Can belief be commanded?

Please read my previous post first on the difference between reliability and authority.

Does the Church command belief?  It would seem so.  In order for a teaching to be infallible, it must be said to be binding on all the faithful, which may involve formulae such as that X is definitely to be held or that those who deny X shall be anathema.  This sounds like command language.  “Believe this because we said so.”  However, it is possible to read the intent in another way, that the command-like language is a performance to show that the Church’s infallibility now covers the proposition in question.  “We’re sure X is true, and being a Catholic you know that we don’t make mistakes when we speak this way.”  Here the appeal is to intellect rather than will.  Believe any consistent set of beliefs you like, but Catholicism + not-X has just been removed from this list, because Catholicism contains the proposition “infallible teachings can’t be wrong” and X is now an infallible teaching.  So, whatever reason you had for accepting Catholicism is now ipso facto a reason for accepting X.

Thus, I object to the following from Lumen Gentium

In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

If a teaching of the pope is not certainly known, why must we all believe it?   This is authority dictating belief.  “Believe this, not because we’re willing to say it’s definitely true, but just because you have to do what we say.”

This is certainly more than just a command to give the pope a respectful hearing, as dissenters used to claim.  In fact, I don’t accept even this, that when the pope publishes a magisterial document contradicting revelation and exonerating adultery, as has now happened, that he should be met with anything but outrage and ridicule.  Would the saints of past ages have been concerned about respect for office faced with such an abomination?

The stated duty is also more than a command not to speak against the pope’s statements.  Prematurely cutting off debate is usually unwise, but the pope might decide that debate itself is damaging the confidence or fraternity of the faithful.  Still, such a restriction would not command belief as does the instruction “the judgments made by him are [to be] sincerely adhered to”.

This issue has become urgent.  Individual bishops used to expound their own views on non-settled doctrine until pope or council made a definitive resolution.  For the past century or so, the papacy has been routinely issuing official, magisterial statements which clearly establish official beliefs for the entire Church but do not meet the conditions for infallibility.  Thus, we have teachings which, in addition to being official and of questionable connection to the deposit of infallible revelation, are quite novel:  that everyone has a right to immigrate, that the death penalty can only be imposed when societal self-defense requires it, that the Church has a duty to ecumenism, that the Old Covenant has not been superseded, that in-vitro fertilization is immoral, that racial discrimination is immoral, and now that adulterers have a duty to render the adultery debt.

Such was a danger of Vatican I.  Introducing the dogma of infallible teaching introduces the idea of non-infallible teaching.  This prompts the faithful to wonder what of the teachings they’ve been given falls into this category, which is bad enough, but when the pope gets it into his head that he needn’t always be right, he gets careless.  He thinks he is exercising restraint by leaving his pronouncements fallible, but he is really over-using his authority.  The pre-Vatican I Church had many infallible dogmas, but few commanded beliefs, while we now have many.

I myself have lost the ability to extend any credit at all to the non-infallible Magisterium, especially with the lewd old heretic currently occupying Peter’s chair.  This is not a state I recommend to anyone.  It jeopardizes my communion with the Church.  It may well be the prelude to a more general collapse of faith.  But I find it beyond my power to force myself to believe things, especially the things I’m now being ordered to believe.

Authority in Church and State

Teaching vs. commanding power

In my Conservative Vision of Authority, I distinguish two types of authoritative pronouncements, basically those that expound truths and those that give orders.

In fact, both ruler and priest mediate God’s presence socially, but in very different ways.

Authority in the state and the family address in God’s name the practical reason.  Authority always speaks in the imperative.  “Do this.  Don’t do that.”  Authority quaauthority never speaks in the declarative.  It would be meaningless, for example, for the ruler to command that gambling is wrong.  He may, however, command that the wrongness of gambling be taught in schools, or that gambling shall be punished in some particular way.  Because it speaks in the imperative, the statements of authority are particular rather than universal.  A meaningful command is always limited to its intended recipient.  A ruler can order one subject to stand up and another to sit down without contradicting himself.

The social experience of God has a theoretical or contemplative aspect, as well as a practical one, and this contemplative encounter with God is the realm of the Church.  It consists, first of all, in dogmas—declarative statements about God, His relationship to man, and morality.  Unlike orders, dogmas are by their nature universal; if one is true at all, it is true for everyone, everywhere.  While diversity of authorities, customs, and cultures is natural and good, diversity in dogmatic belief is bad because it means that at least some people are ignorant of the truth.  Ideally, there should be one Church.

