Rest in Peace, Mr. Nimoy.
Here is an intriguing remark from Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s work An Essay in aid of a Grammar of Assent:
[I]f it is the duty of the Church to act as “the pillar and ground of the Truth,” she is manifestly obliged from time to time, and to the end of time, to denounce opinions incompatible with that truth, whenever able and subtle minds in her communion venture to publish such opinions. (p. 149; emphasis added)
Surely if the Christian church is in fact the pillar and ground of the truth as St. Paul says, then it seems clear that a bare minimum of responsibility she bears is represented by what Newman says in the quotation. How can she be a pillar of the truth if she remains silent in the face of heresy? With Newman’s question in view this duty of the Church becomes a defense of the notions that she is also Catholic and Apostolic.
I think Newman shines a rather embarrassing light upon Protestantism here as well. How can Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Plymouth Brethren, Pentecostals, and who knows whom else be pillars of the truth when they do not even agree with each other? Christ is not divided, nor is the truth. The very fact that these communities disagree with each other undermines, it seems to me, their respective claims concerning the truth, and their position is made worse with respect to their standing as pillars of truth when they all deny their own infallibility: they are reduced to remarkably unstable “pillars” if they are more sure of their own fallibility than they are of the truth.
Newman’s words help us to see that we need the Church to stand as a pillar of truth, and that in order to so stand she must be infallible as well.
How can you possibly expect to remain always in the same state of virtue when the angels in heaven and the first man in paradise failed to do so? (The Imitation of Christ)
Speaking as a recovering perfectionist (if there can be such a thing; sometimes I wonder) this passage from the Imitation is a great reminder for those times when I am kicking myself in the pants for some self-perceived failing. Countless angels fell from virtue without the same handicaps that I suffer; Adam and Eve, blessed with the help of God’s grace, nevertheless willfully chose to disobey God.
I am no better than any of these. My circumstances are certainly no better than theirs were. On the contrary I suffer from a variety of infirmities (original sin not the least of the them) which make it a virtual miracle when I do remain in a state of virtue. Why then am I so hard on myself? Why do I have absurdly unrealistic expectations for myself, when I know (in principle at least) that I just am going to stumble from time to time? All I can say is, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” All I can pray is, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!” I need His grace every moment. I am not perfect; if anything, I am perfectly broken. I need the humility to admit to my own frailties while not excusing them. I need to be as patient with my flaws as I try to be with others’. I need the mercy and grace of God through Jesus Christ; thank God for the Bread of Heaven by which I am saved.
In this post my aim is to present a brief biblical defense of the doctrine of ecclesial infallibility. I do not intend to be particularly technical: what I mean for the purposes of this post by “the doctrine of ecclesial infallibility” is that Christ’s Church must exercise infallibility on some terms or other, under certain conditions or other. The necessity of this is inescapable based upon at least three passages of Scripture. There is no particular need for us to consider them one at a time, so let’s see what the Bible says.
Matthew 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Matthew 18:18: “In truth I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
John 20:23: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”
In the first of these passages, our Lord is speaking to St. Peter; in the other two he is speaking to all the apostles.
The initial thing we should notice is that all three of these passages contains a promise: Jesus promises something to them, and He does so unconditionally: “whatever you bind;” “anyone’s sins.” We must of course keep this fact in mind, but what is far more important (obviously) is what He promises. In effect, Jesus guarantees that He will honor what St. Peter binds or looses, and that He will honor what the apostles together bind or loose, and that He will forgive (or not) the sins of anyone that the apostles forgive (or not). Consider the enormity of this: God the Son is binding Himself to honor decisions made by His Church! This is no small thing; it is simply huge, and entails what can only be described as an authority granted to the Church that is eternal in its scope.
Now there is at least one question that must be asked: what if St. Peter and/or the apostles make a mistake, or what if they sin in the exercise of the authority the Lord has given to them? The answer to this question tells us why infallibility in some form is an essential attribute of Christ’s Church. For if they make a mistake in a decision subject to His promise, God has put Himself in the impossible position of confirming an error! Worse yet, if they sin in such a decision then He has made Himself complicit in their sin! What shall we say to this?
There is only one thing to be said: these are literally impossible circumstances. God does not err; God does not sin nor endorse evil. These facts being so, we are forced inexorably toward the only other tenable explanation: that is that God protects the leaders of His Church from error under at least some circumstances. I put it to you that no other reading of these passages does justice to what they say. And because this is the case, we must conclude that there are at least some conditions or circumstances of some sort in which the Church is protected by God from error, which is the same as saying that there are conditions under which the Church speaks with infallible authority.
Okay, so what conclusions may we draw from this obviously biblical fact? Well, among other things we must surely conclude that any ecclesial group which denies infallibility to Christ’s Church cannot itself be speaking with Christ’s authority. In short, it’s no more than someone’s opinion (one that happens to be erroneous) and we must ignore it (or refute it, as the case may be) as mistaken. Scripture gives us no other choice.
Obviously more could be said, but for the moment I will allow you, dear reader, to consider what other consequences might follow from what the Bible says about this subject.
There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark. (Tolkien)
Sometimes we face difficulties or duties whose outcome we dread. I know what I should do, or even sometimes that I must do it, but I hem and haw and delay and avoid it because I foresee an end that will be unpleasant to me in some way or other. As Gandalf says in The Fellowship of the Ring, though:
Even the very wise cannot see all ends.
We fear ends and outcomes that we think are likely or certain to follow if we do the right thing, or do our duty, and so we get cold feet. We stall. Or we go forward in fear and trembling. But the truth is that we really don’t know the future at all, and so we cannot be certain about outcomes. Heck, sometimes we start a job only to find later on that it is not our part even to finish the thing, so that the end (whatever it was or is or will be) is nothing at all to dread. And often the outcomes are much better than fear made them out to be in our heads and expectations.
