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May 07, 2008


Steve Smith

I happen to agree with Nathan that the position expressed in Dignitatis Humanae is more admirable and more consistent with Christianity-- more true, I suppose-- than the position taken by many Catholic thinkers and by the church during the reign of Christendom was. Still, there is a risk of being anachronistic-- of judging past thinkers and institutions against the backdrop of our world, which they obviously didn't live in, and failing to notice important features of their world. In this respect, for anyone interested, I'd recommend an essay by the eminent (and, I believe, Cathoic) historian Brian Tierney called Religious Rights: A Historical Perspective, in Religious Freedom in Western Thought (1996). (It's been published in other places too, I think, and might be findable on-line.)

Tierney is no apologist for religious coercion. He is (or was, because I'm not sure whether he's still alive) much more a modern Catholic than JM is. But he does explain some things that may be relevant. For example, he explains how in the Middle Ages, the Church basically was the main organizing institution in society, much as the state is now. So there was a real sense in which heresy was comparable to treason. Given the Christian culture or constitution of society, heresy was also in a real sense comparable to a kind of contagion which needed to be controlled. Today, of course, religious heresy is not the threat to civil society that it was then, so it's easier for us to say, "Let people believe whatever they want to believe." Tierney also suggests the the procedures of the Inquisition, though horrible, were relatively careful and fair by the standards of the time.

Again, these points aren't meant to say that religious coercion is proper. A few years ago, I myself thought about writing something in defense of the Inquisition, which I supposed was generally misunderstood (as may be true), but after reading a few books about it I was, basically, appalled, and completely unmotivated to persist in the project. Still, I think it's a mistake to judge past figures too harshly or to assume that our own perspectives are just obviously correct and that our ancestors were cretins for not seeing this.


As so often happens, Nathan brings together such a large number of controversial issues into the same post that it would be difficult to address them all. Of course there are all kinds of practical reasons, particularly in our own society, for not using threats as a means of enforcing orthodoxy. Indeed, in a practical sense, I suppose I'm a pretty firm advocate of religious freedom, if only because I don't think any political body currently exists that could be trusted to maintain any other system. And, as I said before, it has always been understood that it would be wrong to punish someone for a mistake for which they were invincibly ignorant.

But I would propose two points that I think Nathan would do well to consider more carefully. The first concerns fear. He seems to take it for granted that fear is straightforwardly incompatible with *real* belief -- any belief that has been instilled through fear is somehow insincere. And there is no doubt that persuasion through fear can be improperly applied, and often has been. But to say that the two are *utterly* incompatible is both strongly incompatible with the Christian tradition, and also implausible. Christian moral philosophy has from very early times recognized "fear of the Lord" as being a laudable thing, and one of the very proper motivations for living an upright life. The Bible makes numerous references to it. Probably Nathan will want to construe this as something like "awe"; all I can say is, it has not traditionally been understood that way, and certainly Jerome's Vulgate doesn't lend itself easily to that understanding. The fear in question was literally the fear of God's punishments, and particularly of Hell. And this seemed perfectly appropriate, because indeed, all emotions have some role to play in reinforcing the right beliefs and attitudes towards life, and there was no reason why fear should be any different.

Fear plays a substantial role in any society or even family -- parents quite properly use punishments as a means of teaching their young children how to behave (and, through that, how to think about life.) The real question is not WHETHER fear should be a part of our Christian life, but rather WHAT role fear should appropriately play.

Okay, something is calling me away and I don't have time to expound on my second point... hopefully I can get to it later. But I will quickly add that your defense on St. Thomas' behalf is extremely implausible. In the first place, he wouldn't have been under intense pressure to express such a view (at the least he could have just left it out of the Summa without any risk of reprisal), in the second place he wasn't much given to irony, and in the third place, the view follows very naturally from other Thomistic principles. It would have been surprising if he had not expressed such a view. But more on that another time.


Fear is the main instrument of evil. It has no place in a healthy and constructive belief system. Caution is prudential. Concern is ennobling. Fear is evil.

Joyless Moralist

Heh. It would be interesting to hear how Tom distinguishes "caution" and "concern" from "fear." In my view these necessarily involve elements of fear, though of course fear rightly directed.

Anyway... it will obviously come as no surprise to anyone that Paul VI is not a favorite pontiff of mine; I'm inclined to make for a document like Dignitatis Humanae the same sort of excuses that Steve Smith wants to make for the medievals... he had some good prudential reasons for recommending some, as we might say, policy changes, but he rather overreached in trying to articulate these as moral principles (in a way eerily similar to what Pope Pius X predicted would happen a few decades earlier in Pascendi Dominici Gregis.) Just one of many bad errors of judgment at the time of Vatican II (the fruits of which we see a few decades later in a greatly demoralized Church, greatly diminished Mass attendance, a huge decline in Vocations, rampant homosexuality among the priesthood as well as pedophilia, a horrendous general state of catechesis, etc etc etc.)

But okay, anyway, I again don't have time to ramble on, so let me make the point brief: if we do have an inalienable right to religious freedom (including the right to defect from commitments already made without any possibility of punishment) then it follows (given a few other premises that Nathan has already accepted) that it is possible to have an inalienable right to inflict both voluntary and grave harm to other human beings. Nathan has agreed that a belief can be immoral and that we can be culpable for holding that belief even if we do, on some obvious level (one that a lie detector might read, say) "believe" it.

Also I think he has agreed that the spreading of lies can be gravely spiritually dangerous to others; indeed, Christ tells us this plainly in his injunction *not* to fear harm to the body but instead to fear those who kill the soul and cast it into Hell. It seems rather odd, doesn't it, that those who commit what Christ himself identifies as one of the greatest and most harmful of sins (that is, deceiving others and leading them astray), who could presumably be damned for their offenses, nonetheless have an inalienable right to proceed without impediment on earth? Anyway, if you think about it in those terms you might begin to imagine how this must have seemed to the medieval Doctors.