Talk about “authority” in the Church often really refers to her reliability/infallibility.  The Church does also have authority in the sense of right to command in certain domains.  Ecclesiastic courts properly judge matters having to do with the sacraments; priests must obey their bishops in all matters pertaining to their ministry; the Church may impose excommunication or interdiction; it naturally falls upon her judgement to determine guilt in matters of blasphemy or heresy.  By her infallibility (the reliability of her declarative statements), the Church is supreme over the State, because she teaches the principles upon which government must base its actions.  As an authority (being able to impose duties by her imperative statements), she exists more on the same level as the State and is divided by the temporal order primarily by the types of issues over which she exercises her rule.

Arguably the Church claims for herself superiority even in the order of authority, as seen in issues like the right of asylum or the prerogative of the pope to release subjects from their duties to an errant secular prince.  Even so, she would admit that these are emergency measures, to be taken only when the State goes drastically wrong.  Also, even if the pope can release me from my duty to the temporal power, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he can command disobedience (except when natural or revealed law already commands it).  I may decide the pope is wrong and voluntarily continue to obey my prince.

Recently, there has been some talk about the Church being feminine in her relationship with the State.  Such analogies are to be avoided if they obscure the truth that the Church is the superior authority.

Acts of the Church vs. acts of Christ

The Church is a corporate body, so public acts of the pope or bishops are usually acts of the Church herself.  This issue is key to the reoccurring controversy over whether or not the Church herself can sin.  The Church is the corporate body of Christ, and Christ Himself certainly does not sin.  Thus, the usually contrite post-Vatican II Church has tended to take the line that the Church per se is sinless, but her members commit sins, including bishops and popes.  Does this mean that popes have never given wicked orders, or that if they have that in such cases the pope was (contrary to appearances) acting as a private person?  The latter is implausible.  As for the former, I don’t think popes have given wicked orders nearly as often as anti-Catholics think, but I don’t think we are obliged to believe it could never happen.  Clearly, we must distinguish acts of the Church that are acts of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (execution of the Sacraments, exercise of infallible teaching) and other corporate acts of the Church with which her Founder is not supernaturally involved (although He established the authority to which she appeals in such acts) and which have no guarantee of prudence, morality, or sanity.  I think the Church could concede this, but she should also stop apologizing for past acts of the Church (not just a pope) that weren’t sinful, like the Crusades.



From the Laws of Manu, something fans of Joseph de Maistre will appreciate:

14. For the (king’s) sake the Lord formerly created his own son, Punishment, the protector of all creatures, (an incarnation of) the law, formed of Brahman’s glory.

15. Through fear of him all created beings, both the immovable and the movable, allow themselves to be enjoyed and swerve not from their duties.

16. Having fully considered the time and the place (of the offence), the strength and the knowledge (of the offender), let him justly inflict that (punishment) on men who act unjustly.

17. Punishment is (in reality) the king (and) the male, that the manager of affairs, that the ruler, and that is called the surety for the four orders’ obedience to the law.

18. Punishment alone governs all created beings, punishment alone protects them, punishment watches over them while they sleep; the wise declare punishment (to be identical with) the law.

19. If (punishment) is properly inflicted after (due) consideration, it makes all people happy; but inflicted without consideration, it destroys everything.

20. If the king did not, without tiring, inflict punishment on those worthy to be punished, the stronger would roast the weaker, like fish on a spit;

21. The crow would eat the sacrificial cake and the dog would lick the sacrificial viands, and ownership would not remain with any one, the lower ones would (usurp the place of) the higher ones.

22. The whole world is kept in order by punishment, for a guiltless man is hard to find; through fear of punishment the whole world yields the enjoyments (which it owes).

More evidence that democracy destroys Catholicism

The election of an anti-clerical, pro-gay, pro-Muslim socialist as president of the once staunchly Catholic Philippines is yet one more instance of the universally observed trend:

  • Democracy always, always leads populations away from the Catholic faith.
  • Democracy nearly always energizes Islam.  (The only exception I know is Iran.  Maybe there’s a Shia vs. Sunni difference here.)

