Truth – Tradition – Authority

2 03 2009


Recently I picked up again Jacques Maritain’s book, Three Reformers, written in his earlier, more “reactionary” phase. Things that I have read on the Internet as of late have made me contemplate the relationship between authority, truth, and tradition. According to a few de-historicized Internet Catholic pundits, the Catholic Church is the true church since it is the only one that dodges the bullet of “private interpretation”. Human reason coupled with ambiguous historical evidence is unable to reach the truths of Divine Revelation, and through some interesting thought processes, these individuals reach the Catholic Church due to an absolute certainty that while they themselves cannot be certain, something must be. By an intuitive leap and using of abduction, they conclude that that something is the Catholic Church, or more specifically, the Roman Pontiff. Though the arguments are often more subtle than this, personally I come away with the impression that what has won out here is not the human intellect but human ineptitude. Reason has to be stripped of its power to achieve truth.

This would not really bother me if there was not something more behind it, and this is where Maritain comes in. In thinking on the above mentioned issues, I could not help but be reminded of Maritain’s arguments against Descartes. Basically, while addressing such problems as the inerrancy of Scripture in historical matters, some have decided to side with the arguments of modern scholarship over the literal interpretations of the perennial truths of the Faith. In this way, they hope to avert “Averroism”: the idea that there are two truths and two distinct methods of achieving those truths. Admittedly, the official Magisterium has not declared either way on many of these questions, though that is not what I would like to address now. What most strikes me about their method is a radically skeptical hermeneutic with which they approach these questions. One can be under the impression that man starts out as a tabula rasa when approaching issues of religious assent, and it can seem, especially in the arguments that I have read heretofore, that a Cartesian de omnibus dubitandum fuels such speculations.

In that vein, I couldn’t help but think of the following Maritain passage, on the system of the father of modern doubt, Rene Descartes:

If Cartesianism showed itself so savage a ravager of the past in the intelligible order, it is because it began by disowning in the individual himself the essential intrinsic dependence of our present knowledge on our past, which makes our establishment in truth, humanly speaking, necessarily and of itself a strangely long and laborious thing… In Descartes the result is the most single type of certitude, rigid as Law, is imposed on thought; everything which cannot be brought under it must be rejected; absolute exclusion of everything that is not mathematically evident, or deemed so. It is inhuman cognition, because it would be superhuman! There is the source not only of Descartes’ proclamation of brutal contempt for the humanities, for Greek and Latin:- “It is no more the duty of a sound man to know Greek or Latin than to know Swiss or Low Breton,”- for history, for erudition, for all the huge realm of positive and moral studies, which his successors later reduced to absurdity in their desire to make of them a “mathematics of the contingent”; but it is the principle and the origin of the deep inhumanity of our modern science. (emphasis in the original)

I am not one to belittle problems of skepticism or modern doubt. I myself have been an atheist and agnostic for some of my life, and I cannot simply tell people raised in a culture of doubt to suddenly become credulous if it violates the light of their reason. What I will say on the other hand is that, at some point, this culture needs to be tempered by the idea that in this life we cannot have the certainty that some of them seek. Such certainty transcends the power of human thought. In other words, we cannot apply the criterion of scientific certainty to anything other than quantifiable realities. Nor can we construct artificial systems by which we somehow achieve that certainty, especially when it involves truths of the Faith.

I am in this sense very dissatisfied with some explanations of the truths of the Roman Church being totally contingent on a mechanism of ecclesial power and authority. In this case, what seems to me the most dubious is that one aspect or pillar of the Faith is deemed essential, while the others, from a systematic point of view, seem to be accidental in the constitution of Catholic consciousness. For them, it seems, authority trumps reason, tradition, Scripture, worship, and so on, as the main gatekeeper of truth in a culture of universal doubt. I find an inhuman lack of balance in these suppositions; a sort of deus ex machina that we create in our minds to rescue us from having to think as human beings. While such documents as Unam Sanctam and Pastor Aeternus do indeed define the absolute necessity of the Papacy, those definitions contain the implication as well that there is a deposit, a sacred immutable body of doctrines, that must be upheld by this authority. This institution can only claim absolute, immutable authority in very specific circumstances. It is thus not apparent to me that the Papacy can bear the epistemological burden that many Catholics seek to place on it; it is the Church that is the pillar and ground of Truth, not any specific Pope, living or deceased.