I admit frankly that I can't make much sense of the notion of preinstitutional inalienable rights; modern justifications for it are mainly Kantian in structure and have in my experience done no end of damage to the state of ethical discourse. But however that may be, you will have to find a powerful principle indeed to justify an absolute principle of leaving the unrightous entirely free in their efforts to do the most heinous kind of damage to human souls.

Again, none of this amounts to a political philosophy in its own right. In practical terms, politics is carried out by human beings, and all forms have their evils; a theocracy is perhaps more able to deliberately care for the human good, but it has less "checks and balances" to keep the wicked from hijacking the project and turning it to evil. Democracy is a prime breeding ground for all manner human vices, but it does tend to achieve a kind of stability in which certain valuable things (such as the possibility of choosing the moral life freely) are protected. But Nathan seems to want his claims to cut across all political situations and to stand as absolute moral principles, and that, I think, is a much harder sell. Okay, now I really have to go!

Nathan Smith

JM seems not to understand the difference between fear of the LORD and fear of the instruments of torture of the Inquisition. If one believes something is true, that's sufficient reason to believe it. If you want to add to that a fear of God's wrath for preferring lies to truth, so be it. Presumably one who believes typically believes that God knows and wants us to believe and profess the truth; if so, there could be no conflict between what one was motivated to believe or profess by fear of the Lord, and what one was motivated to believe or profess by one's commitment to truth.

But the point is that the Inquisition was forcing people to profess things that they did *not* believe were true, and in some cases, things that they believed were directly contrary to the will of God. Fear of God and fear of the Inquisition were pulling in opposite directions.

Nor am I claiming any belief that has been instilled through fear is somehow insincere. I don't think fear of the Inquisition-- the fear of God is a totally different matter-- could ever instill a worthy mode of belief, but that, too, is beside the point. The point is that to threaten to kill someone if they don't believe X perhaps never, probably not typically, and certainly not always induces a real belief in X. What it induces is a false profession of X, and that is a lie, and is wrong regardless of whether X is true or false. To compel belief by force is to promote lies. And when those lies are about God, and thus have a character of sacrilege, the sin is that much worse.

Nathan Smith

"... it is possible to have an inalienable right to inflict both voluntary and grave harm to other human beings."

Yep. Nothing odd about that. Just common sense. Suppose I am a handsome young man who knows how to make women fall in love with me and break their hearts over me just by a certain winning smile. I have a right to do so. There is no right not to be harmed. There is a right not to murdered, not to be raped, not to be stolen from, etc.

If someone teaches you falsehood, it's up to you to not listen. There's nothing odd about that. Christ was instructing people not to listen to those who harm the soul. He wasn't exhorting the state to suppress them.

Steve Smith

Like JM, I also have a lot of difficulty with the idea of pre-political human or natural "rights." So I'm not sure I understand the reasoning of Dignitatis Humanae; I take it more to be stating in somewhat conclusory form a position that I tentatively accept because it seems right to me. I can also understand how someone might think that the earlier Catholic position was sounder than the modern one. (Sometimes I, a non-Catholic, think that.) It does seem to me, though, that it should be awkward for someone like JM to take this view, or to explain away DH and associated pronouncements from the 60s. Doesn't it seem a little . . . odd for someone to say, emphatically, that human judgment is so fallible that we need to conform our beliefs to the teaching of the one trustworthy authority-- i.e., the Church-- except that. . . the Church sort of got this one wrong?

To be sure, one can then try to come up with criteria to distinguish "when the Church is really the Church," in the same way that Mormons try to articulate criteria for knowing "when the Prophet is speaking as the Prophet." But once we have to do that, and to do it by articulating subtle criteria that few of the fallible people out there in need of reliable guidance are likely to grasp (and that are likely to be driven at least in part by our own udgments about the substantive correctness of the various pronouncements of the Church or the Prophet), it seems to me that the game is pretty much up. And it also seems a bit difficult to say that a position adopted after a great deal of thought, discussion, and (no doubt) prayer by a lengthy, world-wise council of the Church and promulgated officially by the Pope (and addressing what is surely a matter of faith and morals) is not a teaching "of the Church." So it seems rather difficult to treat that teaching dismissively and still insist that we need to avoid exercising our private judgment and must instead strive to make our beliefs conform to the teaching of the Church.

Nathan Smith

Joyless Moralist also didn't answer the main argument, which is that the argument she attributes to St. Thomas, even if it were valid, only plausible applies to adult converts, a vanishingly small proportion of the population in the Middle Ages. Not only that, but St. Thomas's argument is explicitly grounded in an idea of consent, albeit misapplied. If the adult-convert heretic can be punished because he is a promise-breaker, the Church's authority to punish him is grounded in his own consent to its sway over him. I don't think the claim that the heretic is wrong for breaking his promise, *independently* of (as we are presuming for the sake of argument) any moral culpability he may have in arriving at the false beliefs, is correct.

As a test case: would a person who abandons a false church be wrong merely as a promise-breaker, even though he was changing his beliefs from falsehood to truth? If we assume that the Mormon Church is false, would an adult convert who recognized this, but who had promised to submit his beliefs to Mormon authority, be "betraying his liege lord?" This is the proper type of case by which to consider the idea that "promise-breaking" in matters of belief is somehow wrong, because only in this case is promise-breaking separable from false-belief-formation.

My contention would be that a convert away from Mormonism is not sinning because of breaking previous promises to believe. The convert probably never understood his conversion as a promise to continue believing in Mormonism, as opposed to an expression of his belief in Mormonism (though of course he presumably *expected* that belief to continue). If he did understand himself to be promising to continue to believe in Mormonism, that promise was itself a sin, for two reasons: (a) because our beliefs are at most partially under our control, so that in such a promise he would be promising something that he might be unavailable to fulfill, a form of dishonesty, and (b) the appropriate motive for any belief is *truth,* and to believe or commit to believe on any other ground is wrong. Of course, a believer in Mormonism presumably believes Mormonism is true, but "the Mormon Church says this" is still logically distinct from "this is true," so there is a shift, and not a morally acceptable one. I'm not sure I understand all the rights and wrongs of keeping promises one comes to understand were sinful, but in this case I think the ex-Mormon would add no sin to his previous sin by leaving the Church. In the same way, although a heretic who departs from the beliefs of the true Church might do wrong in adopting his new false beliefs, he is not doing anything *additionally* wrong in breaking his promise to believe, even if that is how he understood his conversion, which probably is not how most adult converts understand it.

