Monday, December 11, 2017

Catholic fideism

I'm going to begin by quoting from a standard work on Enlightenment skepticism, then comment on the excerpts:

Chillingworth saw that the Catholics were demanding a type of certainty, infallible knowledge, as the basis of religion, and that such certainty was unattainable not only in this area but in any other as well. But, once this had been recognized, the conclusion was not complete doubt on all matters but, rather, an acceptance of a lesser degree of evidence, moral certainty. Our senses may sometimes deceive, our reasoning may sometimes be faulty, our judgments may not be infallible, and we may not be able to find a demonstrative basis for what we know, but, just the same, we have sufficient assurances so that we can utilize the information that we possess to form reasonable and morally certain judgments.The person who wants more certitude than this is a fool. “For, as he is an unreasonable Master, who requires a stronger assent to his Conclusions than his Arguments deserve; so I conceive him a forward and undisciplin’d Scholar, who desires stronger arguments for a conclusion than the Matter will bear.”Once one has recognized that there is no infallible or mathematical certainty to be found regarding scientific or religious matters, then one does not suspend judgment, but, instead, one proceeds to judge problems according to the degree of assurance that can be obtained.

One finds this style of argumentation, in whole or in part, in various writers trained at, or teaching in, the Jesuit colleges, especially those of Clermont and Bordeaux; such writers as St. François de Sales, Cardinal du Perron, Cardinal Bellarmine, and Fathers Gontery and Veron, for example.

As St. François de Sales put the problem,

The absurdity of absurdities, and the most horrible folly of all, is this, that while holding that the entire Church has erred for a thousand years in the understanding of the Word of God, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin can assure themselves of understanding it well; even more that a simple parson, preaching as the Word of God, that the whole visible Church has erred, that Calvin and all men can err, dares to pick and choose among the interpretations of Scripture that one that pleases him, and is sure of it and maintains it as the Word of God; still more, that you others who hearing it said that everyone can err in matters of religion, and even the whole Church, without wishing to search for other views among the thousand sects which boast of understanding well the Word of God and preaching it well, believe so stubbornly in a minister who preaches to you, that you do not want to hear anything different. If everybody can err in the understanding of Scripture, why not you and your minister? I am amazed that you do not always go around trembling and shaking. I am amazed that you can live with so much assurance in the doctrine that you follow, as if you could not [all] err, and yet you hold it as certain that everyone has erred and can err.18

This initial version of this style of argumentation was intended to show that as soon as the Reformers had admitted that the Church could err, thus denying the traditional rule of faith, they could then be reduced to sceptical despair.

The core of Veron’s reduction of Calvinism to total scepticism was an attack on the use of rational procedures and evidence to justify any statement of a religious truth. Veron insisted that he was not claiming that our rational faculties or achievements were doubtful but only that they ought not to serve as the foundation or support of the faith, which is based on “the Word of God alone set forth by the Church.”20

The argument begins by asking the Calvinists, “How do you know, gentlemen, that the books of the Old and New Testament are Holy Scripture?”21 The question of canonicity raises a peculiar difficulty. If the Calvinists hold that Scripture is the rule of faith, then how are we to judge which work is Scripture?

But, even if one could tell which book is Scripture, how could one tell what it says, and what we are supposed to believe? The text, as one of the later Catholic users of Veron’s Victorieuse Méthode said, is just “waxen-naturd words not yet senc’t nor having any certain Interpreter, but fit to be plaid upon diversly by quirks of wit.”23 And so, since the sacred writings are only words, with no instructions for reading them, one needs some rule for interpreting them.

If the Calvinists say, in their own defense, that they are reading Scripture reasonably and drawing the obvious logical inferences from what it says, then they are obviously targets for “the machine of war.” First of all, any alleged reading is uncertain and may be mistaken, unless there is an infallible rule for interpretation. To go beyond the words to draw inferences, as Veron claimed the Calvinists had done in deriving all their articles of faith, is definitely an unscriptural procedure. The Bible does not itself say that it is to be interpreted in this fashion, nor does it give any rules of logic. Nowhere have we any warrant for the assertion that truths of religion are to be based on logical procedures.24 The Reformers cried out that reasoning is a natural capacity given to man and, also, that Jesus as well as the Church Fathers reasoned logically.25 Veron replied that the rules of logic were set down by a pagan, Aristotle, and nobody appointed him judge of religious truth, though he may be the arbiter of valid argumentation. Neither Jesus nor the Church Fathers claimed their views were true because they were derived by logical procedures, but rather they called them true because they were the Word of God.26 

