Cross-post: How do I know the Catholic Church is infallible?

How can one know a source is trustworthy? One could do it by independently confirming everything the source says, but if I can do that and am willing to do that, then the trustworthy source is useless. Thus the argument that one cannot base one’s knowledge on external authority. However, it proves too much, because in fact we often identify trustworthy sources. When Christians affirm the inerrancy of the Bible, and Catholics and Orthodox the infallibility of the Church, this is not illogical or arbitrary. Identifying a trustworthy source does go beyond strict logical demonstration to invoke what Newman called the “illative sense”–the intuition that multiple lines of evidence converge on a conclusion.

Consider a related question–have you ever met someone who was smarter than you? I certainly have. How did you know? If another person’s reasoning skills exceed your own, how do you know he’s not just BSing? There are several marks we recognize when in the presence of a mind superior to our own.

  • He is reliable in those cases we can independently check–right for the right reason.
  • In particular, he turns out to be reliable in cases where the truth was initially unclear to us, but in which later and with much effort we realize that he was right for the right reason. Chesterton emphasized how impressive it is for a source to be right when nearly everyone else (including initially ourselves) is wrong.
  • He is able in some cases to clarify what was confusing to our own unaided intellects, so that we see after he has explained it that he grasped the essence of the thing, which we could only do after it was pointed out to us.
  • In other cases, his reasoning is beyond our ability to understand. Reasoning beyond our power is distinguishable from gibberish. We can grasp bits of it with difficulty and recognize its profundity. We find that when we grant the conclusion of an argument we can’t follow, that many other truths come together in a compelling and beautiful way.

I titled this post “How do I know the Catholic Church is infallible?” rather than “How can one know that the Catholic Church is infallible?” or “How can it be demonstrated that the Catholic Church is infallible?” because how I know it will be different from how you could know it. Rather like how we can each know that the mass media is a giant conspiracy to deceive the public, but my proof will be different from yours, because we each have different private certainties with which to contest the media’s monopoly on public truth. In both cases, the truth of the matter is objective–I do not mean to imply that the Church is infallible only “for me”, i.e. as a statement not about the Church but about some personal existential decision. The Church is infallible, but I can only give you some of the signs of that infallibility that are compelling to me.

The Catholic Church is infallible because Protestantism is true! What could be more intuitive than that men’s good and bad acts are the fruit of his own free will, and that the role of a just God is to reward the good and punish the wicked? Yet Christianity insists that it is God’s grace that gives man his love for God and his desire and strength of will to do good. None can boast, for if I “earn” salvation, this will itself be God’s predestining generosity. This is not something I would have come up with on my own, but its rightness is intuitively striking to me. Should I not be grateful for my avoided sins and my meager virtues? Of course, says my pious instinct, and orthodox theology explains why.

The Catholic Church is infallible because Eastern Orthodoxy is true! What could be more elevated, more “spiritual”, than to assume that God always imparts His grace in a purely spiritual way, directly to the individual soul in its private relation to Him? Yet the apostolic Church insists that God acts sacramentally, through signs by enacting their meanings, through His Church on Earth. For in a religion where only spiritual acts of individual souls count, what purpose could there be for the Incarnation? Signs have the ability to transcend private spiritual acts. By becoming man, the Son could offer himself as a sacrifice in a public, physical and symbolically communicable way; the Eucharist is our sacramental incorporation into this sacrifice, and the Church is the body of believers thus incorporated. Catholicism has retained the most primitive features of religion–the sacred-profane dichotomy, ritual, priesthood, sacrifice–instinctively recognizing that religion needs these primitive elements not only to have force, but also to make sense.

The Catholic Church is infallible because she is incompatible with the modern world! What could be more gratifying to modern man than a religion that affirms him in all his prejudices–freedom! equality! equity! democracy! socialism! free sex! The Catholic Church is absolutely incompatible with all these things, thank God–even and especially her worst enemies will grant her that! She is among us, but not of us. A rare thing indeed, when even scientific professional societies spout political statements for the Leftist Regime, hopping on command like trained monkeys. Indeed, nothing could be more useless to modern man than a religion that affirms him in all his prejudices, and once he is brought by some higher authority to see them from the outside, he sees how utterly contemptible these prejudices are.

The Catholic Church is infallible because her teaching doesn’t make sense to me! An authority that truly transcends me should have some teachings I don’t understand, and a worthy obedience should include assent to propositions beyond my independent judgment. I do not understand the reasons for the Church’s condemnation of usury, for example, despite Zippy’s patient attempts to explain them. However, looking at the world around us, effectively controlled by a parasitic financial class whose members are outstanding in the wickedness of their beliefs and behavior, the truth of the Church’s teaching is amply demonstrated. That individuals and societies which embrace usury fall into such manifest depravity proves that the thing itself is spiritually corrupting, whether one understands how it is or not. The perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary is not something I would have believed on my own; why should the one woman without sin have neglected her marital duty? Yet holy men throughout the centuries have been passionately convinced of this doctrine, and since their spiritual sensibility is far superior to mine, it is clear that the Church is right and I am wrong. The doctrines of the Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Mary make no sense to me–where are their bodies supposed to have gone? But wiser men than I have seen no difficulty here, so I conclude that I once again am wrong, and I just need to think more until I identify my hidden, flawed assumption, and the doctrines make sense. No doubt I still hold many false beliefs about the world and am grateful that the Church continues to “scandalize” me into shaking them off.

The Catholic Church is infallible because she says she is! Just as C. S. Lewis pointed out that it makes no sense to accept Jesus as a wise teacher and holy man who falsely and blasphemously asserted divinity, it would not do to accept the Church as a generally reliable guide but deny her emphatically-stated claim to authority. She is not content to be one advising voice, and when I consider the many errors from which she has already saved me, my own intellectual deficiencies, and the perversity of all other influences, I cannot but be grateful for her authoritarianism. Furthermore, there is the social dimension to consider. By denying the Church’s authority, I would be separating myself from a community and indeed joining its enemies. Such considerations may seem orthogonal to the consideration of truth, but this is so only if reasoning is an individual and not a social activity. If my reasoning depends on a living community and its traditions, then the search for truth must take on a social and political aspect, a concern to maintain the preconditions of my thinking that manifests itself in the call to obedience.

2 Responses

  1. Great to read you again, Bonald, you’ve been missed.

  2. Thanks. I mostly post at the Orthosphere.

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