That is why the argument Joyless Moralist attributes to St. Thomas is wrong, but even if one accepts St. Thomas's argument, it would only apply to a few special cases in his own times. That is why, to the extent that it was used to justify coercion against heretics, by St. Thomas himself or others, it is appropriate to regard it as a fig leaf of rationalization and not a serious argument for what the Catholic Church was doing. Moreover, the actual logic of St. Thomas's argument emphasizes the notion of consent, and thus has tendencies towards the liberal view articulated by Paul VI.

Steve Smith

It's true that the "promise-breaking" rationale isn't persuasive as a justification for coercing non-believers who happened to have been baptised as infants, or even adults who once believed but find that they no longer do. Nathan is right about that, I think (and people who have converted as adults to Catholicism from some other churches ought to appreciate the point). But again, this criticism is looking at the issue from a contemporary standpoint, in which hardly anyone supposes that Christianity in a particular form is the basis of society and the state. It is good to remember, I think, that this wouldn't have been the background framework 700 years ago. To put the point differently, if conditions are such that heresy is in a real sense comparable to treason, or to contagion, then sincerity of belief wouldn't necessarily be a sufficient reason not to discipline a dissenter. After all, we wouldn't exonerate a traitor who was helping an enemy in war just because he said, "But I really do sincerely believe that the Nazi regime is correct." Nor would we decline to stop or perhaps quarantine a person spreading contagious disease just because the person didn't choose to be contagious and wasn't in any sense to blame for his disease. In addition, from these perspectives there might be a real difference between "heretics"-- i.e. people who were part of the Christian body and then come out in opposition to it-- and mere non-believers-- e.g. Jews-- who simply were never part of it. (In practice Jews were often cruelly persecuted as well. But in theory they weren't supposed to be.)

It's also good to remember, I think, that the Church and its leading thinkers insisted on a distinction between the spiritual and the temporal-- a somewhat unique distinction to which we probably owe a great deal of our own commitment to things like "freedom of conscience" and "separation of church and state." And again, in theory at least, temporal punishments were imposed by the temporal authority and to secure temporal interests-- something that was not wholly implausible under the conditions then prevailing.

Joyless Moralist

"To be sure, one can then try to come up with criteria to distinguish "when the Church is really the Church," in the same way that Mormons try to articulate criteria for knowing "when the Prophet is speaking as the Prophet." But once we have to do that, and to do it by articulating subtle criteria that few of the fallible people out there in need of reliable guidance are likely to grasp (and that are likely to be driven at least in part by our own udgments about the substantive correctness of the various pronouncements of the Church or the Prophet), it seems to me that the game is pretty much up."

I'm not going to write a full and lengthy response to this point, just because there are too many other issues on the table here and this one is somewhat tangential and merits quite a detailed treatment of its own. Let me just say two things, though. First of all, it seems to be going a bit far to be saying that "the game is up." Sifting truth from falsehood is always difficult, but we can't always allow the difficulty of the project, or the subtlety required in the methods of inquiry, to force us to give up. I might make an analogy to a line that I've occasionally heard from Evangelical Protestant Biblical literalist types, who, when presented with the argument that the Bible needs to be *interpreted* scoff that this requirement would make the search for Christian truth prohibitively difficult. "Interpretations can go in all sorts of directions," they might point out. "Once you start agreeing that things need to be *interpreted*, the game is up!" I have heard arguments basically to this effect on a few different occasions.

I don't have any clever knock-down response to this, except to shrug and agree that, yes, it IS somewhat frustrating and worrisome, and Biblical interpretation really does open the door to all kinds of errors and heresies, but at the end of the day there is no alternative short of scrapping the Bible entirely as a source of truth. If you're going to be Christian at all, you have to hang onto the Bible as an inspired book. And because it really just ISN'T obvious what is being said in many places, the text will simply have to be interpreted somehow. The discussions of how to do this correctly get into subtleties that can at times confound even the wise and the educated, not to mention more ordinary people, but I hold out hope that progress is not utterly impossible, and that the game is not up. Similarly here... the project of determining the force with which the Church has asserted X vs. the weight she's put behind Y is certainly tricky, and a look at some of the Church's more troubled times (including the present one) cannot but lead to some deep and troubling reflection. But, as with Biblical interpretation, I firmly believe that Christianity cannot make sense any other way. Authority is a necessary element, so somehow it must be possible to sort out which parts are fully and infallibly endorsed by the Church, and which parts are not so binding.

Of course I have some ideas about how to do this, but I will content myself with two brief observations. First, the Church herself often helps by promulgating very definite super-authoritative documents, which she explicitly labels as such. That can be a helpful short-cut for normal people. But it's also interesting to note that the documents from Vatican II, at least to my eyes, themselves reflect a kind of loss of confidence. Phrases like "this Council finds" are pretty mellow compared to the "anyone who says X, let him be anathema" type of statements that you find from some earlier councils. I'm not saying that makes it okay to completely disregard them, but it does add to the impression that even they were aware that they were kind of feeling their way around.

By the way, with regards to the issue of religious freedom, a more authoritative (and still modern) document would be the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is characteristically coy on this subject. It quotes some from DH, including the bit about everyone being allowed to follow his own conscience in religious matters "within due limits" and suggests that this should be made a civil right. However, it follows this up by specifying that this restriction applies specifically to political authorities (leaving open the possibility that other authorities might appropriately impose external constraints on religious practice), and that, "The right to religious liberty can of itself be neither unlimited nor limited only by a "public order" conceived in a positivist or naturalist manner. The "due limits" which are inherent in it must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with "legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order."