The core of Veron’s case against arriving at religious truth by reasoning from the text of Scripture was summarized into what he called his eight Moyens: (1) Scripture does not contain any of the conclusions reached by the inferences of the Reformers. (2) These inferences are never drawn in Scripture. (3) By drawing inferences, one makes reason, rather than Scripture the judge of religious truths. (4) Our reason can err. (5) Scripture does not teach us that conclusions arrived at by logical procedures are articles of faith. (6) The conclusions reached by the Reformers were unknown to the Church Fathers. (7) The conclusions are, at best, only probable, and are built upon bad philosophy or sophistry. (8) Even a necessarily true conclusion drawn from Scripture is not an article of faith32 (because “nothing is an article of faith which is not revealed by God”).33 

Veron answered by accusing Daillé of having missed the point of the method and of having become Daillé, “Minister of Charenton, new Pyrrhonian, and indifferent in religion.”41 The problem of the application of reason to specific questions does not entail the universal scepticism that Daillé made of it, and Daillé “has fought against his shadow.”42 The issues that Veron had raised were twofold. First of all, since the Calvinists had insisted that the Church erred in reading Scripture, and that all men are fallible, how then could they be sure they had not erred in their own particular interpretations of Scripture? This sort of problem does not extend to scientific and mathematical reasoning, Veron said, because there the principles and inferences “are evident and certain.”43 But to contend that the same is true in regard to the Protestant reading of Scripture: “Is not this to be reduced to desperation? What! So many holy Fathers have not possessed common sense, nor any of our predecessors? and the minister alone and his cobbler will have? and will be sure of it? etc. and on this assurance and folly he will risk his damnation?”44 In this case, it appears the height of presumption and audacity to pretend that only the Protestants, in the last hundred years, have been en bons sens and have interpreted the Bible correctly, while the entire Catholic tradition has been wrong. And so, Veron continued, the same sort of basis for doubt about Scriptural interpretation does not lead to a more general doubt about all our knowledge. 

But then the second issue arises again. The fact that our reasonings may be “evidents & certains” in some matters, does not mean that what is evident and certain is an article of faith. “This ignoramus [Daillé] confuses not being an article of faith with being dubious knowledge.”45 Lots of things, scientific knowledge, evidences of the Christian religion, and so on, are not doubtful, according to Veron, but, at the same time, they also are not articles of faith and will not be such unless revealed by God.46

Since Veron refused to admit that his knowledge of the true religious propositions was based on any evidence, interpretation of documents, or experiences but was contained only in the revealed word of God, he could observe that Daillé’s ways of arguing “would introduce the sect of the Pyrrhonians, and indifference in religion.”48

Veron brushed aside this defense of rationality by saying, “Who doubts it? but none of this suffices to establish an article of faith, for none of this is the Word of God, and to believe is nothing but to hold something as true because God has said it.”51 The defense of reason is not the point at issue, but only whether an article of faith can be established by reason. People like Ferry, in glorifying our rational abilities, come close to adopting what Bayle called the Socinian heresy, that reason is the rule of faith.52 For Veron, reason may be perfectly sound and unquestionable, but this does not overcome a scepticism with regard to its use in establishing the articles of faith. Even theological reasoning, which Veron admitted could be “necessary and certain,” does not make its conclusions religious truths, unless they have also been revealed by God.53

The Protestants, however, saw that the same sceptical approach could be used on its inventor, with the same effective results. The “new machine of war” appeared to have a peculiar recoil mechanism that had the odd effect of engulfing the target and the gunner in a common catastrophe. If the Reformers could not determine infallibly true articles of faith from the text of Scripture by rational means, neither could the Catholics discover any religious truths, since they would be confronted with the same difficulties with regard to ascertaining the meaning and truth of what popes, councils, and Church Fathers had said. As far as the Reformers could see, Veron had developed a complete scepticism to defeat them but was just as defeated as they were by this argument.55

The Catholics could not be harmed by the sceptical bombardment issuing from their own guns, since they had no position to defend. Their view was grounded in no rational or factual claim but in an accepted, and unquestioned, faith in the Catholic tradition. They saw, as Maldonado had suggested, that if they once doubted this faith by traditional acceptance, they, too, would be pulled down into the same quicksand in which they were trying to sink the Reformers.58 And so one finds an implicit fideism in many of the French Counter-Reformers that can be, and probably was, best justified by the explicit fideism of the nouveaux pyrrhoniens. 

