Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fallacies on Infallibility

There's an idea that's been floating about in the last few years by Christian apologists attempting to discredit the Catholic Church. One such article is called Theo-Illogical: Quid Pro Canon by Timothy F. Kauffman.1

The gist of the argument seeks a stalemate. By that I mean, the arguer seeks to criticize his opponent of the same accusation of which his opponent accuses him. This fallacy of argument is sometimes known as the fallacy of tu quoque. Kauffman summarizes his discourse thusly:
Rome's answer to Sola Scriptura is Sola Verbum Dei, or "The Word of God Alone." Rome believes that the Word of God is contained in the Scriptures, Tradition, in her Magisterium—including ex cathedra papal statements. But Rome cannot produce an infallible list of ex cathedra papal statements from within what she calls the Word of God. Thus, in order to convey the Word of God, Roman Catholics must appeal to something which is not contained in the Word of God. Sola Verbum Dei therefore becomes self-refuting by the standards of Rome's own apologists.
Kauffman posits an interesting thought exercise. However, his condemning conclusions are unwarranted and in error as I hope to demonstrate. In the previous quote, he blurs the Catholic notion of the "Word" similarly to the way John MacArthur did in my "John MacArthur errs" blog entry. Since the Catholic Church believes the Magisterium has the promise of the Holy Spirit to unlock divine truth, there is no "appealing to something" external. That which is the "Word," Scripture and Tradition (cf. Dei Verbum, 10), is interpreted by the Magisterium. So there is no "Sola Verbum Dei" in Catholicism the way Kauffman describes.

Kauffman begins his article in a defense of sola scriptura. Some Catholic apologists have claimed that adherents to this principle self-refute it because sola scriptura necessarily demands an external human source to receive which books are to be considered Scripture. Popular Evangelical apologists Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie summarized sola scriptura as: "'The Bible alone' means 'the Bible only' is the final authority for our faith."2 Thus, when Protestants claim to know what books are in the Bible without citing the Bible, some Catholic apologists have insisted sola scripturists give authority to the early Church, or some unidentified body of the faithful external to the written Word itself.

Kauffman writes: "Protestants, on the other hand, have no infallible source by which they may know they have the right 66 books, and therefore are members of a self-defeating religion. So thinks the Roman Catholic apologist."

What follows is interesting, but specious. Kauffman proceeds to argue that if there exists no Magisterial "list" that identifies infallible statements in history then the Catholic faithful will "not know certainly or exhaustively what the pope has infallibly taught or exactly what it is that they are required to believe."

It should be pointed out that in this article, he focuses on infallibility only exercised by the Pope. In Catholic theology, the idea of infallibility is rooted in the Holy Spirit's guarantee to the entire Church. Some of the Scriptural evidence for this is included in Lk 10:16, or Mt 28:18 with Jn 20:21, for example.

Use of the term "infallibility" in the Catholic Church is a protection from teaching error on an issue of faith or morals. Here are a couple Church sources expressing this idea:
The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. (CCC#890)

Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. (Vatican I, 4.4.9)
The majority of Kauffman's article attempts to contrast the various opinions of non-Magisterial Catholic apologists or theologians. He compares two Catholic authors, Adam S. Miller and Leslie Rumble, on the issue of "how many times" the Popes have exercised infallibility. They came up with totals of 11 and 18, respectively. I will admit I have not cross-checked his resources. I placed a phone call to the local library yesterday and learned how rare both of these books are. Only the Rumble book is even available at Amazon as of the date of this blog post. The Miller book was only available in one library in the country. But for the purposes of this blog post, I am going to assume Kauffman has fairly interpreted these authors.3

After Kauffman's attempt to show confusion in the Church is when he says the Catholic faithful "do not know certainly or exhaustively what the pope has infallibly taught or exactly what it is that they are required to believe."