If salvation of souls is the most important thing, was the Philippine Church not foolish to undermine the Marcos dictatorship?  Filipinos would be much more likely to attain heaven in a dictatorship than in a democracy.

Catholicism is hierarchical, authoritarian, dogmatic, and difficult.  Outside an authoritarian matrix, it quickly becomes unpopular.  Islam (at least Sunni Islam) is egalitarian, demagogic, perpetually aggrieved–a perfect religious fit to democracy.

Physical analogies in the era of the no-limits Left

Politics is often understood by analogy to mechanical equilibrium.  The two sides are like opposing forces.  Their strength depends on the republic’s current policy set, which set can be roughly mapped to a one-dimensional line from “Right” to “Left”.  For one policy location, the forces balance and equilibrium can be maintained.  The equilibrium is assumed to be stable; making policy too intolerable for one side will energize that side and lead to a push back toward equilibrium.  Averaged over election cycles, policy remains close to equilibrium, while drift in the equilibrium point itself due to culture change is assumed to happen but on a timescale long compared to electoral timescales.  Even though equilibrium may drift one way or the other, neither side is able to push all the way to its ideal policy set (the Right or Left terminus).  It is understood in this model that it is as important for a candidate not to mobilize moderates leaning toward the other side as it is for him to mobilize his own side.  Hence, senatorial and presidential candidates will feign moderation before a general election.

This analogy is no longer valid.  I realized this when, defying the usual electoral logic, President Obama endorsed gay marriage while seeking re-election.  As I recall, the President made no feigns to the middle.  He correctly realized he didn’t have to anymore.  Energizing the Right is no longer a danger for a politician.  The age of the no-limits Left had begun.  Once the Left realized this, a host of previously unthinkable things happened overnight.  For a hundred years, “Southern pride” was a fact of life whether one liked it or not.  Then the Left snapped its fingers and removed the Confederate flag from the public.  In an America with a Right strong enough to seriously challenge the Left, liberals would themselves be the biggest proponents of “religious freedom” bills.  Allowing individuals and small businesses to abstain from endorsing gay marriage costs the Democrats’ gay clients very little, and it would be a cheap and effective way to de-energize the Right, to convince conservatives that while the public sphere is definitely lost to them, they will be allowed to retreat to private life unmolested.  In the age of the no-limits Left, such calculations do not arise.  It doesn’t matter how upset or angry one makes people who identify positively with orthodox Christianity or the white race.  These people are powerless, so there’s no need to make allowances so that life remains tolerable to them.

In the new age of the no-limits Left, physical analogies should be not mechanical but thermodynamical.  There is no serious organized resistance to the Left, but we will never achieve the state of total Leftist purity simply because of uncontrolled random variables at the microscopic (individual) scale.  Certain individuals may not be properly indoctrinated because they are stupid or crazy or because of local glitches in the educational system.  (In the late Roman Empire, there were Christians and there were pagans, but when organized paganism was sufficiently vanquished, the categories became educated Christian and uneducated Christian.)  Individuals or small groups might act out in politically incorrect ways simply because, for various psychological or group-dynamical reasons, they wish to violate social propriety.  (The Nazis were once a political party that attracted some of Germany’s finest minds; now they’re an American prison gang.)  A few will accidentally encounter fragments of prior ideological systems and pick them up for reasons good or bad.

A system immersed in a thermal bath will not find all particles in the ground state, even though it is the state of lowest energy.  For such a system, not the energy U but the free energy U – TS will be minimized.  We are no longer a rival force.  We are entropy in the system.


Do creative people usually accept the official beliefs of their society?


Before the mid-eighteenth century, most notable Europeans claimed to be Christian and claimed that their art was consistent with their putative faith.  Today, these claims are not taken seriously.  After all, geniuses in the Middle Ages and Early Modern times had to pretend to accept the established faith, because there would have been big consequences if they had publicly denied it, and who needs that kind of grief?  What’s more, modern admirers of their works often find that the Christian veneer is rather thin, while the author or artist’s enthusiasm for pagan nobility, romantic adultery, or whatever seems deep and heartfelt.  Geniuses of every age were actually modern American atheists born in the wrong time.