Another aspect of this crisis of epistemology was articulate by the Catholic traditionalist polemicist, Christopher Ferrara, in the latest issue of the Remnant:

…Catholics are not obliged to seek a “proper interpretation” of Magisterial pronouncements by looking to “all the relevant Scriptural and Magisterial texts” as if the Faith were an endless exercise in continuous cross-referencing. For one thing, the Church’s dogmatic definitions are infallible ex sese—of themselves—as the First Vatican Council teaches in its Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus (1870). The definitions thus “interpret” themselves, and a literate Catholic need do nothing but read the definition in order to understand what the Church teaches and what he must believe.

Many modern “conservative” Catholics pretend that what we must believe is vague and full of mystery, and this is simply not the case. As Ferrara says above, what we have to believe is quite clear and unambiguous, and well within the grasp of human reason without having to resort to an absolute dependence on authority. This is the reason why I have criticized the idea of a “hermeneutic of continuity” in the first place; within the realm of a stable and immutable set of doctrines of the Church, such an idea for the orthodox Catholic would simply be redundant. As Ferrara further points out:

…ironically enough, it is really the traditionalists who adhere to a hermeneutic of continuity, refusing to concede that any constant teaching or defined dogma of the Church could have been “repealed,” “overruled,” “revised” or “deepened” by Vatican II or the conciliar Popes in a way that would alter its previous understanding, for if that could happen then the Magisterium would be an uncertain trumpet and Christ would be a liar.

By this, I would say that it is the traditional understanding of the Church and its doctrine that does the least violence to human reason and the modern sensibility. Pace the modern ideas of the development of doctrine, it is only the idea that the Church has always had of itself, of St. Vincent of Lerins’ quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est, that can guarantee the indefectibilty of the Church and the promise of Christ being with us until the end of the world. Since Pentecost, the Church has enjoyed a fullness of truth that has always been accessible to those who have ears to hear and an open heart. Though such ideas may not satisfy certain pundits who would desire an inhuman certainty in these matters, I believe it is the explanation that has the least amount of cognitive dissonance, and it is what is most needed in a world with relatively few stable ideas. Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis.

It is not surprising that even the ideas of orthodox Catholics are affected by the general Cartesian malaise of absolute doubt and cognitive instability. There have been revolutions in the physical sciences and historical scholarship that seem to put into question many of the certainties that our Catholic forefathers took for granted. While we cannot simply put aside these difficulties, we cannot allow ourselves to be thrown off balance by them and thus resort to the same iconoclasm to which non-believers resort. This must be kept in mind when we criticize the Protestants for relying on “private interpretation”. While there is much truth to this criticism, if we attack human reason and its ability to interpret texts too sharply, we may be undermining our own truths in the process. Nor can we put all of our theological and metaphysical eggs in one basket, even if that basket is the Papacy or the Magisterium. Faith does not absolve us of the flaw of being human, nor can it give us a scientific certainty that modern man, in his disordered hubris, has come to expect from all forms of knowledge. But it gives us enough, a trust in the truth and beauty of God in Christ, to allow us to carry out our vocation as Christians. And that is what is most important, and most necessary.



11 responses

7 06 2010
Jared B.

Of course, contemporary conservative Catholics can swing too far the other way, especially in apologetics. In my experience it does swing too far the other way, such that every Catholic doctrine’s truth is demonstrable by some “Biblical” argument and logic; one can get the impression from some Catholic apologists that the fact of a teaching *being a part of the Tradition* is secondary to it being demonstrable by reason.

When I was a Protestant (and at the time very recently a non-Christian), before I resolved to make any formal move toward joining the Roman Catholic Church, I bought a Catholic catechism (I think it was one by Fr. Hardon) and read it cover to cover. My reaction throughout was “Oh good, this makes a LOT more sense than what they’re preaching at my old Evangelical mega-church.” In retrospect, I think I gave far too much weight to my own reason and too little to authority: the legitimate authority of the Magisterium in one sense, but in a broader sense the authority of Tradition itself. I left the “just me and my Bible” kind of Protestant private interpretation, but I did so on the basis of an equally fallacious private interpretation of “just me and a handful of books with an Imprimatur”.