Many of the other Counter-Reformers offer no rational defense of their position, but a fideistic view is suggested by those theologians and philosophers they admire. The Cardinal du Perron, perhaps the greatest of the French Counter-Reformers,61 and himself a convert to Catholicism, spent practically no time in his controversial writings presenting evidence for his cause but devoted himself primarily to pointing out the inadequacy of the Calvinist theory of religious knowledge. The cardinal, however, was a friend of Montaigne’s adopted daughter, Marie de Gournay, and a great admirer of the fideistic writings of Montaigne’s adopted son, Pierre Charron.62 A story about du Perron indicates his evaluation of the merits of human reason in theological matters. He was once invited to dinner by Henri III and, at the table, presented a discourse against atheism, offering proofs of the existence of God. When the king expressed his pleasure at this and praised du Perron, he answered, “Sire, today I have proved by strong and evident reasons that there is a God. Tomorrow, if it pleases Your Majesty to grant me another audience, I will show you and prove by as strong and evident reasons that there is no God at all.” R. Popkin, The History of Scepticism (Oxford 2003), chap. 4.

Those of us to respond to Catholic apologists will find this strategy numbingly familiar. This is where it all got started. But it raises a mare's nest of issues:

i) Take the a priori presumption that articles of faith must be certain. What makes that a given? Is that a Catholic assumption? Is that a Catholic standard? If so, that has no traction when debating Protestants inasmuch as we don't grant their standards and assumptions. If the stricture that articles of faith must be certain is a Catholic assumption, why would a Protestant concede a Catholic standard when the legitimacy of Catholic standards is the very issue in dispute? So the objection is vicious circular. 

ii) Whether articles of faith must be certain depends on the kind of world we live in. Has God put us in a world where articles of faith must be certain? What if God put us in a world where articles of faith must only be likely?  

Can we know in advance of the fact which of those two worlds we inhabit? Isn't that something we must discover? We only know what kind of world in which we find ourselves by examining the world in which we find ourselves. 

The Catholic contention is an armchair stipulation. But that's not something that can determined in the abstract. The kind of world God made for us is a contingent truth. Infinite variations are possible. 

iii) I think religious certainty is obtainable in some respects, but the larger point is that it's illicit for Catholic apologists to posit an artificial standard of certainty. That's not a demand which they're entitled to impose on Protestants. We don't jump when they say "Jump!"

iv) Is the assumption that certainty is necessary because the stakes are so high? That theological errors might be damnable heresies, which is why we must set the bar higher for articles of faith?

If so, the ground has shifted under traditional Catholic apologetics. In modern Catholicism, the presumption has been reversed. The traditional presumption was no salvation unless you were a communicant member of the Roman Church. But in post-Vatican II theology, it's very hard, if not impossible, to be damned. So the menacing specter of damnation for heresy has receded into the shadows. If that used to be the basis for insisting on certainty for articles of faith, then that foundation has been torn up. 

v) From a Protestant perspective, not all theological errors are culpable errors, much less damnably culpable. Christians may commit innocent mistakes, based on their individual aptitudes, social conditioning, educational opportunities, and so forth. Religious duties are person-variable (Lk 12:48; Heb 13:17; Jas 3:1). There's no reason to think God will punish Christians who make innocent mistakes. Conscientious Christians who made the best of the situation God put them in.

vi) Caricaturing sola Scriptura as if that precludes logical inference. In fact, we see many examples in Scripture itself. In his disputes with the religious establishment, Jesus draws logical inferences from the OT. So does Peter in Acts. So does Paul in Romans. So does the author of Hebrews. The Mosaic law code presumes that judges must draw inferences from case laws.

vii) Appeal to the mirage of pre-Reformation theological consensus. But consider all the groups and movements which Rome traditionally classifies as schismatic:

viii) Catholic fideism is self-defeating, by disarming a Catholic apologist from making a case for his own position. He dare not appear to reason and evidence to establish the magisterium since, by his own lights, that falls short of religious certainty. He's surrendered the ability to justify his alternative. Their position reduces to their fallible faith in the infallibility of the magisterium. 

ix) John Henry Newman famously gave up on ill-fated efforts to document all Catholic dogma from the consensus patrum. He invented the theory of development. Nowadays we see how the magisterium uses the theory of development to abrogate entrenched tradition and rationalize theological innovations. So, once again, the ground has shifted from under the traditional Catholic apologetic. 


  1. ///But in post-Vatican II theology, it's very hard, if not impossible, to be damned.///

    Some knowledgeable former Catholics are in big trouble...

    1. So basically John and myself are consigned to hell (for now, give Francis time).

  2. It would be interesting to take this information and compare it with, for example, the kinds of things that someone like Brad Gregory is saying ... blaming all of modern skepticism on the Reformation.