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

Friday, October 05, 2007

Submission and faith

Yesterday I was somewhat critical of Prof. Scott Carson's reply to a young Protestant, Shane Wilkins, who rejects the Catholic conception of religious authority. Scott has graciously replied to the effect that there is no genuine disagreement between him and me on the point in question; to forestall reader distraction here, I shall take that up with him in his own combox. In the meantime, Shane's post at his blog Scholasticus is entitled "Is Submission to the Pope a Virtue?", and he apparently believes that Scott's reply to it misses the point. Thus, in a comment on my post of yesterday, Shane says:

To be clear, I never asserted the view which Carson attributes to me and which Dr. Liccione has now repeated. In my original post I distinguished two kinds of authority: first, the kind of authority earned by exertise {sic}; second, authority held ex officio.

I asserted that catholicism requires one to believe in the authority of the pope ex officio and Carson demurred. Now, if I'm reading this right, Dr. L, you are saying that I am the one who has the catholic position right. If that is the case, then I believe that my initial arguments against this position still stand.

Or at least I'm going to continue to believe that they stand until somebody actually shows me why they fail.

As I my previous post would suggest, I think Shane is justified in believing that Scott did not rebut his argument with sufficient precision. And so here I propose to show on my own account why Shane's arguments against the Catholic conception "fail." The exercise seems worthwhile not only because it would address the legitimate concerns of an intelligent student but also because, in so doing, it could clear up more general misconceptions about Catholic doctrine that others might have.

The main problem I have with Shane's post is the way he poses the question. Taking things from the top:

Virtues are those habits of characters which enable a human being to live well. This claim means that a just person’s justice is a habit by virtue of which he or she is a good person. Something is fulfilled in the just person that is lacking or deformed in the unjust one. The difficult task then is specifying a list of the virtues–which habits of character are those which enable us someone to live well? The most common way to set about elaborating this list of virtues, or investigating whether a particular concept deserves to be called a virtue, is to specify a moral psychology.

The question I’m asking is whether submission to authority as such is a virtue. I’m raising this question to investigate a common claim from catholic apologists that a catholic espouses a virtue of submission by not questioning the authority of the pope while the protestant is guilty of a vice of hubris, or somesuch, for failing to do the same.

The first paragraph of the above is unexceptionable, at least to me. It is Aristotelian in the way the moral psychology of St. Thomas Aquinas is Aristotelian. It is the second I have problems with.

Specifically, the question is ill-posed: it cannot be said either that submission to authority is a virtue or that it is not a virtue. To be sure, it is often virtuous to submit to authority when the authority is legitimate. The standard case of that is obedience to civil law. Such obedience is ordinarily virtuous, and can even be so when some particular exercise of such authority is unjust. E.g., even when a jury and/or judge render an unjust decision, prudence can dictate that the defendant submit to it; for given that such decisions are enforced by armed men who obey the judge, the price of fleeing or resisting such men is usually too high for prudence to warrant. But the civil law or its application can sometimes be so systematically and manifestly unjust that collective resistance can be consistent with prudence and even, in extreme circumstances, a duty. So the apposite question, which is whether submission to authority is virtuous or manifests virtue, can only be answered by "it depends." But there's a lot to consider in that 'depends'.

Beyond considerations of prudence, one should ponder what "submission" can mean in this or that context. Obedience to laws or judicial decisions one passionately disagrees with is a form of submission that can be and sometimes is virtuous, even though not always and necessarily so. But there are other kinds of authority; the kind Shane seems particularly concerned with is what I shall call epistemic authority, i.e. the authority people can acquire in virtue of knowing some field or craft well. What does it mean to "submit" to such authority, and when is that virtuous, if ever?

Clearly we "submit" to epistemic authority all the time in virtue of deferring to people socially recognized as "experts." As children we thus submit to our parents; as students, to our teachers; as patients, to doctors; and so on. Since such submission is, in general, prudent and sensible, it can be said to be ordinarily virtuous. But people who exercise standard forms of epistemic authority are not infallible, and not infrequently people who enjoy such authority in a particular area disagree with one another. Submission to such epistemic authority should always, therefore, be both provisional and compatible with our own best judgment about the reliability of the authority; opinions about the reliability of this or that epistemic authority can change and, in some cases, should change. All that, I take it, is uncontroversial. The most pertinent question, the one Shane seems most concerned with, is whether submission to religious authority is virtuous.

Shane makes some interesting distinctions by way of answering that question, some of which overlap with my own, and those distinctions implicitly recognize that "it depends." Yet the argument of his I want to focus on occurs as the last two-and-a-half paragraphs of his post:

Obviously submission is vicious only in those cases in which a person is supposed to have attained a level of maturity and independent judgment. At precisely this point many catholic apologists are willing to say that lay people cannot be reasonably expected to know or think about much of anything. I’ve also written before that a desire not to have to think for oneself is a bad reason to convert to catholicism. In other words, many catholic apologists (I deliberately avoid saying ‘the Catholic Church’) relegate the mass of humanity to a permanent infantilism which must can hope for nothing more than passively acquiescing to authority for authority’s own sake.

By contrast, I think that God wants (and perhaps even expects) us to grow in knowledge and love of him. In other words, each and every Christian is supposed to be growing towards a maturity in the faith that would allow him to make practical judgments about church teaching. Note that this does not lay on everyone’s shoulders the necessity to become a theologian because there is a difference between spiritual maturity (which is something like practical reasoning) and theological sophistication (which presupposes a theoretical discourse). One can be spiritually mature without a great deal of theology although perhaps a minimum amount is required. Likewise one can be theologically sophisticated and spiritually handicapped.