Nathan Smith

"The right to religious liberty can of itself be neither unlimited nor limited only by a 'public order' conceived in a positivist or naturalist manner."

What is meant by a positivist and naturalist order I don't know. But the statement that religious liberty cannot be unlimited is surely true. If your religion tells you to blow up the Lincoln Memorial, or even, perhaps, to refuse to pay the income tax, the government will have to impinge on your liberty to that extent. The standard of no-coerced-telling-of-lies is not the same as "unlimited" religious liberty.

Nathan Smith

"I don't have any clever knock-down response to this, except to shrug and agree that, yes, it IS somewhat frustrating and worrisome, and Biblical interpretation really does open the door to all kinds of errors and heresies, but at the end of the day there is no alternative short of scrapping the Bible entirely as a source of truth. If you're going to be Christian at all, you have to hang onto the Bible as an inspired book..."

I would add that one's own intellectual explorations may illuminate the meaning of the Bible. Indeed, to understand the Bible at all, such "outside" thinking is often necessary. To grow as a Christian it is necessary to be what we might call a "freethinker."


I appreciate the earnestness and good will of JM's recent comment, and I agree with much in it. When I said that "the game is pretty much up," I didn't mean the "game" of "sifting truth from falsehood," as she aptly puts it, aptly acknowledging that this game is very "difficult." This is a crucial point, I think, both for the issues of religious freedom that people have been discussing here and in general, and a great deal might be said about it. But for now . . .

Take the biblical literalist type that JM refers to. I too have had conversations with this sort of person. What might we say to the biblical literalist (BL)? Well, maybe something like this: "You say that we mustn't use our own judgment to interpret the Bible because we're very likely to go wrong. It's a very understandable position. But don't you see? There really isn't any choice but to use our judgment, first, to decide whether the Bible is trustworthy, and then to decide what in the Bible is divine teaching as opposed to local human wisdom or opinion [You can say 'all of it' if you like, though that's doesn't seem very plausible], and finally to figure out what the Bible is teaching, or what God is teaching through the Bible. There's just no escaping this, difficult though the task may be. Moreover, in doing the interpreting, you and I will almost surely use not only 'procedural' criteria, so to speak, (like whether the teaching occurs in several books or only one) but also substantive criteria (i.e., how sound or sensible or true the teaching seems to us to be). So, for instance you say that 'the wife should be subordinate to the husband' is divine teaching because it's in a number of books, but 'women should keep silent in the church; it's not permitted to them to speak' isn't binding on us because it's a more local teaching. But your own substantive judgment surely also influences this interpretation-- so that there are other teachings you accept though they only appear once or twice, and others you neglect [the permissibility of slavery, maybe] though they appear many times.

"In sum, we will be exercising our 'private judgment' (admittedly a misleading description, but that's another issue) whether we like it or not.

"By pretending not to be 'interpreting, or exercising your judgment [we're still addressing the BL], you're really only hurting yourself, in several ways. First, you're deluding yourself, and that's a bad thing, regardless of other consequences. Second, you may be doing a worse job of interpreting than you would do if you owned up to the fact that this is in fact what you're doing-- what you must do. And third, the sense of self-assurance that you get by telling yourself that you're not interpreting or exercising your own judgment but merely 'following the inerrant Bible' makes you less tolerant and compassionate than you might otherwise be, and less able both to respect and possibly even learn from others who are engaged in the same difficult enterprise. Ironically, this misconceived self-assurance subverts your own ability to do what you more basically are trying to do-- that is, follow the teaching and example of Christ."

I have never actually given this response to any BLs (and they would probably not have acquiesced in letting me give this little lecture anyway). But I've definitely had this reaction to encounters with such people, who I've assumed were acting in earnest good faith.

Now, with apologies, I'll just briefly suggest the possibility of generalizing a bit. The BL is merely one instance, I believe, of a type of person or position that says, basically, "It's tremendously important that we get the truth right, and follow it. But the task looks so difficult, and our judgment is so fallible. Therefore, we must avoid exercising or following our own judgment, and must instead submit our judgment to Authority X." For religious people, Authority X often takes one of three forms: the sacred book (for Christians, the Bible), the Church (the Prophet, the Magisterium), or personal revelation or inspiration. But whatever form this position takes, it is always susceptible of the same response I imagined us giving to BL. First, difficult though the task is, there is no escape from exercising your judgment (a) to determine that Authority X is trustworthy, (b) to determine when Authority X is actually speaking or behaving authoritatively, and (c) to determine what Authority X is teaching. And second, pretending that we can escape this sort of judgment is unfortunate because (a) it is a form of self-delusion, (b) the delusion may impair our whole epistemic enterprise, and (c) the derived or pretended self-assurance is apt to make us less tolerant, respectful, able to learn and, ultimately, Christian.

None of this is to deny at all the importance of recognizing the value of scripture, the Church, and personal inspiration, and of trying to respect these authorities in the effort to "sift truth from falsehood." The person who says, "Forget all of those and 'think for yourself' will be engaging in different kinds of self-delusion, I believe. But those aren't the subject of this already unintendedly lengthy essay.

Joyless Moralist

Well, first of all I should apologize for jumping back in here after a long delay. What happened was, the night I got back from my trip (which is when I wrote the last comment above) I also wrote another quite lengthy comment addressing a number of the other points that had been raised in this discussion... and then my computer froze before I posted it and I lost it all. I really should type long comments in word processors where they can be saved as I type, but the inviting format of the "comment" space usually beguiles me into not doing this. Anyway, perhaps you know how hard it is after that frustrating experience to motivate yourself to return to a discussion. You've already SAID what you wanted to say... but nobody got to read it.

