"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Authoritativeness and Truth

People who follow my scribblings know that I put great emphasis on authority in religion. I believe my view to be no different from Cardinal Newman's and, for that matter, St. Thomas Aquinas'. I want to distinguish said view from that expressed by an assertion made by an online ally of mine, Professor Scott Carson.

He says: "A teaching can only be authoritative if it is true, and we demand assent to authoritative teachings not because of the office of the person promulgating the teaching but because of the truth of the teaching." Since that point is made in the context of a long, complex post written in response to a challenge from a young Protestant student of philosophy, Shane Wilkins, I thought at first that I could be misunderstanding it by taking it out of context. But Scott makes the same point in passing within a comment at another blog: "One of the mistakes Shane made was to equivocate on what 'authoritative' means. He seems to have thought that it means something like 'lord it over us', but it doesn't. It just means to be free from error." While I do find some truth in Scott's view, I don't think it altogether captures the truth that needs to be emphasized.

The truth in it can be tentatively expressed as follows:

(1) A given Church teaching T is authoritative only if it is true.

Hence no false teaching can be authoritative. But I take it that the kind of authoritativeness being invoked here is that of infallibility: (1) follows from the general teaching that the Church speaks infallibly when T satisfies one or more conditions for infallibility. At any rate, no other sense of 'authoritative' would allow a Catholic to assert (1) with complete confidence. And so for clarity's sake, I shall call a teaching that is authoritative in that sense 'authoritative1", and recast (1) thus:

(1*) If a given Church teaching T is authoritative1, then it is true.

Indeed, the interest of the definitive teachings on infallibility, which were made more explicit than before at Vatican I and Vatican II, is that they assure the faithful that teachings which are authoritative1 are true. To be sure, not all authoritative teachings count or are even presented as infallible: there is a lesser degree of "authoritativeness" to consider, and I shall use Scott's own example of it shortly. For now, however, we should say that when the pope and/or the college of bishops present T for our assent, in a manner satisfying one or more of the relevant conditions on infallibility, they are not "lording it over" us; still less are they asking us to believe they are smarter or holier than all other members of the Church. By the power of the Holy Spirit and not by their own merits, they are serving us, the Church, by handing on the deposit of faith unsullied by error in the relevant respect. Thus do they propose something to which we may and should confidently assent, going on to use a secure premise for further reflection and prayer.

With that in mind, I believe that Scott has missed something important in the concept of authoritativeness in Catholic doctrine. Consider that, from (1*), it does not follow that

(2) If T is true, then it is authoritative1.

Indeed that proposition is false, as illustrated by many examples, one of which Scott himself supplies for a different albeit related purpose. Thus:

The Church does not say that capital punishment is per se wrong, but beginning with John Paul II the popes have argued that it is never necessary, and that it ought to be avoided. That "ought to" represents a private judgment that there are "better" ways to punish capital criminals than by killing them. That may, as a matter of fact, be true, and I believe that it is true, but others disagree with me, and they are not acting viciously simply by virtue of the fact that they are disagreeing with two Popes as well as with an armchair pontiff like me.

That is quite correct. The Church does teach authoritatively about capital punishment; thus, and despite what some trads say, the teaching that capital punishment is justified only when necessary to protect society from the offender is authoritative1. But it simply cannot be said that Catholics are bound to accept as infallible, and thus as true, the judgment of the present and the previous pope that capital punishment is in fact "rarely if ever necessary" in today's world. It is indeed the case that said judgment is conveyed to us with a certain degree of papal authority; in that sense, it is "authoritative." And I shall suppose arguendo that it is even true. But it does not, indeed cannot, satisfy the conditions on infallibility; for the question under what particular conditions the death penalty is or is not "necessary" is irreducibly prudential, and thus cannot belong to the deposit of faith. Hence it cannot bind Catholics in the sense of requiring the assent of faith. It does not and cannot count as an "infallible" teaching, and thus is not authoritative in the binding, relevant sense of 'authoritative', i.e. authoritative1—even granting its truth. Thus it should not be be claimed that

(3) A given teaching T is authoritative just in case it is true

even if, by 'authoritative', one means 'authoritative1'.

And so the question now arises whether, when a given teaching T is authoritative1, that degree of authority is relevant to ascertaining the truth of T. In other words, granted that T's being backed by that kind of authority does not make T true, is T's being backed by that kind of authority what enables the faithful to be sure it's true? I should say yes, at least in some cases. Consider what Vatican II said:

...the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (Dei Verbum §10).

Now if Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium stand or fall together, then a given teaching T's being proposed by the Magisterium is, at least in some cases, necessary for us to ascertain a truth of faith or morals. For if, in each and every case, we could be certain of T's truth independently of its being authoritative1, and thus propounded by the Magisterium, then there would be no point in T's being propounded by the Church with that degree of authority, and the only purpose of the Magisterium would be to give a standard form to beliefs that can and ought to elicit the assent of faith without the Magisterium. Accordingly, it's not as though we know certain teachings to be authoritative1 because we know, independently of the Magisterium, that they are true; we know they are true partly because the Magisterium teaches them in such wise as to render them authoritative1. That is exactly why Catholics can and ought to affirm (1*).

And so I must disagree with Scott when he claims, without qualification, that our accepting certain teachings as authoritative has to do only with their truth, not with the office of the person or persons propounding them. In at least some cases, we recognize the truth of a teaching partly on account of the authority propounding it, in this the case the Magisterium. Otherwise the Magisterium would be superfluous, at least for the purpose the Church has in mind. I doubt Scott would disagree.
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