In other words, I see now that I was earlier too hard on Calvin and therefore I can adopt one of his statements as my own and say that vicious submission is not ‘faith’:

Bedecking the grossest ignorance with this term [sc. “faith”], they ruinously delude poor, miserable folk. Furthermore, to state truly and frankly the real fact of the matter, this fiction not only buries but utterly destroys true faith. Is this what believing means–to understand nothing provided only that you submit your feeling obediently to the church? Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge. (Institutes 3.2.2)

As is so often the case in religious disputes, that argument commits the fallacy of false dichotomy.

Shane is clearly assuming that submission to Church authority, as his unnamed "Catholic apologists" would have it, is incompatible with "maturity" and "independent judgment," thus relegating the Catholic laity to an "ignorance" that precludes growth "in knowledge and love" of God. You can be a Catholic, or you can grow in knowledge and love of God, but not both. Now to me, as a mature Catholic with a well-honed critical faculty, that seems just plain silly. I don't know any such apologists, and if I did I would consider them an embarassment. Indeed, one of Shane's recent posts quotes the late Elizabeth Anscombe, one of the best philosophers of the 20th century, who also happened to be quite an orthodox Catholic! He really ought to know better. Like me, I'm sure most of you have read and/or known lay Catholic intellectuals whose "maturity" and "independent judgment" are exemplary, who manifestly do grow in "knowledge and love" of God. So where is Shane getting his dichotomy from?

In the quotation from him I've made above, he links to an earlier post of his, which in turn contains a quotation from a Catholic "convert" he does not name:

“Why this greater joy? Because I do not have to be the judge in judgment of the Catholic Church, of the Scriptures, or even of myself. It’s not my job. Millions of people over a period of two thousand years have reflected on our holy faith, and struggled with it, some cases even given up their life for it. Shall I improve on their combined insight, as it is shared with us through the Magisterium? Shall I pit my few decades against millions and millon [sic] of man years? No!”

Shane seems to think that this person has given up the exercise of critical thought in matters of religion. That could be the case, but I rather doubt it. If that person means what I think they mean, I agree with them. They are not saying that they needn't think or judge anymore in matters of religion; they're saying that they needn't and shouldn't pit their own private judgment against the collective wisdom of the Church. And that is the only reasonable position to take once one has chosen, for whatever reasons, to become a Catholic. For if one has come to believe that the Catholic Church is what the Catholic Church claims to be, namely, the Mystical Body of Christ whose ordained leaders, the bishops and the pope, share in his authority as Head of that Body, then no other stance is reasonable.

Of course, the attitude of the true Catholic believer needn't and shouldn't entail abandoning critical thought. Within the ambit of orthodoxy, there remains much room for differing opinions in the Church; and no Catholic theologian has ever said that every papal or episcopal decision in matters of Church government must be accounted wise. As Chesterton put it: "Catholics agree about everything; they disagree about everything else." Theologically, for example, Catholics disagree about the defined dogma of extra ecclesiam nulla salus: some think it entails that each and every person must, before death, make an explicit act of faith in Christ and the Church in order to enter heaven, while others do not think the acceptance of saving grace always and necessarily entails such an act. Like most bishops, the present pope falls into the latter group; but he sees nothing heterodox about those in the former; the matter is treated as one of opinion, and probably always will be. In moral theology, the Pope permits fierce debate about the use of condoms by married couples for the purpose of preventing AIDS infection: some hold that such use is intrinsically and thus necessarily wrong; others, that it is imprudent and thus wrong only for the most part; still others, that it is actually obligatory in some cases. I don't know how he proposes to resolve that debate, or even whether he intends to do so at all. I could go on and on, for instance about the Iraq war or capital punishment. So there's lots of room for debate and disagreement. Where there is no legitimate room for disagreement is on questions pertaining to the deposit of faith where the Church has taught with her full authority; yet even so, there is a significant area of doctrine where theologians disagree about the criteria for determining just when the Church has spoken with her full authority. I have written extensively about such matters before (which reminds me to update the links on this blog).

Now if the Magisterium claimed the kind of epistemic authority I've already discussed, then Shane's impression would be understandable. But it is vital to remember that the Magisterium does not claim epistemic authority but rather charismatic authority. The pope and the bishops, who collectively bear and exercise the Magisterium, do not claim infallibility or even special wisdom in virtue of their own expertise; that's why I can and do consider my own grasp of theology better than that of some American bishops, and better than that of certain popes of the past. Although the present pope happens to be a distinguished theologian, he would still have the teaching authority of his office if he were but a diplomat or a simple pastor, as some popes have been. Of course, since it is necessary that bishops and popes in general have some understanding of theology in order to exercise their teaching office, it is prudent for the Church to see to it that some bishops and popes are professional theologians, and that has been usually been the case. But no particular bishop, including that of Rome, needs to be a theologian at all, much less a good one, in order to have and exercise the Magisterium. All they need to do is carry out the duties of their office by the grace of God. Only by said grace do their offices have spiritual efficacy; only by said grace are they protected from error when they teach with their full authority, which is that of the Church. As a Catholic, I believe that it is only by submission to that kind of authority that one can maintain the virtue of faith, which is itself a supernatural gift rather than an intellectual achievement. Shane would do well to read St. Thomas Aquinas on this point.

Not that I denigrate intellectual achievement. But it is significant that the Little Flower, not Mike Liccione, is a Doctor of the Church.
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