The upshot being that I only read these last comments a few hours ago. I’ve had a few other somewhat smaller comments that I’ve still been meaning to add to these various posts – I’ll try not to make them too terribly provocative, because I know that people are busy and I’m not trying to steal the last word on everything, but what with my having so little time online last week I did think it would be nice to shore up my position in just a few spots.

Anyway… I think your speech to the BL Protestant is an admirably clear statement of your position. It may help me to make clear why I think it is that you and the BL are still making the same error in one very relevant respect (though you’re coming at it from very different directions.) I might perhaps explain it best by referencing this quote:

“First, difficult though the task is, there is no escape from exercising your judgment (a) to determine that Authority X is trustworthy, (b) to determine when Authority X is actually speaking or behaving authoritatively, and (c) to determine what Authority X is teaching.”

For the sake of simplicity, let me consolidate these by pushing (b) and (c) into one so that we have two different questions to consider: (a) Should X be accepted as an authority? And (b) How should the various material that I get from Authority X be interpreted? Or, more concretely, what does the acceptance of X’s authority require me to believe and do?
These are, it seems to me, very different sorts of questions, and our approach to them needs to be different. To start off I might state the obvious: the first question lends itself to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, whereas the second patently does not. Precisely because the answer to (b) is necessarily going to be detailed and somewhat complicated, we have to expect that a good amount of discernment will be involved, complete with methodological or interpretational strategies, discussion and disagreement, frustration and uncertainty, and all the other things that always do go along with trying to approach questions with complicated and subtle answers.

With question (a) it is different. One *can* give a complicated answer, along the lines of, “well, it depends on various factors…” or “I think so/not, but would add the following caveats…” But those are all just ways of not fully answering the question. What is finally called for is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’

Perhaps we should make some kind of distinction here between what we might call (to use your word) “valuing” an authority, and “accepting” an authority. We might say that a person “values” an authority by giving it a kind of powerful advisory role. Whatever the authority says is respectfully heard and taken under serious consideration. When lack of time or shortage of information makes it unfeasible to think some question through on one’s own, the authority’s word is comfortably accepted. Disagreements with the authority are not abandoned, but they are offered humbly, with the admission that one *could* have made a mistake somehow. By contrast, “accepting” an authority entails the belief that anything the authority says, well, authoritatively, will not be wrong. When private reflections incline one towards conclusions at odds with authoritative teachings, the assumption is that there is either some error in one’s own reasoning, or else some misunderstanding of what the authority has actually said.

Now, it is certainly possible, through human reflection and reasoning, to justify *valuing* someone or something else as an authority. But no amount of reasoning can ever justify *accepting* anyone or anything as an authority, whether the authority in question is the Bible, or the Church, or even Christ Himself. Accepting an authority – any authority – is an act of complete trust that necessarily moves beyond what reason alone can endorse. It can only be done through faith, and there is an impressive collection of people who have agreed that two things at least are absolutely necessary for faith: 1) a human act of will, and 2) a special gift of grace making possible that act of will.

This is not to say, of course, that reasoning, reflection and judgment are *totally irrelevant* to the decision whether or not to believe. I am not a fideist. Reason plays both a preparatory and, later, a supportive role. Reason can help us to overcome certain errors that might be standing in the way of faith. It can make observations about ways in which Christian teachings are *harmonious* with other more accessible truths, and it can even sometimes perceive how something like faith is *needed* in order for life to be meaningful. After one has accepted an authority, reason becomes if anything even more useful, in continuing to repel errors, and in exploring the many implications of that act of will (including the sort of issues that arise under question(b).) For all that, though, the fact remains that faith is not a product of reason. It is a gift of grace.

I said awhile back that you and the BL were making the same error. Maybe now you can see why I would think that. Questions (a) and (b), in my view, call for different sorts of treatment, but both you and the BL want to regard them as fundamentally the same kind of question. He wants to treat question (b) as though it could all be subsumed under the question of whether or not to have faith. You want to treat question (a) as though it called for a complex and subtle answer, of the sort that can be worked out and rationally justified. Hence, you stand together at least in supposing that a given authority cannot simultaneously be 1) accepted, and 2) difficult to interpret.

Having agreed on that dilemma, you and the BL obviously grasp different horns, and thus you face very different consequences. He is stuck in a kind of inarticulate narrowness, the limitations of which you’ve characterized very well. But you, if I’ve got your position right, seem to be left with the conclusion that it isn’t possible to accept (in the way I’ve defined it) any authority. It would take a long time to give a full explanation of why I think that unfortunate, but for now let me limit myself to observing that in the view of quite a large number of people (just to name a few that I’m personally prepared to substantiate: Sts. Augustine, Anselm, Thomas, Bonaventure, Bl. John Henry Newman, and Pope Benedict XVI) you simply don’t believe in faith at all.

Of course, even those who do believe in faith (in a sense, let’s say, that the people I have listed could recognize as such) still have to deal with prudential questions that involve some of the things you touch on in your comment – compassion, understanding, tolerance and the like. They must decide when it is better to speak and when to be silent, how strong of language to use in expressing a particular idea, and so forth. I don’t doubt that I’m often deserving of criticism in these kinds of matters, but since I’ve said so much already, let me add one more observation. The tenor of your comment seems to suggest that the best way to approach questions of belief is to have a kind of perpetual trepidation and humility, and a regular willingness to admit the possibility of being wrong about any particular question. This would spring from a recognition of our own fallibility, and insofar as our beliefs *are* the product of our own fallible reasoning, I think this approach has much to recommend it.

