On the Issue of Infallibility: An Absolute Value or Just an Honorific?

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

About Alura

I just do my thing.
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11 Responses to On the Issue of Infallibility: An Absolute Value or Just an Honorific?

  1. E.T. Ybarra says:

    I am a Catholic, and this article does not seem to represent the Catholic authority paradigm at all. It makes for a straw man that we think absolute certainty is a telos in and of itself, or that whichever achieves it holds good. Far from it, we know that all of this rests on faith and reason. It is faith, but not blind faith. What really makes for the preference to Catholicism is the historical veracity, not some intellectual experiment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alura says:

      Hi Mr. Ybarra,

      First, I am sorry that I have not yet replied to your first comment. I have not had the time to listen to your entire YouTube video yet. So far I find it quite interesting. In light of it, I would like to ask if you know Greek?

      As for the article itself, I think it is worth keeping in mind that I wrote this piece in response to Joe Heschmeyer at Shameless Popery, who as far as I could tell, treated infallibility exactly as I have characterized here. Most of the people commenting there also treated it the same way. He is the one who originally called the Orthodox propositions just as circular as the Protestant ones. My main goal here was to extend that characteristic to the Catholic conception of infallibility using mostly the same line of argument as Fr. Heschmeyer (I think he is a priest by now).

      I agree with you about the importance about the historical veracity. Obviously I think history does not back up Catholicism, but we do have common ground on the principle of the matter. I’ve been meaning to write more about infallibility or what makes an ecumenical council ecumenical for a couple of months now, which ties to this article somewhat. It would be more history-based than anything else. I have a rough draft in the works right now, I’m not sure if I will complete my other posts beforehand though. I hope that when I at last get around to putting the final touches on it that you will be around to read and respond to it.


      • E.T. Ybarra says:

        Interestingly, I studied the Greek language more as a Protestant. I am an amateur. Most of the Greek I know is NT Greek anyhow, since my studies were via Professor Robert Mounce. Today, I know less than I did then, that is for sure.

        And I might not agree with Joe on what he said, but here is what I can say: Eastern Orthodox, at least the most recent scholarship of both lay theologian and high Clergy, have denied any sort of institutional organ of supreme authority and doctrinal infallibility. Here I think of Fr Thomas Hopko, Fr. Laurent Cleenewerk, ArchBp Kallistos Ware, Fr John Meyendorff, David Dale, and countless others. Rather, one has to “discern the mind of the Church” on a given matter, and it often takes a long time of draw out test periods, debate, and ingestion by the “whole church”.

        Now, the Catholic paradigm might not offer the satisfaction of absolute and perfect certainty, such as you described (for the most we can obtain is moral certainty), but there is a drastic difference between the above principle of authority and the Catholic one. Catholics do believe there is an institutional organ of infallibility which can immediately be activated and can effectively produce known finalizations to questions, queries, disputes, etc,etc. Now, that is a principle we do accept by faith….and reason.

        Lastly, I would appreciate someone to speak on the issue of Councils from an Orthodox perspective.

        God bless you


  2. A shame you have stopped writing articles, you have made some real well-researched stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alura says:

      Thank you for the compliment. I know, I feel a little bad about it. I’ve been consumed with other research for many months now, and I haven’t had the time to write about some things that I’ve wanted to here. I started this blog when I was on break from school. Now that I’m back at my studies, I have a hard time pulling away from them to write here. I intend to keep writing here. I just don’t know when and how often I will be able to do so.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I enjoyed reading this article, as I think you make clear that in the end every belief system rests upon a presupposition, and there is nothing inherently better about the presuppositions that Catholicism employs vis a vis Eastern Orthodoxy, for example.

    In my reply to Joe (he’s not a priest yet), I made the point that his criticism of Protestantism was unjustified in that even though they lacked an infallible Canon, if we accept the infallibility of councils, certainly the Church as a whole did for centuries! So, what did Joe really prove when he claims that the Protestants are in an epistemological crisis because they do not have an infallible Canon? All he proves was that the WHOLE CHURCH was in an epistemological crisis for its earliest centuries.

    Obviously, Joe’s right and in being right undercuts the authority of all of Christianity at its earliest stages, or his argument is wrong and meaningless. I think the latter is self-evident. Sadly, people were to busy with insults that to seriously interact with the ramifications of Joe’s argumentation.

    Further, I put forward a very serious problem for all of those who believe in the infallibility of Councils–that the men who took part in the councils did not say that they were infallible! In fact, we get notable contemporaries like Saint Augustine in his second Book Against the Donatists saying that they were NOT infallible and that only the Scripture is. To say a religion has an infallible authority (here councils) when the very men who took part in them did not say they were infallible, and in fact, we have a specific case where one such Bishop from the same time period says that they were not, makes such a belief highly questionable.

    Of course, this was not intelligently responded to either.

    In the end, faith is faith. We do not have an objective basis. However, the question is, whose presuppositions are the most rational? Obviously, we cannot have self-contradicting presuppositions like Joe’s as then we would be openly accepting that we believe contradiction. Also, I think it is wise to have presuppositions that, at the very least, do not contradict what we know about our own belief system’s history. Because, if we do, then we must accept that the religion was in flux and this gives us no guarantee whether true religion continues to be in flux. Historical continuity, for this reason, must be necessary.

    Thank you for your time.

    God bless,

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cameron Davis says:

    A very nice reply! Thank you for taking the time to write this thoughtful piece.

    I do think that, at the root of it, the issue for Joe and other Catholics isn’t so much that the argument is ultimately circular, but that the Roman Catholic position makes it easier for them to figure out what exactly their church believes.

    On a tangential note, my most recent article is about how absurd it is to doubt what Descartes took to be the most obvious aspect of our being. Unfortunately, there are those in our world who are beginning to doubt this most obvious reality. They are, however, clearly mistaken.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed about the root of the issue.

      As for Descartes, I think it is somewhat shameful, from at least what I can see, that a large number of Christians scorn his work even his cogito argument. If anything, I think he did Western Christianity a huge favor. He broke with tradition and reaffirmed the classical notion of free will instead of Augustinian free will. Additionally, he helped to set the boundaries of rational inquiry thereby safeguarding what is or is not to be considered a genuine mystery. Instead, many seem to rather be infatuated with later Continental philosophers such as Heidegger or some other existentialist. It’s a tendency that I am not sure I fully understand.


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