I could obsess over the purity of my beliefs & intentions at the exact moment of my Confirmation like a self-hating Donatist, but I think that with few exceptions, *nobody* makes the decision to join — or remain in — the Church for 100% “correct” reasons. If I had obsessed over that beforehand, and insisted that everything in my mind & intentions be spotless before making any move, I would still be wringing my hands to this day. In fact I think it was that kind of hand wringing that sent Martin Luther over the bend. So, God bless all of us in the Church for over- and under-emphasizing this and that bit of the Tradition; so long as we are in the Church, the Tradition is still there for us to teach us better. 🙂

6 03 2009

“As St. Thomas put it, “Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” We might have the spark of the divine in our souls, but it’s still “barely an intellect” compared to angelic knowledge.”

Actually, there is quite a significant limitation to the natural reason of humans, even amongst its most distinguished thinkers.

One need only look as far as More’s Utopia, that even within an seemingly optimal society such as that where the ideals of great figures like Plato (where even some of Plato’s ideas themselves seem to have anticipated Christianity in a sense) & Aristotle reigned, because it was devoid of God’s Revelation (and, thereby, denied the Truths of Divine Law) and principally revolved around natural law and reason itself, it permitted acts considered in Catholic Europe at that time (even in present times Catholicism) as some of the most vile, not the least of which included syncretism and euthanasia.

6 03 2009
Jonathan Prejean

That actually helps, believe it or not, particularly since I lived in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles! I get where you’re coming from now. I think “quaint” is not a bad description of my view actually. Upon having talked this out, which I felt compelled to do, I’ve articulated my original point, which is that it’s certainly not rationalism that motivates me. But I think it has become more clear to me that it isn’t faith so much as hope that motivates me.

I’m too prone to pessimism to be sustained in my efforts if I haven’t got that source of optimism, and subjectively, Catholicism is singularly capable of sustaining my hope. I guess what keeps me up about the Cardinal Mahoneys of the world is that there’s always something behind them to give me hope that I’m not living for nothing, that it’s all going somewhere. A lot of people talk about papalism as being a realized eschatology, but I guess in my own experience, it’s more like the sure sign of eschatology, the basis for thinking that there is anything that will last through to the end. “The Pope is the hope,” you might say.

Anyway, thanks for talking this over with me. I feel better anyway. 🙂

6 03 2009
Arturo Vasquez


I appreciate your point on one level, in that I think it is healthy that someone have little taste for dissent when it comes to legitimate ecclesiastical authority. I would just say, however, that the idea of “I put my absolute faith in the Pope” may be traditional if you are a Jesuit in the Counter-Reformation, but not for a layperson. The average layperson historically barely knew who the Pope was, and was lucky if he saw his bishop once every twenty years. Theoretically, what you say could be correct on one level. I just find it very quaint.

I would also think it much more clarifying if the contemporary Magisterium was as scrupulous as you were about obedience to the Pope, instead of promoting some very vague ideas about “partial” and “full” communion. Especially since, as you say, Heaven and Hell are at stake. And the same amount of respect probably should be shown to one’s bishop as well, unless you share the ultramontanist position that the bishop is only the delegate of the Pope since he isn’t infallible (again, shades of the Mormon prophet), a position that Vatican II sought to “clarify” (notice I put that in quotes). One, by extension, should probably put the same trust in the episcopal conferences, which are also creations that have the approval of the Papacy. Maybe you can do all of this, but my head would be spinning at the end of the day. To sit through a Sunday sermon thinking that the parish priest is speaking in persona Christi may help you get through it and make you listen, but I wouldn’t start taking notes if you know what I mean. Nor would it make me say that I could possibly have such an attitude if I were living in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles or the Netherlands.

I would again have to reiterate that what I am speaking of here is LOYAL dissent, and the difference between that and heresy is one between light and day. To dissent from attitudes and formulations that are non-binding and optional is not the same as going against the hierarchy on things we know that we have to believe in (the physical resurrection of Christ, sexual morality, the constitution of the Church). No one is going to go to Hell for denying the theological formulation of religious liberty in Dignitatis Humanae, or the idea that the Old Covenant is still binding for the Jews (does that mean that Catholics have to be Zionists?) or the idea that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church (insofar as that would be different from the Church of Christ simply BEING the Catholic Church; I hardly think ambiguous speculation is binding on anyone). You may think that such scruples when it comes to obedience are the best way to go; I see them as unnecessary, but then again, I have lived under Jesuit-style obedience, so maybe that means that I am more familiar with what Ignatius’ concept looks like in three dimensions that you could ever be.