Suppose, though, that some beliefs are *not* the product of one’s own reasoning, but instead, as I’ve suggested, are inherited through a divine gift. Wouldn’t this make a difference in the attitude we should take towards them? By analogy, consider two friends who both have some kind of expensive, fancy new car. One has purchased the car himself (or better still, received it as a signing bonus for some very high-power job) while the other has received his as a totally gratuitous gift, let’s say, from his grandmother. Now, when other people compliment our two friends on their cars, different responses might be appropriate from each of them. The one who “earned” his car would do well to be a bit modest and downplay his prize – “yeah, it looks cool, though actually it doesn’t get very good gas mileage” or “well, you know, as rarely as I wash my cars, it might as well be a Camry.” From him, the self-deprecating humor would be charming. But if the person who received the car as a gift started talking that way, he would sound ungrateful and petty – oh, so someone generously gives you a fifty thousand dollar car, and all you can do is gripe about the gas mileage? From that person, it would be far more decorous to admit the wonderfulness of the car, though in a properly grateful way – “yes, isn’t it something? My grandmother is so incredibly generous.”

Now, obviously the analogy is limited in its practical application to our discussion. In the car case, everyone will admit to the greatness of the gift, but most people have neither right nor reason to expect their grandmothers to give them fancy cars. In the faith case, the value of the gift (or even the fact of its *being* a gift) is not universally acknowledged, but believers will tell you that their gift is available to all who seek it. Still, you presumably see the point. When a person has reached a conclusion, as far as he can tell, by his own lights, it is fitting for him to humbly present it under the description, “This is how things seem to me, but of course I might be wrong.” But insofar as a person sees belief as a *divine gift*, the humble-pie presentation of the contents would be somewhat ignoble – indeed, he would properly feel ungrateful and ashamed for expressing himself that way.

Of course we’d still have to sort through a whole pile of questions about when and how to enter into discussions at all, about the way in which the faith of my question (a) and the reason of my question (b) interact, and on and on. But in those circumstances where it *is* appropriate to present his view, it seems entirely fitting that the believer should want to do it with the clear understanding: “This is something that I confidently affirm. This belief is the departure point from which I address other questions. This gift is what infuses my life with meaning.”


JM proposes and elaborates on a distinction between valuing and accepting an authority. My first question is whether this is a false distinction. After all, you can value an authority very highly, such that although you retain your own judgment, so to speak, you maintain a strong– even irrebuttable?– presumption that you should exercise your judgment in accordance with the authority’s directions. This sort of judgment might be based what you understand to be grace, and I suppose it could even involve an act of will, if that seems called for. In addition, while maintaining your own judgment, you could recognize what we might call the “organizational” imperatives of authority (in the military, to take a fairly clear case). How does “accepting” an authority go beyond all of this?

So maybe I’ve missed the point. But I take it that JM’s answer goes something like this: when you “accept” an authority, you basically give over your judgment to the authority, rather than exercising your own judgment while merely giving deference to the authority. For myself, I wonder whether this is possible. And the more one needs to employ what I earlier called “substantive” criteria to determine whether the authority is acting or speaking as an authority (“That can’t have been an authoritative pronouncement because . . . . [it was based on a clear error of fact, it contradicted what the authority said before, it contains a demonstrable mistake of logic, etc., etc.]), the more room there is to doubt whether you can really have turned your judgment over to the authority.

But suppose that this or something like it is possible. It seems clear at least that many people have tried to do something like this, or have thought they have done it, with respect to various authorities. So,would it be good to “accept” an authority in something like this sense?

Well, to begin with, it’s evident that history is filled with instances of people who have basically tried to turn over their judgment to some person or movement or organization: the guru, the Prophet, the Leader, the Party, the Church, whatever. Such people often become so attached to the authority that their life’s meaning comes to be bound up with it, and life outside the movement comes to look bleak or empty. And although these acceptances have probably been benign enough in some cases, in many instances the consequences have ranged from unfortunate to catastrophic. That ought to give us cause to be wary, I think.

But of course the followers of any particular authority can respond that the problem is that those other people chose to follow an unworthy authority. And the fact that all of the other authority-followers can and do give this same response doesn’t demonstrate that it is wrong in any particular case. So, is there any more to say about the wisdom of this sort of “acceptance”?

I’m not sure. But here are a few thoughts:

– Insofar as the acceptance of authority is epistemically motivated, it’s not clear that there’s any gain. Is there any reason to believe that we’re epistemically more competent to determine (a) that X is a trustworthy authority, (b) that X is speaking authoritatively in this instance, and c) that among rival interpretations of what X means a particular interpretation is the correct one, than we are just to address the questions that arise in their own right (while giving due deference to authorities that we “value”)? I don’t see any reason to think so. On the contrary, especially insofar as (b) and c) involve more procedural and hermeneutical functions, I would think that the opposite conclusion is more plausible. (And a classical natural law view might provide a rationale for my conclusion: the natural law is supposed to be “written on the heart,” but I don’t recall anyone arguing that the procedural and hermeneutical criteria are “written on the heart”.) With specific respect to Catholicism, for example, a position that leads someone to say that 90 percent of Catholics (ranging from casual ones to highly educated and devout ones) have failed to understand correctly what the real teaching of the Church is on many matters underscores this concern.

– Insofar as part of the motivation for the move to authority is the common sense and the compassionate intuition that it can’t be the case that we’re left to wander often in error, led by our own feeble understandings, the previous point about relative epistemic competences once again suggests that there’s little if any gain here by turning to authority in the strong sense that JM seems to have in mind.

– I think we always need to at least try to be conscious of motivations that may distort our judgment about such questions. It is a burden and frustration to live subject to uncertainty, and the burden is perhaps greater– unbearable, almost-- the more a person actually cares about truth. In addition, it’s easy to see that people (gnostics, Straussians, contemporary liberal academics, etc. etc.) often derive a good deal of satisfaction from thinking that they are part of the favored, enlightened few in a world in which the mass of people are dumb, deluded, or depraved. But this is an illicit pleasure that should be resisted, I think. I hasten to acknowledge that distorting motivations– pride, selfishness, etc.– could also lead a person to resist a truth or authority. Self-consciousness about corrupting motivations doesn’t ultimately answer the question of truth. But it is a factor to be aware of, I believe.