This comment presupposes something false---that the Catholic individual is only required to believe teachings that he personally can identify as "infallibly taught." But this is not the case. Whether or not a teaching has been technically taught "infallibly," the Catholic faithful are to give religious assent to the teaching for the simple reason that Christ established His Church to teach such things. Kauffman, if he really considers Leslie Rumble an authority on this matter, should have already known this. Kauffman quoted the following from Rumble on two of the matters Rumble considered "infallible": "There are some Catholic theologians who hold that, although these two decrees of Pope Leo XIII are of the utmost authority, they still fall short of technical requirements for infallible 'ex cathedra' utterances."

That means even theologians who dissent that a doctrine has been taught infallibly still consider it taught with "the utmost authority!" Fr. Most, later in the same article on infallibility cited by Kauffman, quotes Vatican II regarding a "fourth level" of teaching not technically "infallible":
Religious submission of mind and of will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not defining, in such a way, namely, that the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to according to his manifested mind and will, which is clear either from the nature of the documents, or from the repeated presentation of the same doctrine, or from the manner of speaking. (Lumen Gentium, 25)
Fr. Most says this submission "forbids public contradiction of the teaching."

It is also worth quoting Father John Trigilio, President of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, who echoes this sentiment:
According to Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis & Vatican II in Lumen Gentium #25, even non-infallible teachings are to receive the submission of mind and will of the faithful. While not requiring the ASSENT OF FAITH, they CANNOT be disputed nor rejected publicly and the benefit of the doubt must be given to the one possessing the fullness of teaching authority. (A Discussion of Infallibility)
So let's assume Kauffman is correct. Let's say there is vast confusion over what has been infallibly taught by the Church. If this were the case, Fr. Most already provides the answer for the faithful, later in the same article Kauffman quotes:
How can anyone give any mental assent when there is not absolute certitude? In normal human affairs, we do it all the time. Suppose we are at table, and someone asks if a dish of food came from a can, and if so, was it sent to a lab to check for Botulism. It is true, routine opening of a can would not detect that deadly poison. Yet it is too much to check every can, and the chances are very remote, so much so that normal people do not bother about it - yet their belief takes into account a real but tiny possibility of a mistake. Similarly with a doctrine on this fourth level. And further, the chances of error on this level are much smaller than they are with a can of food. Similarly, in a criminal trial, the judge will tell the jury they must find the evidence proves guilt beyond reasonable doubt. He does not demand that every tiny doubt be ruled out, even though it may mean life in prison or death.

If one should make a mistake by following the fourth level of Church teaching, when he comes before the Divine Judge, the Judge will not blame him, rather He will praise him. But if a person errs by breaking with the Church on the plea that he knew better - that will not be easily accepted.
The false premise proposed by Kauffman is that a Catholic must scruple about whether or not a doctrine has technically been defined "infallibly." But the caricature Kauffman paints of panicked Catholics flitting about in a stupor of confusion does not translate to reality.

Recall that Kauffman's central criticism is that Catholics don't have an infallible list of doctrines (like the Protestant doesn't have an intra-Biblical list of what books belong in the Bible.)

If this logic were to play out, it would make it impossible for God or anyone else to verify infallibility, no? Because if the Church did make a "list" of infallible teachings, the list itself would need verification as being an infallible list, no? An infallible statement would be required to say that the infallible list is indeed infallible. After all, shouldn't Kauffman's Catholic caricature question whether the list itself should be considered infallible? Was it just a list assembled for guidance? Now we need another list that includes the previous list along with the other infallible teachings! Therefore, the demand for an infallible list is in itself a specious requirement.

The issue is this. Infallibility is solely the gift of God speaking through the Church. This is what Pius XII meant in Humani Generis #20 when he cited Luke 10:16 as evidence of infallibility. "He who hears you, hears Me."

So who can verify that God has exercised infallibility when no one but Him can infallibly declare infallibility to have taken place? Who can verify that God Himself has, say, infallible foreknowledge of the predestined? In other words, when we demand to see infallible pronouncements infallibly certified, we are asking God to certify God.

The very nature of faith in Christ requires an assent of the will. The same demand for infallible proof Kauffman imposes on the Catholic Church would also apply to faith in Christ itself. The whole issue of the nature of faith is separate from the Catholic defense in this thread. But once a person is able to make the assent of faith in Jesus Christ, accepting that which is proposed for belief by His Church is the safest thing to do.