The right thing to do is the right thing to do, and leave the outcomes to fend for themselves. God is for us, and He makes all things work out for good to those who love Him. Fear not, and go forward, even if you must tremble as you go.
A heartfelt THANK YOU to the gentleman with the snowplow who helped me clear my driveway this afternoon, so that our two cars could get out! Now that’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen (much, if at all) in big cities. Small towns have their advantages. Now I will be able to go to work tomorr- uh, well…every silver lining has a cloud :-)
Those who proclaim themselves to be the sole measure of realities and of truth cannot live peacefully in society with their fellow men and cooperate with them. (CSDC §142)
Truth is one because reality is one; a given proposition is true to the extent that it conforms to what is. Consequently when men differ over truth, they are differing over more than trifles. They find themselves at odds over the way the world really is.
Now how can two such men live together peacably in the long run? The splintering of societies and fellowships amply testifies to the difficulties of these disagreements.
This is why it is so important for Christians to agree about doctrine, and why our failure to do so has spawned the fractured Christianity of our day. If we cannot agree about the truth, we cannot agree about the way things really are. If we cannot agree about them ourselves, why should any non-Christian believe anything that we say about Jesus?
We do not have the final say about the truth. Our consciences do not rule the day when it comes to how the world is. It’s the exact opposite: we have to think about the world rightly by conforming our thoughts to the way the world really is, and when it comes to supernatural things — the stuff of theology and revelation and dogma — the only way that we can hope to be in the truth is by believing what God has revealed (since by definition the supernatural transcends our natural powers of discernment).
We do not get to decide what God has said; I do not stand as an arbiter of supernatural truth. For this we need the help of the Church, to which God has vouchsafed His revelation. When we accept the Church’s authority about supernatural things we can be at one in our beliefs. There is no other possible means for unity about spiritual things, about supernatural things.
Individualism by its very nature fractures the unity of both spiritual and natural communion. This is why the Church warns us against it in the Compendium.
You wouldn’t know it from the way we sometimes behave, but it’s not about winners and losers. Love your neighbor; don’t compete with him for who has the fanciest yard or car or house or whatever. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; don’t trample people underfoot, don’t treat them as things to be used and then discarded when they’re used up or when they have served your purpose for them.
I type this on a new Chromebook. I have had splendid success over the years with destroying more expensive computers, so I opted for something less costly and yet completely external to the Microsoft ecosystem (which I do not like). So far I like it. There are some new things to learn, but the machine is zippy and has a decent variety of software tools. I haven’t had it for very long, but after just a few days I can heartily commend Chromebooks to others as an alternative to Microsoft and Apple.
Unabashed Aquinas fanboy here. I could prattle on and on about the triumph that is the Summa Theologiae, a massive work that is astonishing for its lucidity, erudition, coherence, and comprehensiveness, or about the sheer brilliance of the Summa Contra Gentiles, an amazing extended argument for the truth of the Christian Faith. These are the works he is most famous for, and that is not unjust.
But St. Thomas was not just a brilliant theologian and philosopher. He was also a great commentator. I have been privileged to read a few of his commentaries on the works of Aristotle, and they are extraordinarily great helps in understanding The Philosopher. These commentaries also include some gems of his own wisdom from time to time, and it is one of these that I would like to present for your enjoyment today.
Secondly, we must keep in mind that certain “anomalies,” i.e., irregularities, appear with respect to the motions of the planets. For the planets seem to be now swifter, now slower, now stationary, now retrogressing. Now this does not seem to be appropriate to heavenly motions, as is evident from what has been said above. Therefore, Plato first proposed this problem to an astronomer of his time, named Eudoxus, who tried to reduce these irregularities to a right order by assigning diverse motions to the planets; a project also undertaken by later astronomers in various ways. Yet it is not necessary that the various suppositions which they hit upon be true – for although these suppositions save the appearances, we are nevertheless not obliged to say that these suppositions are true, because perhaps there is some other way men have not yet grasped by which the things which appear as to the stars are saved. Aristotle nevertheless uses suppositions of this kind, in what regards the quality of the motions, as true (Commentary on de Caelo §451; emphasis added).
Where to start?
In the first place it is worth repeating that Aquinas and Aristotle (among others) knew that the Earth is a sphere. It is a fiction to say that Columbus held groundbreaking notions about the planet’s shape. There is, I suspect, not mere ignorance but also a certain conceit in the modern error about ancient opinion about this: as though we are so much smarter than those Bronze Age and medieval dunces. Wrong-o. Yes, they lacked technology, but their brains were plenty well practiced to figure this stuff out.
The second thing to notice is that they knew the motions of the planets were a problem for their astronomy. Aristotle did, as he wrote in De Caelo, but Aquinas goes farther. Where Aristotle was willing to accede to the opinions of the astronomers of his day, Aquinas was only willing to do so provisionally. In other words, he accepted the geocentric model advanced by astronomers but immediately points out that their theory is only one explanation of the movements of the planets. There may be others, he says, which might do the job as well or maybe even better.
And this is today’s reason why Aquinas is awesome. He correctly distinguished astronomy from both theology and revelation, and seems almost to guess that a better explanation than the Ptolemaic one might exist. In the interim, he accepts the results of astronomy as far as they go. St. Thomas was not dogmatic when the facts did not support dogma, and the fact is that astronomy is not theology. It is not revelation. There may be improvements in the theories astronomers would someday formulate, and St. Thomas was able to see and accept this fact.
Another point that might be worth making is that his view separates Aristotle’s philosophy from the contemporary astronomy of their respective times. Astronomy and philosophy are separate things, and to disprove the science of his day or of Aristotle’s is a completely different thing from disproving their philosophy. The latter still stands as a towering achievement.