– Far from it being the case that a Christian has special reason to accept authority in this strong sense, my own view is just the opposite. We would no doubt have to inspect the various statements from Augustine, et al. to see whether they understand "faith" to mean this sort of strong acceptance. And we would need to think about such statements in light of later developments. I haven't done that. But for now . . .
– I see little if anything in the New Testament teaching this sort of strong acceptance of the authority of “the Church.” People have argued, of course, that the Gospels don’t indicate that Jesus intended to organize a church at all. This interpretation seems quite mistaken, and one would have to explain away certain “church” passages as later additions. But it does seem true that in the Gospels there isn’t much emphasis on the church, and the last chapter of John suggests that even after Jesus’s death and resurrection his closest followers, including Peter, didn’t understand that they were supposed to carry on the work in any organized way. Nor do I see any teaching of absolute deference to the church in Acts or the epistles; and Paul certainly didn’t practice such deference. (See, e.g., Galatians).
– What is very clear in the New Testament is that Jesus wants his followers to be “one,” and to serve and be compassionate to one another, and to be humble. Whether insistence on a particular authority is conducive to these virtues is something that would need to be decided in a particular context, I suppose. I enjoyed JM’s analogy about the car one earns as opposed to the gift, and I agree that there is a valid point there. Gratitude for a gift or truth one has received doesn’t need to entail smugness or superiority. Still, there is a real danger here, I think– one that Paul seems to be constantly struggling against in some of his epistles.
– I had several other points to make– I was going to go into idolatry, etc.– but this comment has already gone on too long. Nathan will ban me from his blog if I continue to submit these massive “comments.” So enough for now.

Nathan Smith

My thoughts on the reason why JM's "yes or no" concept of "accepting an authority" is a fallacy are, I think, more or less along the same lines as SDS's. A short version is: if we magically know that Authority X is true, we can't know whether we've interpreted it correctly. If Authority Y has the power to interpret Authority X, we can't know whether we've interpreted Authority Y's words correctly. And so on ad infinitum. The move JM is trying to make destroys all possibility of significance, meaning, and understanding if done in a coherent and consistent way, and JM only dodges this bullet through what we might call deliberately sloppy thinking (helpfully parsed by SDS).

But I think I've said all that before. I just wanted to add that if JM is right that Augustine, Thomas, etc. held a view of "accepting an authority" similar to hers, it doesn't mean that we have to reject the thought of these figures wholesale just because of this epistemological error. For Thomas's project of reconciling Christianity and Aristotle, for example, it seems clear that an epistemology of authority which doesn't fall into the infinite-regress trap-- a math-teacher theory of revelation leavened with the idea that understanding of ethics and of theological mysteries emerges through living the Christian life, for example-- could serve just as well. It often happens that a thinker of the past is discredited in marginal ways by later developments in related fields, yet the core of his thought remains valid and compelling. In saying this, I do not relinquish skepticism about whether the thinkers listed really embraced the epistemology of authority that JM outlines. JM takes pains to describe the normal process of accepting (she calls it "respecting") authority and to distinguish it from "accepting" authority in her peculiar sense. How clear did these thinkers make it that they were really drawing such a radical break?

Finally, since JM likes to engage in rhetorical tug-of-wars, one must tug back a little. Thus JM writes:

"those who do believe in faith (in a sense, let’s say, that the people I have listed could recognize as such)..."

Let's summarize the faith that SDS and I believe in "believing that God will fulfill His promises." Next, let's convert JM's hint into an explicit claim: Augustine, Thomas, and the other "people JM has listed" not only would disagree with this idea of faith but "could not recognize [this idea of faith] as such." The claim needs only to be stated for its silliness to be seen.


Babies baptized in the Catholic Church do not decide this for themselves, obviously. Yet this very baptims binds them to the Church for life.

If, at some point later in their lives, and through their own God-given intelligence, they seriously question/doubt any doctrine of the Catholic Church, in essence, they are heretics.

Despite the fact that they know why and when the Church determined that a doctrine was a matter of faith, they are still not REALLY free to dissent.

I understand that "fear" has it's place in discipline. Yet it has to be accompanied by a sensible explanation for why some actions will lead to harm. "Because I said so" only works with young children. Maybe.

To instill fear of obedience to every required belief throughout a person's whole life smacks of coersion and control to me, no matter its source.

Joyless Moralist

I don't think I'll try to answer everything in these comment, just since that would pull us in so many directions. For example, I obviously disagree quite a lot with SDS’ assessment of the New Testament, but perhaps we can have that discussion another time.

But I did think I might say more about what you call "turning judgment over to" an authority. The way you describe it makes it sounds as though the one who submits to authority *ceases* to exercise their judgment at all; they want the authority to make their decisions for them. Indeed, you seem to see it as a possible problem for me that I won't be *able* to relinquish my judgment completely, due to the need for comprehension and interpretation of the authority's teachings. That wasn't, however, the goal. I tried to make clear that the exercise of one's own reason is intimately bound up in the whole process, playing both a preparatory and a supportive role for faith. My wish is to bring faith and reason together, not to wedge them apart. That can’t be done, however, by making faith the *offspring* of reason (which is what you seemed to be recommending in your speech to the BL, where you wanted him to agree that his acceptance of a particular authority was the result of a private judgment.) Rather, faith must be the foundation from which reason works. Nathan’s claim that, “The move JM is trying to make destroys all possibility of significance, meaning, and understanding if done in a coherent and consistent way,” strikes me as just a claim that faith and reason cannot work in tandem; to be “coherent and consistent” you must ultimately build all your beliefs from one or the other. Well, I reject that, and it seems to me that scores of holy people have shown that it isn’t the case.

On my, shall we say, recommended course of development, the acceptance of Authority X is *not* merely the conclusion of a private judgment. It is an act of will, as made possible by a gift of grace. Instead of characterizing an act of faith as a "turning over" of one's own faculties, think of it as a grounding of one's future reasoning in the assumptions of faith. The assumptions themselves are not justified by reason, but they provide a rich framework within which reason can fruitfully explore.

