty obvious: magically subtract Christian ecclesial disputes from that era and the wars of religion would have still happened.

Of course Christian leaders completely blew it, and they've no excuse for blowing it.

Here's how I'd characterize the problem: it's not that the state was too "churchly", it's that the church was too "stately".

Let's go ahead and slap church leaders for this. But the state remains, and the state is still too "stately".

Modern nation states still (typically?) have eschatological ambitions to inaugurate "the kingdom" with violence; their mission is to capture and rule a tract of land. The church's mission is manifestly nothing like this.

I suspect Grayling thinks of "RELIGION" as all ghosts and magic and so he's completely blind to the dangerous eschatological "RELIGION" that animates the modern "SECULAR" nation states. He thinks he simply follows REASON and has left behind FAITH. But I say the very conceptual frame work at play here is grossly inadequate. I won't play by its rules.

After Christendom, and we are after Christendom, the terms REASON and FAITH have really lost sensible meanings.

Kane said...


It's taken me a while to get back to this. I apologise for that. "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans," as John Lennon once quipped.

In any case, I'm fairly certain that Grayling, being the prodigious learner that he is, is most likely not unaware of dangerous escatological religions that animate nation-states. I can't confirm that to you in any absolute way, but must simply disagree that that is the case until I know otherwise.

In fact, I think he is highly aware of that reality, and abhors it quite vehemently. At the very least, he is keenly aware of religious involvement in most political affairs.

"Modern nation states still (typically?) have eschatological ambitions to inaugurate "the kingdom" with violence; their mission is to capture and rule a tract of land. The church's mission is manifestly nothing like this."

Yes, history is filled with stories of imperialism. Modern democratic nations (i.e., USA) continue to be imperialist-minded, though the focus is more economic than flag-driven. However, I fail to see how this is not the case for the Church.

How does one suggest that Extra ecclesium nulla salus is not almost explicitly a religious imperialism? One could make the case for the 'Church' being all who believe in Christ, no matter their ecclesial tradition. But that is simply not the trajectory intended for the "one true church" of Roman Catholicism. Their own doctrinal statements bear this out when they suggest that other people of other faith communities are deficient in the faith (CCC, 818), are the separated brethren (see, Sec. 3), and are schismatics (knowingly or not) that are morally bound to returning to Holy Mother Church. Any community disagreeing with the RCC stance on this issue is ipso facto wrong, and in need of correction and re-unification. I see that as religious imperialism: going into other faith-traditions and trying to stake the flag of Roman Catholicism despite protestation. More than that, however, I agree with Christopher Hitchens that it is intellectual and spiritual tyranny.

If that be the case for at least Roman Catholicism, how is the church's mission "manifestly nothing like" the modern nation-state's?

Edward said...

Quote: "In any case, I'm fairly certain that Grayling, being the prodigious learner that he is, is most likely not unaware of dangerous escatological religions that animate nation-states."

I'm talking about liberal democratic nation states. I'm pretty sure he thinks these function by "REASON rather FAITH" and so they're safe. Prodigious learning hasn't saved very many, including Grayling, from this mistake.

Quote: "However, I fail to see how this is not the case for the Church. "

The mission of the liberal democratic state is to rule a realm under a law. The mission of the Church is to preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments, make disciples, etc.

Quote: "Any community disagreeing with the RCC stance on this issue is ipso facto wrong, and in need of correction and re-unification. I see that as religious imperialism: going into other faith-traditions and trying to stake the flag of Roman Catholicism despite protestation. More than that, however, I agree with Christopher Hitchens that it is intellectual and spiritual tyranny."

I'm pretty tough minded about all this. I disagree with the RCC because I think it's claims here are false, not because they are rude or hurt my feelings or scare me.

And the Church is a *knowledge* tradition, not a faith tradition, as "faith tradition" is usually taken these days.

Suppose I have theory of digestion which entails that evolution is false. Isn't it plainly true that most everyone will think that my disagreeing with evolution on this issue means I'm ipso facto wrong?