Can a reasonable Catholic read Munificentissimus Deus and doubt that the Assumption of Mary was infallibly declared? Pay special attention to paragraph 12 and then paragraph 44 putting the dogma into words. Why, when the Church calls to mind the protection of infallibility in the same document prior to defining this dogma, should we give more weight to the fallible devil's advocate demanding an additional infallible statement be made to stamp the previous one?

What Catholic scruples about whether or not Christ is fully man and God out of fear that the dogma of the Incarnation has not found its way to an infallible list of infallible teachings? Is there any sober reason for a Catholic to deny that the teaching of the Incarnation has been infallibly taught?

In Sacerdotii Nostri Primoridia, Pope John XXIII listed at least one occasion that was defined infallibly---the Immaculate Conception. He writes of St. John Vianney:
"[T]his man had such great devotion to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mother of God that in 1836 he dedicated his parish church to Mary Conceived Without Sin and greeted the infallible definition of this truth as Catholic dogma in 1854 with the greatest joy and reverence." (116)
These examples are enough to demonstrate that infallibility can be identified in the Church whether or not one theologian or another may believe some other doctrine was not "technically" defined infallibly.

Finally, I want to point out Kauffman's unparallel premise. He equates the Protestant's inability to show the canon of Scripture from Scripture to the Catholic Church's absence of an "infallible list of infallible teachings." However, there is a major difference in the two. The Catholic Church does not profess to have or need an infallible list (and as I've shown, such a list would not serve the purpose Kauffman demands). The Protestant insists that the 66-book canon is correct---it is all that is needed for salvation---and the deuterocanonical books or other apocryphal literature considered in the early Church are definitively not part of the canon. These very assertions are external to the source which the Protestant claims is the sole authority to determine such matters. The Catholic Church, in teaching infallibility, claims only to teach by the authority of God that which is revealed through Scripture and Tradition. The Church does not go external to Her claimed sources of identifying truths of the faith.

1I do not intend for mentions of Protestantism herein to be an "attack." Mentions of Protestant teaching herein will be made only as they relate to Kauffman's comparisons.

2Geisler, Normal L. and MacKenzie, Ralph E., Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 178.3I should point out that claims of Kauffman's I was able to cross-check were not entirely sound. Later in the article, he claims there is confusion among Catholic apologists and theologians as to what is the criteria for when papal infallibility has taken place. However, the quotations he uses to prove this do not even include any such statement of "these are the only criteria" or some similar paraphrase. One of the theologians he quoted was Fr. William Most, whom Kauffman claimed believed only two criteria were needed for papal infallibility to take place. But the Fr. Most reference does not have him claiming to give an exhaustive list of criteria specific to papal infallibility. Rather, Fr. Most was clarifying if a particular formula of words were necessary for infallibility to take place. He said this in the context of how the Ordinary Magisterium can teach infallibly or how a Pope can teach infallibly when definitively settling a teaching among the Church. He was not attempting to redefine the quotation from Vatican I above which defines the nature of papal infallibility.

EDIT: August 20, 2010
Recall in this article how Kauffman quoted Rumble's footnote (this footnote corresponds to Rumble's position that infallibility applied to Pope Leo XIII's decrees on the nullity of Anglican Orders and his condemnation of merely naturalistic interpretations of Christian activities):
"There are some Catholic theologians who hold that, although these two decrees of Pope Leo XIII are of the utmost authority, they still fall short of technical requirements for infallible 'ex cathedra' utterances."
From that I pointed out that dissenting theologian who did not consider these to have technically been taught under the charism of papal infallibility, still considered them stated with the utmost authority. And remember, Kauffman's claim was that the Catholic faithful don't know "what...they are required to believe" as a result of this.

I also subsequently quoted Fr. Most who argued that the faithful are to be praised when assenting to that which the Church teaches, whether or not they understand that teaching to be taught with the particular charism of infallibility. And I think the following also supports that.