I actually think that everyone has to do this in some way -- that is, they have to adopt some set of assumptions that are not themselves justified by reason, but that provide the framework for all other thought and speculation. As Pope Benedict likes to point out, life does not explain itself to us; we have to voluntarily adopt some way of looking at it (with a goal, of course, of looking at it in a way that reveals its meaning to us.) Many or most people likely attempt this through some hodgepodge of assumptions drawn from cultural background, religious teachings, induction from lived experience, and so forth. And mind you, as someone who thinks we have been endowed with substantial truth-grasping faculties, I expect there will generally be much truth in these “foundational” beliefs (though for most people they probably tend to shift around quite a bit throughout their lives.) Anyway, faith is in one sense just another way of grounding one’s worldview in a set of (themselves unproven) assumptions. But it is a somewhat special way of doing this, since the faithful soul adopts wholesale a very *particular* way of looking at things, and commits to maintaining this perspective, while readily acknowledging that its own experience can’t possibly enable it to definitely know that it got things right. One thing the Doctors and early Church Fathers like to point out a lot is that we *won’t* be able to understand this perspective more fully until *after* we’ve already committed ourselves to it. Which might seem to some like a ruse, but it also has a certain plausibility when you think about it. It can sometimes be the case with very deep truths that hypothetical reasoning just isn’t powerful enough to get you very far; only one who is willing to let his whole mind be molded and reordered to a different way of thinking will be able to penetrate the deeper mysteries.

Of course from the outside this tends to look like a “handing over” of reason, because many of the conclusions drawn by the person of faith will seem strange to the outsider, and the faithful person won’t even pretend to be able to fully justify himself in terms that the skeptic would accept. Whether or not a particular set of commitments *can* sustain the reason, without leading to the kind of negative results that SDS mentions, presumably depends on what the assumptions are (most importantly, whether or not they’re true.) Or, to put the point in a different way (that gets back to the question of authority): is the authority to which one submits the temporal manifestation of God’s own authority? This is, of course, what the Catholic church claims to be, and the crucial questions is just whether or not that claim is true. If it is, it would be great folly to reject that authority, since this would basically amount to rejecting God Himself (though of course invincible ignorance might excuse some.) If it’s a lie then we are, as St. Paul says, of all men the most miserable. But in neither case is reason being relinquished. It’s being grounded, and then guided, in particular ways.

Just two more things I would respond to, hopefully briefly. The first is this:

“– Insofar as the acceptance of authority is epistemically motivated, it’s not clear that there’s any gain. Is there any reason to believe that we’re epistemically more competent to determine (a) that X is a trustworthy authority, (b) that X is speaking authoritatively in this instance, and c) that among rival interpretations of what X means a particular interpretation is the correct one, than we are just to address the questions that arise in their own right (while giving due deference to authorities that we “value”)? I don’t see any reason to think so. On the contrary, especially insofar as (b) and c) involve more procedural and hermeneutical functions, I would think that the opposite conclusion is more plausible. (And a classical natural law view might provide a rationale for my conclusion: the natural law is supposed to be “written on the heart,” but I don’t recall anyone arguing that the procedural and hermeneutical criteria are “written on the heart”.)”

I’ve already explained the extent to which the acceptance of authority is “epistemically motivated” as you put it, but I guess this contains a more general question: are we normally better equipped to answer a series of questions on our own lights, or to select an authority who is trustworthy to answer them for us? Again, the crux of our debate must focus on (a), because our disagreement seems to focus on whether or not this is a good assumption to make. As far as trusting authorities goes, our practical approach tends to depend on the situation. In a great many situations, we certainly do think ourselves more qualified to identify authorities than to answer questions for ourselves. It doesn't seem at all strange to suppose that, particularly when answering a large range of difficult questions, we're more likely to be able to pick a reliable authority than to answer them well ourselves; especially with any specialized subject, it is much easier to identify an expert than to gain the relevant experience to *be* an expert. The trust we put in such experts isn’t normally so absolute as what I’m recommending, of course, but actually I’d suggest that religion is one area in which we should acknowledge ourselves to be *particularly* in need of authoritative guidance, and actually the natural law view highlights this very well. The *natural* law is written on our hearts, as you say. But the natural law isn’t sufficient for salvation, and as regards vital theological questions, the best natural law does is to point beyond itself by acknowledging its own complete insufficiency to address them. Also, as sinful and fallen beings, we *know* that our judgment is regularly clouded by sin. All this being the case, we should recognize that it is really quite necessary for us to submit to authority – with our submission sometimes being most spiritually necessary in areas where we are most reluctant to do it. Insofar as your stance is, “I won’t submit to any authority until I find one that agrees with me on a whole list of questions that I frankly acknowledge myself to be highly ill-equipped to answer…” well, that doesn’t seem like a terribly sensible policy to me.

Finally, and this really will be brief:

“Let's summarize the faith that SDS and I believe in "believing that God will fulfill His promises." Next, let's convert JM's hint into an explicit claim: Augustine, Thomas, and the other "people JM has listed" not only would disagree with this idea of faith but "could not recognize [this idea of faith] as such." The claim needs only to be stated for its silliness to be seen.”

It might be interesting to examine more what you mean when you say that you believe this, and what that claim really amounts to for you. But for these purposes we can make shorter work of your argument by accepting that you do believe it, but specifying that, for the thinkers I’ve mentioned, this would be a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for having faith.

I really don't think the dispute that you're setting up with the likes of St. Thomas or St. Bonaventure is at all minor... actually I think I could make a good case that it runs quite deep. This is enough, however, for one comment!

טיולים מאורגנים

It is in the accordance with their dignity as persons, ie creatures endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility, that all men would be immediately forced to nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially truth religious. They are also obliged to respect the truth when it is known, and so their whole lives in accordance with the requirements of truth, however, men can not these requirements in a manner consistent with their own nature unless they enjoy external coercion immunity and spiritual freedom.

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