On the other hand, we are not these people’s contemporaries, and we may not have a good sense for what was socially imaginable in the elite circles of their times.  It can be dangerous to assume that the thought patterns we have been conditioned to accept came naturally to them.  Let us instead start with our own time.  Nearly everybody of note says that they support social justice and democracy, that they oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like.  Then again, they would have to say that, wouldn’t they?  One invites quite a bit of grief publicly denying the official faith.  What do we find in their art?  I don’t watch too much television or movies, but I tend to assume that it’s all Leftist propaganda, so when I do watch something, I’m often pleasantly surprised.  I’ve written about this before regarding Disney movies (see here, here, here, and here), My Little Pony, and Batman.  The affirmation of official pieties, when present at all, seems perfunctory, while monarchist sentiments and premodern archetypes drive the story at the deeper levels.  Should we suspect that Christopher Nolan, Lauren Faust, and whoever’s running Disney these days are secretly plotting to soften up the American public for monarchy?  No, that would be absurd, absurd because socially unimaginable.  We live in this time, and we know what kind of beliefs it is possible for people to hold, even people of exceptional intelligence and creativity.  We’ve been under the hood.  We’ve talked to modern people in private, shared their school and media experiences, and we know the bounds of what is thinkable.

How do we explain the persistence of non-Leftist themes in the art of an era of Leftist cultural hegemony?  Most likely it’s a case of the best artists being non-ideological, of choosing whatever seems to pack the biggest dramatic punch, of whatever makes the characters feel most alive and real, rather than what fits with their sincerely held worldview.  Naturally, and without any conscious understanding of what they are doing, they will often be attracted to premodern and universal archetypes.

It is not likely that the Walt Disney company is run by a band of utterly ruthless cynics who combine a perfect understanding of real human nature with a perfect understanding of how to manipulate social justice signaling, even though I can’t think of how the company’s actions would be different if it were run by such super-intelligent cynics.  Modern people cannot allow themselves to understand their social world that clearly.  Such clarity would be dangerous to them.

Given what we know of our own times, it is natural to assume that artists in the age of Christendom really were, or really thought themselves to be, Christians.  Their enthusiasm for non-Christian themes and their clumsiness handling Christian themes are consistent with this.

Liberals would no doubt object that the two cases are entirely dissimilar.  They will say that Christianity is wrong and irrational so smart people would have always seen through it, while today’s beliefs are true, humane, and coterminous with reason itself, so all intelligent and independent-minded people naturally converge on them.  That is, they would say it’s not that smart and creative people tended to accept whatever the beliefs of their time were, but that they tended to accept the beliefs of our time, because ours are best.  Both theories explain the uniformity of today’s elite, and our claims about past elite’s private beliefs are admittedly speculation.  Liberals may also point to the liberalism of intellectual elites in the non-Western world, but this would not be a good counter-example, because most of these foreign elites were indoctrinated in Western universities.

What would help would be if we had examples where the smart set was wrong, and not only wrong but more wrong than the common people.  It would be particularly telling if elite opinion switched back and forth.  Such examples would prove that the smart and creative do not uniformly lead the way toward greater and greater liberal truth, that the uniformity of their beliefs has more to do with social mechanisms of consensus-establishment than evident rightness.  Are there such cases?  Perhaps eugenics and communism?

Christianity’s political form

Let us take encouragement where we can.  First Things has published a tepid defense of nationalism by Pierre Manent.

Islam was never able to abandon the imperial form that ­Christianity could never assume in a lasting way. Christianity instead found its form in the nation, or in the plurality of nations once called “Christendom,” then “Europe.”

“Nation” is not quite the correct word.  Christianity found its form in the plurality of kingdoms once called “Christendom”.  A kingdom is a type of nation, but not the only type.  The kingdom of France was a political expression of a Christian people; the Republic of France is founded on the public illegitimacy of Christianity.

Manent proceeds to lament France’s inability to muster a strong collective will, loss of a sense of the common good, and an anti-political European Union.  This is all encouraging for First Things, given its classical liberal beginnings.  What Manent says here about Muslims is certainly true.

Because only the individual and the human race are [deemed] legitimate, intermediate communities in which human beings actually live, such as nations and churches, have no legitimacy of their own and in fact bear the stigma of rupturing human unity. However, to be consistent, this delegitimation of communities should include or implicate the Islamic community. But this does not happen. European political elites speak of Islam and the Islamic community in a way they would never speak of Christianity and the church. In our public discourse, there are Muslims and there are Europeans. Why is it that only one form of living communal identity, the Muslim form, receives the unreserved recognition of ruling opinion?