In the end, when I propose a toast in religious matters, I drink to conscience first, my grandmothers second, and then the Pope. I am a little more complex than Newman, but 95% of the time (i.e. the times that it matters) I am there with the rest of the Church. I don’t think I am losing many brownie points for the other five percent, though I am definitely losing those points over other more pressing matters. We just have to go with what we know.

6 03 2009
Jonathan Prejean

Briefly, the point I was trying to get across was that we aren’t talking either about supernatural knowledge (like oracles or prophets) or a meta-doctrinal structure, although I do consider the papacy useful as a concept for analysis.

The real necessity is something more simple. We need to have unshakable trust in some sort of normative guidance to resist the Devil. If there isn’t an unbreakable core, some place where we can put our confidence to be safe from the Devil’s deceit, then the aforementioned consequences ensue. And I can’t see why that sort of infallibility, in terms of absolute trustworthiness that following his normative guidance is safe, is beyond the scope of what one person can bear. Indeed, I find trouble coming up with anything *else* in the Church from the beginning that can serve this purpose.

In terms of the safety for your soul, it’s a much better proposition to throw your complete trust behind the shepherd *as the preserver of tradition* than to criticize him in terms of that tradition. That’s not saying that I do the former or that doing it will provide superior understanding, but only that blind trust in the Pope is safe as a default stance. That is what inspires St. Ignatius Loyola’s famous maxim that if the Pope says black is white, you should be willing to believe it. That’s not to say that you should accept a contradiction, but that you should absolutely trust that there is an explanation and do everything within your power to find such an explanation and not to contradict the statement without certainty of the contrary proposition (which efforts we call the “hermeneutic of continuity”).

I suppose that my attitude toward trusting the Pope is the same as my attitude toward salvation outside the Church. We KNOW that trusting in the Church for salvation works; with respect to everything else, we are agnostic. Likewise, we KNOW that trusting the Pope implicitly in the way I described above does not endanger souls, but we don’t know that any other course is equally safe. Post 1968, the Vatican basically adopted the “you can do what you want, but we’ll be OK with handing you over to Satan for chastisement if you do” stance. In those circumstances, I think it is safest to stand where you know it is safe and not take the risk that you are getting tangled up with the mass of disobedience that is being punished.

5 03 2009
Arturo Vasquez


I too of course believe in a Magisterium, and that was NOT the point of the post. The point is putting more significance in institutional authority than it can bear, which is insinuated in something that you wrote here:

“But I don’t think there is any hope on the larger scale but the strong man with the authority of binding and loosing, and I think there is only one person on earth with the God-given power to do that.”

The problem is, he only does that on very limited and specific occasions, and not as an on-going charism as if he were the Mormon prophet or the Oracle of Delphi. That is what I am criticizing here, not ecclesiastical authority per se. For there have been many instances, and I would argue that there are many now, where a loyal Catholic has to ask himself some fundamental questions about the use of ecclesiastical authority. In other words, we do need shepherds, but those shepherds remain HUMAN shepherds, and to endow them with more infallibility than they can possibly have is far from helpful when discussing ecclesiastical issues. Thus, we must go on what the Magisterium says about specific issues and not try to read the Magisterium as a meta-doctrinal category of some sort. In other words, and to reiterate, it doesn’t save one from thinking, nor does it resolve all issues in the Church. A lot of very important things are still wide open, and just because the current guy in the funny hat is serving a specific theological soup of the day, this does not make that dish any more definitive than what came before, especially if there is no particular pretension to make it so.

5 03 2009
Jonathan Prejean

So I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, because I can’t get my head around where the problem in communication is. If I were going to point to one Catholic author on whom I most closely modeled my entire theological approach, it would probably be Maritain (or maybe Wilhelmsen, who says much the same thing), and I can’t recognize anything like Cartesian angst in the people I would consider the usual suspects for that sort of Internet punditry. Let me see if I can explain what I find troubling.

