Monday, June 4, 2012

Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Justice, II: Understanding Infallibility

In the previous posting in this series we took a look at the different types of apprehending reality, and the difference between opinion and knowledge. We then (at least for our purposes) put to rest the tired accusation that faith and reason are somehow in conflict simply because you cannot prove or disprove the tenets of one in terms of the other. Both reason and faith — science and religion — are (given adherence to logic) equally true, and true in the same way, as everything else that is true. The principles of one do not necessarily apply to the other, but that does not change their objective truth.

Faith and reason, while they can illuminate each other, are two different areas of knowing. While adherents of a particular religion necessarily accept articles of faith as true, those outside that frame of reference just as necessarily regard them as matters of opinion because they do not accept the fundamental principles as true. An adherent of a particular religion may, through God's grace, have true and certain knowledge of an article of faith, while at the same time that knowledge must be regarded by those outside that frame of reference as opinion because the two systems do not share the same principles.

This does not render articles of faith any less true, of course, but it does mean that you cannot use faith to prove matters of reason, nor reason to prove the principles on which articles of faith are based. The problem is convincing sincere but unthoughtful religious people that, however firm their faith and how well they justify their position on religious principles, the fervor of their convictions does not prove or disprove anything in the realm of science. Similarly, sincere but unthoughtful scientific people cannot declare religion false simply because they cannot put God or Revelation into a test tube and subject Him or it to scientific analysis.

The reason for going into this somewhat esoteric area is that the social teachings of the Catholic Church are often presented in documents called "encyclicals." "Encyclical" is from the Greek for "circular letter," meaning a letter meant to be circulated or sent around.

From the contemporary perspective, encyclicals are unusual documents, to say the least. They contain matters relating to both faith and moral philosophy, that is, reason. They detail certain principles of faith and reason, and then usually some applications of these principles. This causes massive confusion among both Catholics and non-Catholics who have failed to distinguish between opinion and knowledge, and faith and reason.

The first area of confusion comes from the doctrine of "infallibility." Very briefly stated, the doctrine of infallibility is that what the pope teaches in matters of faith and morals is infallibly true — you can, indeed must accept it as true as an article of faith if you wish to be a Catholic. This is logical if you accept that the pope is God's personal choice (through the Holy Spirit inspiring the College of Cardinals to select the right individual), and is necessarily protected from teaching error if he is to do his job to God's satisfaction.

This is the first hurdle. IF you accept the pope as the successor of St. Peter, head of the Universal ("Catholic") Church established by Christ while physically present here on earth, then you necessarily accept what the pope says in the area of faith and morals to be infallibly true.

This brings in the second hurdle. Even many Catholics believe that the doctrine of infallibility means that something is true because the pope says it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The correct — and rational — understanding of the doctrine of infallibility is not that something is true because the pope said so, but that the pope said so because it is true. Infallibility is protection against error in discerning truth in the areas of faith and morals, not a protection against making a mistake in some other matter.

A third hurdle is, while Catholics believe the Holy Spirit grants the pope a special power to discern truth in the area of faith or morals, that power does not extend to how we discern what the pope says, or even how the pope says it. We can misinterpret the pope's words, especially in translation, itself an interpretation, particularly if they happen to come into conflict with some deeply held prejudice or opinion of our own. We will naturally understand the pope's teaching in terms of our chosen framework, rather than take the proper course and try to understand our chosen framework in terms of the pope's teaching.

The Holy Spirit does not guard the pope against misspeaking or using the wrong words to convey what is infallibly true. Nor does infallibility guarantee that the pope cannot commit a purely human mistake and sign off on a document prepared by someone else containing errors that he missed, or passages inserted without his knowledge or consent after his review. None of this changes the infallibility of a truth the pope attempts to convey, however red faces might become as a result.

A fourth hurdle is that, while the pope teaches infallibly on matters of faith and morals, he can err in applying those same principles, regardless of their objective truth. The pope is infallible when teaching the substance, that is, the principles. He is not impeccable when, as a human being as fallible as the rest of us in practice, he applies those same principles. Some of the popes, for example, have been very bad or ignorant men indeed — but it has never been shown, however bad their faith, morals or science, they ever taught error in the area of faith or morals.

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