The most decisive reason, I think, is the following. Those who decide what we have the right to say and do do not engage Islam as a social reality. It is not considered in itself. Instead, “Islam” becomes a test of our post-political resolve. It must be accepted without either reservation or question in order to verify that Europe is indeed empty of any national or religious substance that might get in the way of human universality. The refusal to treat Islam as a social or, more generally, a human reality therefore has nothing to do with Islam but instead with Europe’s self-image….

Precisely because it has been the enemy of Christianity over the centuries, and because its moral practices are now the furthest from those of the Europe of human rights, a post-political European sees Islam’s unhindered presence as demonstrating the triumph of European ideals. We have become so universally human that we have no enemies.

However, his understandable attachment to both his country and his Church makes him underestimate how radically antagonistic they are.

Here the Church must play a central role. Although Catholics seem to be pushed ever further toward the periphery of public life, even in our secularized present the Church is the spiritual domain at the center of the West. Her responsibility is proportional to this centrality, which in truth is inseparable from her identity. The universal Church alone is up to the task of holding together a European form of life that has the capacity to offer hospitality to Judaism, Islam, evangelical Protestantism, and the doctrine of human rights. And so, the Church in France—that is, French Catholics—have a special responsibility for the common good in which the other spiritual forces of my country participate.

No, the Church lost any “special responsibility” to the atheist-Jewish Republic in 1905.  Also, it’s not clear what this special responsibility entails.  There’s no hint it involves stopping the Muslim colonization.

It is my contention that France’s Muslims will find their place only if the French nation accepts them, not just as rights-bearing citizens, along with other bearers of the same rights, but as a distinctive community to which that nation, shaped by Christianity, grants a place. Our Muslim fellow citizens must obviously enjoy the rights of French citizens without any kind of discrimination, which is not always the case at present. They cannot, however, find a place in a vacuum. They find their place only within a nation that has the spiritual and intellectual resources to be generous without being complacent.

To find their place in a France alive to its Christian center, Muslims must want to participate actively in the life of a political body that does not and will not belong to the umma; they must therefore accept a degree of separation from the umma. For the nation to accept them as Muslims without reducing their religious mark to a private particularity with no relevance to the political body, it is necessary that they accept this particular nation, the French nation, as the site of their civic activity and, more generally, of their education. A certain “communitarianism” is inevitable. Muslims will inevitably form a visible and distinct community. This will lead to difficulties, on one side or the other. But this is desirable to the degree that it prevents the ideological lie of the new secularism, which obligates us to pretend to be nothing but citizen-individuals who are permitted common action only for the sake of “humanity.”

I’m a communitarian myself, especially by the standards of French civic totalitarianism, so I’m happy for the Muslims we unfortunately can’t get rid of to have their own spaces.  But fair is fair.  French Catholics should also get their own spaces dominated by their own ethos.  Except that can’t happen unless Muslim fellow citizens are subjected to “discrimination”, not in their “rights of French citizens” narrowly conceived but in a very publicly relevant way should they encroach on Catholic communities.  Would Manent allow this, or has he himself imagined Catholics as so universally human that we don’t have enemies?

The essay ends with an amusing (but reasonable) argument that we should preserve historically Christian nations because it’s good for Jews and Muslims.  Frenchmen are still not being encouraged to pursue their own collective interest for its own sake, but I suppose this is still a step in the right direction.

It is up to Christians to renew the meaning and the credibility of the political community ennobled by the Covenant. We will not do this by inviting Islam to join a vague fraternity of the children of Abraham. We will renew the meaning and credibility of the Covenant only by renewing the meaning and credibility of the distinctively European association that bore the Covenant until only recently—that is, the nation. Now that the Jewish people have taken the form of a nation in Israel, the nations of Christian Europe cannot break with the national form without fatally wounding the legitimacy of Israel. So long as the walls of the Arab-Muslim world are crumbling and Muslims seem to have more and more difficulty producing a political form from their own resources, to admit them into, or rather to abandon them in, a Europe without either political form or gathered collective action for the sake of the common good would be to take away their best chance for a civic life. It does not suffice to bring men together to declare or even to guarantee their rights. They need a form of common life. In France, a nation of the Christian mark is the only form that can bring us all together.