A little over a week ago, Joe Heschmeyer over at Shameless Popery published a blog post attacking the so-called epistemic problems of both Protestantism and Orthodoxy. In short, Father Heschmeyer argues that Protestantism and Orthodoxy cannot with absolute certainty define what is or what isn’t infallible. It is a convincing argument insofar that he is correct that both Protestantism and Orthodoxy cannot indeed define absolutely what is or is not infallible. However, Father Heschmeyer is wrong to think that this problem doesn’t plague Catholicism either. Heschmeyer implicitly makes an argument against Catholicism itself all the while severely misunderstanding what infallibility implies.
What Really Is Infallible?
Whatever is truly infallible cannot feasibly be falsified within human reasoning. It was Blaise Pascal who once said “We have an incapacity for proving anything which no amount of dogmatism can overcome. We have an idea of truth which no amount of skepticism can overcome (Pensées, Fragment 406 Louise Lafuma edition).” The question then becomes, what is it that no amount of skepticism can overcome? This was a question undertaken by none other than René Descartes in the seventeenth century in his famous cogito argument:
Non posse a nobis dubitari, quin existamus dum dubitamus; atque hoc esse primum, quod ordine philosophando cognoscimus. … Repugnat enim, ut putemus id quod cogitat, eo ipso tempore quo cogitat, non existere. … Ego cogito, ergo sum. Est omnium prima et certissima, quae cuilibet ordine philosophanti occurrat.
Stuff that is not able to be doubted by us, while we doubt that we exist; and that this is the prime [thing], that we think of for philosophizing in order. … In fact, one rejects that we might believe that whatever thinks does not exist while at the same time it itself thinks. And therefore [I know] this knowledge: I think therefore, I am. It is the first and most certain of everything, which occurs in proper philosophizing.
– René Descartes, Principia philosophiae, 1.007
No amount of skepticism can overcome this basic fact highlighted by Descartes (and earlier Augustine). It is indubitable, even if it is an illusion. Therefore, it is the only infallible fact. Every other belief is to one extent or another an act of faith. So for the Heschmeyer to claim that the Catholic Church possesses infallibility cannot possibly hold up to basic scrutiny. For example, tomorrow archaeologists may find the body of Jesus of Nazareth, and thereby disprove the entirety of Christianity. This possibility is feasible, although I myself in faith do not believe that it will happen. Ultimately, claims of infallibility boil down to simple power projections in an effort to be taken seriously. They cannot, with the exception of one case, be infallible in an absolute sense.
Allowances for Presuppositions
Tossing aside the tool of extreme skepticism for a second, I will allow some basic presuppositions for Heschmeyer for the sake of argument. These presuppositions are the following: 1.) God exists; 2.) there is a Holy Spirit; 3.) there is a tradition; and 4.) there is a revealed scripture. Catholic claims of infallibility necessarily bypass the need for rational argument. For sure, things that are declared infallible are only done so after rigorous debate. But once they are declared infallible, one has to accept the conclusions and not find fault with the argument. Otherwise, they must leave the church. My question, however, is this: Since all four of these are true, why then would anyone feel the need to skip the steps of argument to arrive at the conclusion of a synod or ecumenical council’s arguments? It is one thing to read the conclusion and thesis. But it is quite another thing to say that the conclusion and thesis are justified in their own right, which is exactly what Catholic claims for infallibility ultimately boil down to. Yet, nevertheless, by the very virtue of the creation of these conclusions and theses from papal proclamations and ecumenical councils, such a position is wholly irrational. Simply put, theological truths are only purported to be infallible out of respect, not because they positively are. Something is only honorifically called infallible due to the merits of the argument. If someone wants to claim that a purported infallible truth is in fact incorrect, they are more than welcome to do so. However, it will likely be at the cost of unity with their present institutional affiliation.
Heschmeyer’s Circular Argument
One final flaw of Heschmeyer’s case is that his argument for Catholicism’s infallible claims is just as circular as any Protestant’s or Orthodox believer’s claims. Heschmeyer writes, “The reality: Without papal infallibility, there’s no way to know for sure which Ecumenical Councils are Ecumenical Councils, or why.” Cannot the same be said for Catholicism? Under Catholic logic, the pope declares a council to be infallible. On what basis does the pope have this power? Catholics will inevitably point to Matthew 16:18-19, which I have discussed in another post, but isn’t that particular interpretation of Matthew sanctioned and declared infallible by the papacy itself? This is hardly objective and is most certainly circular.
After so much deconstruction of the claims of infallibility, I must then ask myself, why would I prefer the circular arguments of Catholicism to the circular arguments of Orthodoxy or even Protestantism? A Catholic might argue that although their claims to infallibility are circular, at least they are more clear and concise than the circular arguments of either Orthodoxy or Protestantism. This much I will grant them. However, what exactly are the benefits for this clear and concise circular argument? Generally, a Catholic would argue that their arguments afford them unity and proper order. I highly doubt such claims. If Catholic claims are to be taken seriously and to be given historical credence, then how do they explain the rise of Arianism, Manichaeism (including all of the dualistic Christian heresies), Nestorianism, Oriental Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, Calvinism, Lutheranism, Old Catholicism, Sedevacantism, Iconoclasm, Anglicanism, Donatism, Adoptionism, Waldensianism, Lollardism, Jansenism, Gallicanism, Santería, Monothelitism, etc.? The list of direct splits goes on and on. It seems to me at least that Catholics have just as much of a problem keeping proper order and unity as any other church does. In the end, all that I am left with is the ability to content myself with the prayer, the grace of God, and with what Galileo Galilei once wisely said when concerning the merits of arguments:
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
– Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina