Catholics disapprove of the so-called right of private judgment. As I’ve often said, I don’t care for that expression, but since I didn’t write the theological lexicon, I’ll go along with conventional usage.
So why do Catholics disapprove of private judgment? It can be difficult to zero in on their precise objection.
1.At one level, they disapprove because private judgment leads to a diversity of opinion. And they regard that consequence as unacceptable. But why is that unacceptable?
There’s a sense in which this isn’t unacceptable to God. After all, this is God’s world. He chose to create a world in which diverse opinions exist. So that clearly serves a purpose in the divine scheme of things.
There’s a sense in which God doesn’t approve of everything that happens. He approves of everything as a means to an end, but he doesn’t approve of everything in and of itself.
Still, God could have made everyone think alike if he wanted to. Catholics have a pragmatic argument for the Magisterium. They think it’s antecedently probable that God would install a divine teaching office in his church.
But even if we go along with this pragmatic justification, there are far more efficient ways of corralling the sheep. What if God created Johnny Mnemonic sheep? Every sheep could know the same thing through a direct, instantaneous upload of information.
So even if you think that arguing from antecedent probabilities is a valid methodology, antecedent probabilities don’t select for the Magisterium.
2.Catholics also disapprove of private judgment because it’s individualistic. Every man becomes his own interpreter.
Oftentimes a Catholic will simply describe private judgment, and leave it at that, as if the mere description constitutes a refutation: “Sola scriptura makes every man his own interpreter!” Case closed!
But that doesn’t rise to the level of an argument. Catholics never stop to ask themselves whether, as a matter of fact, that may indeed be the way in which God has arranged his affairs. What if God intends every man to be his own interpreter?
3.On the face of it, it’s hard to see how we can avoid that consequence. It’s not as though Catholicism can avoid that consequence. For example, just consider all the commentaries which various Catholic theologians have written on Vatican II. Consider how different theologians offer differing interpretations of Vatican II.
In fact, sometimes two popes offer differing interpretations of Vatican II. Or sometimes the same theologian or the same pope will offering differing interpretations of Vatican II in the course of his career. His own understanding of the document evolves over time:
Indeed, Benedict XVI goes so far as to accuse Vatican II of teaching heresy (the Pelagian heresy, to be precise). Yet Vatican II was an ecumenical council. An exercise of the extraordinary magisterium. This is the sort of thing that’s suppose to resolve open questions, not open a host of additional questions—or ratify an ancient heresy.
Every time the Magisterium answers an old question, that raises new questions. Every answer is a launch pad for another question. “What does the answer mean?” “What does the answer imply?” “What’s the scope of the answer?”
4.Sometimes the objection seems to be that whenever two men disagree about something, you can’t know which man is right. You think you’re right, but your opponent thinks that he is right, so the mere fact that you think you’re right doesn’t make you right. And since you’re the one who’s doing the thinking, you can’t escape your own conviction—even if your conviction is erroneous.
That’s a complicated issue. But if that’s a problem, then Catholicism is hardly exempt. After all, two men may disagree about Catholicism. A Catholic will disagree with a Protestant.
But if the mere phenomenon of disagreement justifies scepticism, then you can hardly appeal to such disagreements as an argument for the Catholic Magisterium—since the Magisterium is, itself, an object of disagreement.
5.This objection also fails to distinguish between proof and knowledge. When someone says, “How can you know your own interpretation is right? Even if you were wrong, you’d mistakenly believe you were right,” he’s confusing two different issues.
It’s often possible to know something without being able to prove it. Take those science fiction scenarios in which a character is abducted and then immersed in a virtual simulation. The simulation may be very realistic. Yet the character knows this isn’t real because he remembers his past. And this is not the life he led. And yet, from within the simulation, he can’t prove that his experience is illusory.
He knows the simulation is illusory. But since the entire simulation is illusory, the simulation itself furnishes no clue regarding its illusory character. He can’t point to any evidence within the simulation to show that it’s just a simulation. The illusion is perfect. No computer glitches. No incongruities. A seamless illusion.
However, there are times in which knowledge does depend on proof. I experience my own memories, but I don’t experience the distant past. Take a historical claim like apostolic succession. That requires historical evidence. I wasn’t there.
And it’s worse than that, for even if I were there, I can’t discern the validity of ordination. The validity of ordination turns on certain indetectible conditions, like the intent of the officiate and the intent of the ordinand.
6.There is also the question of responsibility. I’m not responsible for proving the impossible. We can concoct ingenious thought experiments in which the human subject is imprisoned within some intractable delusion. So what? If it’s inescapable, then it’s futile to even raise the conundrum.
And there’s something deceptive about the deception. If you’re conscious of a self-delusion, then you’re thinking outside the self-delusion. So you’re not deluded by the delusion after all.
7. Finally, Catholicism suffers from a very blinkered view of divine guidance. You don’t need a complete set of verbal instructions for you do to do the right thing.
Consider the lives of Joseph and Daniel in the OT. God didn’t reveal to them his “perfect plan” for their lives. God didn’t give them a daily itinerary and say, “This is what you need to do today to fulfill my perfect plan for your life.”
Rather, through a series of unlikely events, God maneuvered them into positions of power. He put them exactly where he wanted them without telling them what to do every step of the way.
And that applies, not only at the behavioral level, but the doxastic level as well. When and where you live is going to affect what you believe. God can make someone believe something based on the epistemic environment he puts him in. Depending on what he wants them to believe, he will put them in the corresponding environment.
Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know, for salvation comes from the Jews” (Jn 4:22).
The Jews were right and the Samaritans were wrong. What made the difference? Ethnicity. Geography. An “accident” of birth. Same thing the heathen (Eph 2:11-22).
And who’s responsible for when and where we’re born? God is (Ps 139:13-16; Acts 17:26).
God guides his people into the truth through providential events as well as revelatory words. Mute guidance as well as verbal direction.