THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Reason and Infallibility

In the previous posting on this subject, we went into the various ways that popes prior to Leo XIII and Rerum Novarum tried to counter socialism and moral relativism.  The bottom line here, of course, is that trying to educate people in sound philosophy and democratic political principles wasn’t going anywhere without the personal power in the hands of ordinary people who remained at the mercy of those who controlled property and thus political and economic power.  When someone controls how you are allowed to live, they soon make great inroads into how you think or believe.


Still, efforts to go against the tide of moral relativism and socialism continued, especially from Pius IX, who despite the way he is remembered today, was highly regarded in many circles both inside and outside the Catholic Church.  This was especially so after Sardinia conquered the Papal States, which put an end to efforts to establish a form of liberal democracy on the American model.

What Italy got instead was an authoritarian (albeit officially democratic) constitutional monarchy really headed by whoever happened to be prime minister, eventually leading up to Mussolini’s twenty years in power.  Often the only real opposition to Italian proto-fascism (and then the real thing) was the pope . . . which meant that proponents of absolutist state power saw him as an obstruction to progress and non-American forms of liberal democracy, and — no surprise — branded whoever happened to be in office as a reactionary.

De Lamennais's theory of certitude again.


Consequently, what turned out to be what may have been Pius IX’s greatest achievement in the area of social teaching was calling of the First Vatican Council in an effort to settle the question of the new things of socialism and moral relativism definitively and dogmatically.  Although their work was cut short by the withdrawal of French troops protecting Rome for service against Prussia and the subsequent final conquest of Italy by Sardinia, the Council Fathers promulgated two key definitions that utterly destroyed any intellectual or religious justification for de Lamennais’s theory of certitude.  These were, one, the Primacy of the Intellect, and two, the Infallibility of the Teaching Office of the Roman Pontiff.

We’ve discussed papal infallibility previously on this blog.  It is only necessary to repeat that, where de Lamennais insisted that the pope’s power to teach authoritatively extended to science and reason, the Council’s definition limited infallibility to faith and morals, and then only under certain conditions.


John Henry Newman

A number of orthodox commentators, notably John Henry Newman, were concerned that the Council Fathers intended to expand infallibility in a misguided effort to counter the new things more effectively, but soon realized their fears were groundless.  Newman had explicitly repudiated an exaggerated interpretation of papal infallibility in Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870).

The Grammar had its origin in Newman’s efforts during the late 1850s and early 1860s to argue a middle way between those like de Lamennais, who based everything on faith even when it contradicted reason, and those such as his friend William Froude (1810-1879), who rejected faith and believed that theological conclusions reached by human reason were uncertain. Wilfred Ward, Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1913, II.307; Alejandro Sada Mier y Terán, “The Legitimacy of Certitude in Newman’s Grammar of Assent,” Yearbook of the Irish Philosophical Society, 2014/15, Angelo Bottone, editor. Maynooth, Éire: Irish Philosophical Society, 2015, 49-63.

Fulton J. Sheen


At the heart of opposition to the new things, and thus the foundation of Catholic social teaching was the definition of the Primacy of the Intellect.  This was essential, as de Lamennais and all subsequent modernists made a special point of denigrating or attacking human reason and asserting the primacy of faith alone.  That is why Dr. Ralph McInerny of the University of Notre Dame declared that fideism, a form of moral relativism, is the single greatest danger to the Catholic Church today. (Ralph M. McInerny, Miracles: A Catholic View. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1986, 22.)

As Fulton Sheen pointed out in God and Intelligence, his doctoral thesis, Aquinas developed his entire philosophy of common sense on the first principle of reason, stated negatively as nothing can both “be” and “not be” at the same time under the same conditions, and positively as that which is true is as true, and is true in the same way as everything else that is true.  Within a Thomist framework, then, it is impossible that a faith-based truth can contradict reason, or that a reason-based truth can contradict faith.

Pope Pius IX


The true sense of the Primacy of the Intellect is not that either reason or faith is necessarily false if an apparent contradiction appears, but that a true understanding of either faith or reason must be achieved by applying the human intellect to the question to discern the truth.  If there seems to be a contradiction, it must be resolved, not merely dismissed by asserting the superiority of faith over reason or vice versa.

While faith is “above” reason, and applies to that which cannot be proved by reason, nothing held by faith can contradict that which has been proved by reason.  Reason therefore has a primacy over faith in the sense that it comes first, not that it is somehow greater or true when faith is false.  As the Council Fathers declared,

If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema. (Vatican I, Canon 2.1.)

Pope Leo XIII

This was repeated in the first article of the Oath Against Modernism and again in § 2 of Humani Generis, as well as implied in encyclicals and other documents dealing with the problem of moral relativism.  Pius IX did not, therefore, abandon Gregory XVI’s reliance on scholastic philosophy, especially that of Aquinas, in trying to counter the new things.  Instead, he added an attempt to reform political institutions so that the intellectual and spiritual sovereignty of the human person — both rejected by de Lamennais and other socialists — could be fostered in a suitable civil environment.

There remained, however, a fatal omission from papal efforts against modernism and socialism: a sound economic program that would empower every human being with direct ownership of both labor and capital.  This was essential for at least three reasons.  One, power follows property.  If people are to lead virtuous lives, they must have the power to act virtuously, and build habits of doing good.

Two, political democracy cannot be sustained without economic democracy.  A free people must actually be free, and that means free of dependency on the government or a private employer, which the wage and welfare system mandate.

Three, capitalism and socialism both deprive ordinary people of private property in capital.  Capitalism does this by asserting that something other than mere humanity is needed to be an owner even if private property is recognized as a natural right, while socialism asserts that real ownership resides in the collective or humanity as a whole.  Even those forms of socialism that allow private ownership only do so as an expedient that can be revoked.  It is not considered a natural right.

It was not until Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum in 1891, however, that a specific program was proposed to present an alternative to socialism, and even then it left something out, as we will see in the next posting on this subject.