First, let me enthusiastically agree with Maritain’s observation regarding “the essential intrinsic dependence of our present knowledge on our past, which makes our establishment in truth, humanly speaking, necessarily and of itself a strangely long and laborious thing.” Cartesian certainty is doomed. But likewise, any dependence on our understanding of truth, beauty, or immutable doctrines is doomed. As St. Thomas put it, “Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” We might have the spark of the divine in our souls, but it’s still “barely an intellect” compared to angelic knowledge. So hanging our hats on the strength of the doctrine itself, given that there are actual people who have to accept it, can’t work.

But that’s not even why I think we need a Magisterium. The reason I think we need a Magisterium is that there is a hyper-intelligent, evil predator who *does* have angelic intelligence along with the hubris to take on God Himself and who is thoroughly devoted to exploiting every bit of the aforementioned error and ignorance to devour souls. I’m a dumb sheep wandering at sunset, and there is a wolf stalking around that is much smarter and much faster than me. There is no reasoning with him and no hope of outrunning him or outsmarting him. White magic might work for a little while if someone is extraordinarily careful and if he doesn’t deceive himself. But I don’t think there is any hope on the larger scale but the strong man with the authority of binding and loosing, and I think there is only one person on earth with the God-given power to do that.

This is my abductive reasoning in a nutshell: people who break communion with Rome have a bad habit of being consumed by heresies. If I am trying not to be eaten by wolves, I stick close to the shepherd who has the power to keep them away. I recognize it’s not very “modernist” to think that the Devil is anything more than a myth, metaphor, or projection of the subconscious, but I think he’s real, and if the Church doesn’t have a shepherd, we are by and large completely at his mercy.

If, God forbid, I’m coming off as a Cartesian, then please let me make clear that I’m not. As much as I might work at delicate philosophical phrasing in the manner of a sophisticated modernist, the motivation behind much of what I say, particularly with ex-Catholics, is more or less the following: “I care about you, and I don’t want to see you eaten alive, so stop screwing around and get your dumb ass back inside the fence!” I’m not saying that directed at you, but only because it might actually help you to understand my vantage point.

2 03 2009
Arturo Vasquez


Please read the post over again. You have misread what I said.

2 03 2009

So, the Magisterium, nay, even the Papacy itself, when it comes to the Catholic Faith, is neither relevant nor necessary.

I wonder where exactly have I heard, exactly, that anti-Romanist Cry before.

Would if only such heresy lied only with the Protestants, but now they seemed to have become officially enshrined in so-called Roman Catholics themselves.

You should have nothing to fear from the Devil that Descartes himself had released which the World, to this day, cannot but even exorcise; but that which has now so remarkedly seduced you into adopting the tenets of her heresy for Catholicism and even genuine Tradition.

2 03 2009

My own site is devoted mostly to what you’re addressing here, Arturo. If I may, have you read Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s recent article “Dignitatis Humanae: The Interpretive Principles” in The Latin Mass, vol. 18, #1, Winter 2009? The overlap seems relevant to me. Thanks in advance,

2 03 2009
Leyla Jagiella

Asking from a non-catholic non-christian perspective but still highly aware of very similar processes in the history of my own particular confession:

Isn´t the precise problem not doubt per se but rather the fact that modern man came to understand rationalism as the only remedy for doubt?

That epistemology, questions of verification, the search for truth should center around rationalism is a particular invention of the enlightenment era.
This invention has its benefits but it disadvantages as well.

All of us who did once struggle with agnosticism know very well that rationalism is not its solution.
And believing that it is a solution for anything is an illusion.
Even Kants system of morality and ethics would not work at all if it was only based on rationalism.
And rightfully so, since human reason and perception is, thank God, never purely based on a pristine unattached rationality and can thus never be fully satisfied by it.

The authority of the Church is by definition something very true when it is felt by the human being, whether in a positive or a negative sense.
Experiences of coherence and consistency are as well and they don´t need any rationalization applied to it.

Please don´t mistake my position for a “new age relativism” or something similar.
On the contrary, I hold that experiencing truth, coherence and consistency and applying it in your life is the direct and only serious opposit of relativism.
Certainty comes by that process and not through artifically constructed systems.

And still it leaves the door open to be able to grasp that not all human beings have the same experiences of truth, coherence and consistency.

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