Since writing this article, I was able to acquire, via inter-library loan, the Rumble book The Catholic Church: A Radio Analysis. Kauffman left out the final sentence of that footnote, further confirming my conclusion that even if a Catholic is not sure a teaching has been technically stated "infallibly," he still is to give assent to the teaching. The entirety of Rumble's footnote reads:
"There are some Catholic theologians who hold that, although these two decrees of Pope Leo XIII are of the utmost authority, they still fall short of technical requirements for infallible 'ex cathedra' utterances. In practice all hold that they are binding on all the faithful."

EDIT: March 23, 2013
See also a rebuttal by PhilVaz of this same argument by 19th century Catholic opponent George Salmon.


  1. Kaufman

  2. Kaufman's response still fails to confront the Church's consistent teaching that a doctrine of faith or morals needn't an infallibly declared papal statement in order to move the faithful to believe. Thus, my appeal to Sacerdotii Nostri Primoridia is perfectly sound reasoning because it is authoritative, and it's teaching is also repeated elsewhere, such as in the catechism, with regard to assent of faith. Kaufmann simply overlooks that and says I made his point for him because Sacerdotii is not infallible, and therefore has no use for appeal. That is, of course, nonsensical, because Church teaching is authoritative even outside papal infallible definitions. His argument likewise remains dependent on a state of mass confusion that does not exist, as I described above with regard to the Immaculate Conception, for example, and as I will reiterate below with Scripture itself!

    Consider the self-defeating premise behind Kaufmann's ideology. Anywhere in his rebuttal or original article, substitute his criticism of the Church for the Bible. If 3 or 4 theologians disagree about the truth of a passage in Scripture, does that somehow negate Scripture's infallibility (i.e. without error)? Why does Kaufmann not argue about the "fatal flaw" of the infallibility of Scripture on the same grounds? He argues that infallibility is fatally flawed on the grounds that more than one theologian has a different perspective or enumeration on a text. Yet he does not challenge the infallibility of Scripture on the exact same grounds. Can not theologians help our understanding of a Traditional teaching from different perspectives just as they would of Scripture?

    Of course, the infallible character of a teaching is not *dependent* on the varied conclusions of its interpreters.

    He also does not confront the nonsensicality of demanding an infallible list of infallible papal exercises as described in my post above. He continues to demand it even though if such a list was produced, he would have to demand an infallible decree to declare the list infallible, and then one to certify that declaration, and so on. And as he even admitted in his concluding paragraph, if we are talking about God as the infallible one, then it is indeed impossible. He admits of my assertion that infallibility is only proper to God thusly: "that would be 'asking God to certify God.' Very well."

    From there, he apparently finds himself left to seek a tu quoque stalemate. He claims:

    "Neither will Protestants bow to Rome’s requests to prove from the Scripture that the 66-book canon is the canon of Scripture. Since the Scripture as contained in the 66-book canon is the Word of God, that would be “asking God to certify God.”

    He claims if Catholics don't provide an infallible list of infallible statements then why would Protestants have to substantiate a 66-book Biblical canon. But that misses the point. I argued that in accepting this 66-book canon, the Protestant is forced to appeal "external to the source which the Protestant claims is the sole authority to determine such matters." Catholics, of course, also appeal to a source external to Scripture, namely the Church that produced and assembled the Bible. The Catholic position is consistent and grants due authority to the Church. Kaufmann, by appealing specifically to a 66-book canon, necessarily concedes infallibility to some unnamed orator or council in the early centuries espousing that precise canon. The 66-book canon is an explicit assertion - to which council(s) or early century orator(s) does he believe passed on this canon? Anyone familiar with Early Church canons from the 1st through 4th centuries knows canon lists were not uniform. But anyway, Kaufmann, to my knowledge, does not admit that he has (rightly) appealed to God's infallible guidance of a visible Church and criticizes the Catholic Church for doing exactly that. So there is no tu quoque here. The Church acknowledges God's infallible protection of Church. Kaufmann does not.