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Thursday, May 6, 2021

What is the “Theory of Certitude”?

 When we last wrote on this subject (yesterday), we introduced (again) the “unhealthy, unkempt little bourgeois,” l’Abbé Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais, whom Charles Périn, a professor at the University of Louvain who appears to have been the first to define modernism in today’s Catholic sense, regarded as the first modernist. (Le Modernisme dans l’Église d’après les lettres inédites de Lamennais, Paris, 1881.)


We noted that de Lamennais’s error — the whole of modernism, in fact — is so subtle that many people who believe themselves to be completely, even militantly orthodox in Christian doctrine and philosophy, and even Jewish, Muslim and pagan thought, do not realize the profound error into which they have fallen, and why the Catholic Church labels modernism “the synthesis of all heresies.”

The chief error of modernism (and socialism, which is applied modernism), from which all other errors derive, and that make it the foundation of all heresies in any faith and philosophy, not just Christianity, is that it shifts sovereignty from the human person created by God, to an abstraction created by man.  What makes this so incredibly subtle is that modernists can be superficially orthodox Jews, Christians, Muslims and even pagans, but for the wrong reason!

Félicité de Lamannais being kempt


That is, instead of accepting an article of faith because it is taught by an accepted authority and is consistent with or does not contradict reason, the modernist of any faith or philosophy accepts it because it agrees with his opinion, which may or may not be consist with reason.  The modernist claims something is “true” because he believes it; he does not believe it because he accepts it as true.

Most simply stated, de Lamennais’s theory of certitude is that God vested the abstraction of humanity as a whole, not actual individual human persons, with the capacity to become more fully human, that is, virtuous.  That meant only society or the collective could be saved, and only by establishing and maintaining the Kingdom of God on Earth.  This would be a perfect society in which individuals are constrained by law to be virtuous.  Humanity as a whole, not individuals, is damned or redeemed, depending on whether it rejects or accepts the perfect social order, respectively.

"Small errors in the beginning lead to big errors in the end."


At the same time, de Lamennais accepted the Aristotelian-Thomist primacy of the intellect and thus an understanding of natural law as based on reason — but with a twist.  As he argued, because only humanity as a whole can become virtuous, and natural law is discerned by reason, only the collective, or humanity as a whole, can decide what constitutes right and wrong, or good and evil.  In this way, although it was not his intention, de Lamennais replaced the moral absolutes of the natural law discerned by objective reason, with popular opinion determined by subjective faith.

To fit his theory of certitude into a Catholic framework, de Lamennais greatly exaggerated the concept of infallibility, applying it to the pope’s temporal power as well as to his spiritual authority.  In so doing, de Lamennais confused that which is human, with what is divine, inverting the natural and the supernatural orders.

"Don't confuse what is natural with what is supernatural."

This was a fatal error, as Fulton Sheen noted in God and Intelligence.  (Again, Sheen was analyzing the error, and did not mention de Lamennais.)  To explain, in Catholic belief, the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ is both divine and human.  This makes perfect sense in Catholicism, for Catholics believe the Church’s Founder is Jesus, Who is both true God and true man.

Infallible in faith and morals, not reason and science.


As a human institution, the Church is organized and run by imperfect people, especially the pope.  Like all other ordinary human beings, the pope can make mistakes in purely human matters such as science — including philosophy, theology and economics — but also Church discipline, policy, administration and governance.

Of course, to reconcile socialism and Catholic teaching, some socialists have contended that economics is not a true science.  It can therefore be based on faith instead of reason.  This ignores the primacy of the intellect, which requires that even though faith is above reason, it cannot contradict reason.

Pope Pius IX: Don't exaggerate infallibility.


At the same time, the Church is a divine institution constantly guided and animated by the Holy Spirit.  Catholics believe that this guidance extends to the pope in his capacity as the Vicar of Christ on Earth.  As a result, the pope is held to teach infallibly when, with the intention of doing so, he speaks definitively on purely spiritual matters — faith and morals (which includes the general norms of natural law) — that have always been believed.

Properly understood, then, “papal infallibility” — or, more correctly, “the infallibility of the teaching office of the pope” — is a sort of certification process.  By means of his infallible teaching office, the pope can declare that something the Church has always taught as true but that people may have discussed, interpreted in different ways, or even doubted, is no longer to be questioned.

It's common sense to rely on faith and reason.


By claiming that the intellect (reason) resides in humanity as a whole instead of in individual human beings, however, de Lamennais inserted the need for an infallible interpreter in matters pertaining to the intellect as well as to faith and morals.  Being unable to reason out such things for themselves — so de Lamennais argued — people have to be told right from wrong by some infallible authority.  This authority, so he claimed, is the pope, the final, indeed only arbiter of everything concerning both faith and reason.

G.K. Chesterton appears to have been aware of these implications of de Lamennais’s theory of certitude.  In his book on Saint Thomas Aquinas, he recounted the true relations between faith and reason and the debate between Aquinas and Siger of Brabant in terms that apply equally to the conflict between Gregory XVI and de Lamennais.  (See G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”.  New York: Image Books, 1956, 91-96, 126.)

The theory of certitude is the essence of modernism, and the reason Périn called de Lamennais the first modernist.  It is why socialism and modernism necessarily go together.  Truth changes from what can be proved by reason (logical argument or empirical evidence), to faith, or (more accurately), one’s personal opinion as to the meaning of something, usually the statements of some authority one has decided to accept . . . on one’s own terms.

And that caused a few other problems, as we will see in the next posting on this subject.