Catholics believe in the infallibility of the Church and of the pope. This serves as both a teacher of, and an important check to, our personal interpretations of Scripture. If I understand a passage of Scripture to be teaching X, and X is a conclusion contrary to the teachings of the Church, I can be sure that I’m wrong. It’s a simple rule, but a powerful one. Think of the countless heresies have arisen from people misunderstanding Scripture. In many of these cases, these errors could have been avoided, if people would have just followed this rule.
But there’s a Protestant objection to this. It says, in a nutshell, “You Catholics believe in the Catholic Church for one of two reasons: either (1) because the Catholic Church says so, or (2) because you’ve become independently convinced on the basis of Scripture, history, etc. If it’s (1), that’s a circular argument. But if it’s (2), then you’re in the exact same position as a Protestant. You accept Catholic teachings because of your private judgment, we reject Catholic teachings because of our private judgment.”
On its face, I think that this looks like a pretty strong argument. But there are several problems with it, two of which I want to highlight. The first is that the argument proves too much, and the second is that it misses a critical distinction.
The first problem with this argument is that it’s too powerful. If it’s correct, it proves much too much. The people making this argument typically don’t acknowledge (or seemingly recognize) just how powerful this objection really is.
Typically, the people raising this argument view it as a way of reducing the authority of the Church to the private judgment of the individual. Whether I accept or reject such-and-such ex cathedra papal declaration depends on my own private judgment, so infallibility doesn’t really add anything to the equation.
But the logic of the argument goes so much further. It doesn’t just undermine the authority of popes and Councils, but of any Divine authority. On the basis of your private judgment, you believe that what Scripture says is true; on the basis of his, your neighbor believes Scripture is false. Even should God Himself appear to you, your private judgment would be necessary to determine that it was really God and not a hallucination, or a dream, or a demonic trick. So even the authority of God Himself reduces to your private judgment, according to the logic of this argument.
It’s a bit like inventing an acid so strong that it can eat through anything, and then realizing you have no place to put it: the force of the acid will eat through any possible container. At the end of the day, it destroys everything you have, dissolving down to the center of the earth. In trying to dissolve popes and Councils, the Protestant objector has come up with an acid that dissolves the Bible, and even direct revelations by God. It doesn’t just reduce Catholicism to the level of Protestantism. It reduces Christianity to the level of agnosticism.
This, of course, is the first clue that something is seriously wrong with this line of argumentation: it’s self-defeating for the Protestant to use it. To believe in the inspiration of Scripture is to believe in an authority greater than one’s private judgment. “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
|Francisco de Zurbarán,
Saint Francis in Meditation (1639)
Fortunately, this objection is wrong, so we’re not left with agnosticism. What the argument misses is a critical distinction between the two elements of faith: fides quae creditur and fides qua creditur.
Don’t worry, it’s a lot simpler than it sounds. Fides quae creditur means “the faith that is believed.” It’s the objective portion of the faith. For example, we often speak of “the Catholic faith,” meaning the set of Catholic teachings. That’s the fides quae. Fides qua creditur, on the other hand, is “the faith by which it is believed.” It’s the subjective portion. It’s not “the” faith. It’s “my” faith (or yours, etc.).
Every act of faith consists of these two elements. I believe, you believe, somebody believes: that’s the subjective part of the faith. There’s a subject who is doing the believing. But the believer believes in something. That something is the object of faith.
Consider two types of people who don’t have the faith. The first is a devout heretic or non-Christian. In that case, they’ve got plenty of fides qua (they’re devout), but there’s a problem with the object of their faith, the fides quae. They’re putting their trust in something that’s not worthy of their trust.The second is the person who knows all about orthodox Christianity, but is lukewarm in their faith. In that case, the problem isn’t with the fides quae. It’s with the fides qua, their own response (in faith) to the faith. They’re failing to put their trust in something that is worthy of their trust. And, of course, it’s possible to lack both the fides qua and the fides quae.
As you can see, both elements are necessary for the orthodox faith. Here’s why that matters. The Protestant objector is right that there is necessarily a subjective element to the faith. It doesn’t matter how perfectly the faith is defined, individual believers still have to actually believe it. That personal act of faith is going to be influenced by a lot of things: grace, upbringing and culture, knowledge of Scripture and history, and the like.
But they’re wrong to think that this puts Catholicism and Protestantism on equal footing, with the individual making the final determinations about what’s true in false. It’s for the same reason that the Christian (Catholic or Protestant) isn’t actually in the same position as the non-believer. The non-believer, at least in principle, rejects all inerrant or inspired authority, leaving themselves with only their own reasoning. The Christian has Scriptures revealing things that he could never know by his own reasoning.
The Catholic can go further: he can trust the Church’s interpretation, even when it far surpasses the limits of his own reasoning. In this way, papal and ecclesial infallibility build up the fides quae, the object of faith. It means that you can have a purer, clearer picture of the truth. And this impacts the fides qua, as well. Ultimately, you don’t just have to trust you own authority or ideas or reasoning. You can know enough to know that (a) there’s a lot that you don’t know, and (b) the Church knows more than you do. Knowing the Jesus Christ founded the Church and that the Holy Spirit preserves her makes it much easier to make that act of faith, to believe the faith that she presents.
|19th Century icon of Jesus as the Good Shepherd|
I mentioned at the outset that I intended to highlight only two of the problems with this argument, but that there were several. Fortunately, I don’t need to go into all of those, because Bryan Cross has already done it better than I ever could. He also gives this argument a name: the tu quoque, since this argument is a textbook logical fallacy. Andrew Preslar, also of Called to Communion, addresses a related argument.
The last thing that I’ll mention on this subject is that Jesus repeatedly calls us sheep (Matthew 7:15; 10:6, 16; 12:11,25:32-33; Mark 14:27, etc.). He explains a bit what He means by this curious image in John 10:1-5:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. […] Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you.