Thursday, May 15, 2008

Church Infallibility & Conversions to the Catholic Church

This was my recent post in the combox over at JP Manzi's blog:

Pope Benedict said (while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger) on Church infallibility:

This doctrine obviously needs to be understood very precisely within its correct limitations, so as not to be misused or misunderstood. It doesn't mean that every word that the ecclesiastical authorities say, or even every word said by a pope, is infallible. It certainly does mean that wherever the Church, in the great spiritual and cultural struggles of history, and after all possible prayer and grappling with the truth, insists that this is the correct interpretation and draws a line there, she has been promised that in this instance she will not lead people in to error. That she will not be turned into an instrument of destruction for the Word of God, but remains the mother, the living agent, within whom the Word is alive and truly expresses Himself and is truly interpreted.
The Scriptural model for this is found in Acts 15. There was a visible Church with an identifiable location and leadership. This unity/continuity is preserved by hierarchy until this day (or so say we Catholics - hopeless romantics that we are). The Church still has an address and she still puts her reputation on the line with every decree which she claims is infallible.

One has only to demonstrate a single error to disprove the entirety of Catholicism and while in the minds of some it has been disproven, the world has failed to demonstrate an error which could convince many (if not most) of the greatest theological minds on the planet both living and deceased (and believe me, the world has been trying).

The fact that Catholicism not only retains but continues to attract the greatest theological minds itself ought to tell us something (not exhaustively of course - there are brilliant minds in virtually every branch of Christianity). Yet the brilliant minds do tend to gravitate towards a certain orthodoxy and even those who don't become Catholic, always and without ceasing gravitate towards the "Catholic-lite" denominations: Anglicanism, High Church Presbyterianism and Lutheranism. The great theologians don't tend to gravitate towards snake handling cults and emerging ecclesial communities barely distinguishable as Christian - they go the opposite direction and always - always - always in the direction of Rome (though they may only circle it).

Even if we disagree with the Roman claims, the mere fact that the Church at Rome in antiquity has ended up being so consistently orthodox (or what the "Catholic" (universal) Church considered to be orthodox) is remarkable in itself.

With the exception of some baptists, most of those furthest away from the Catholic Church hate her the least. Why is that? The "free church" shrugs her shoulders at her giant step-sister the Catholic Church because she's clueless (that is the "free/emergent church" is).

But we often see the vitriol grow as the doctrines get closer. Presbyterians, Anglicans & Lutherans all have a great deal of their identity tied up in the fact that they're not Catholic. They need to remind themselves constantly why they're not (and their theologians say so). Chesterton remarked that as soon as they stop bashing the Catholic Church, they start to enjoy her. I think they know this, and if they give her a fair look, they risk being wooed by her spell.

That is why I regularly engage with brilliant Protestants who could theologize with the best of them on certain topics but when we start talking about the Catholic Church, they sound like fundamentalists.

Then I know some Protestants who will admit with their own lips that everything the Catholic Church teaches is right... but they just can't get over the authority part and they know once they get in, there's no turning back. They're right about that, they're not a heretic now (you have to be Catholic before you can be a heretic) but if they pop in and out they would be.

Catholicism is a terribly haunting proposition, that's why no one (except those who are truly clueless) can brush it off. You have to hate or it you risk loving it and it's a big risk because it would mean so much if it turned out to be true. Fearful, fearful proposition.

But what joy there awaits on the other side!


R. E. Aguirre. said...

The tales of a Protestant that took the claims of Catholicism intellectually serious are (to name but a few from his hand) Apologia Pro Vita Sua, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, from John Henry Newman. They chronicle his journey from Anglicanism to Catholicism (and mirror the same "breakdown" I had of my Protestant convictions). Both works have an incredible epistemic defense of Papal Infallibility.

And as Tim mentioned, I have friends (such as an Elder in the RCUS denomination) that veritably conceed the historic claims of Catholicism but for many reasons (mostly personal losses) will not leave their Protestant nests.

We must follow truth at all costs no matter where that road leads us. We claim to be disciples of He who called Himself the very Incarnation of Truth - let us brothers take this seriously.

R.E. Aguirre

George Weis said...

Interesting Post. What of me Tim. I do not Hate the Roman Catholic Church. Do I then Love it? Now I know I am taking your statement to the extreme. I am not in one of those Denoms who are closer to the RCC... maybe it is because I lack intelligence? Perhaps. Why is it that I continually dig away at this stuff? Curious to your thoughts.

I will say in some respect there is a gravity of sorts to it. But I put the question forth: Why would intelligence be the attribute that would help to mark a true Christian community/Church? Is God not concerned most about the heart? Christ called out the normal folk of his day (for the most part). Your first pope (as you say) was a fisherman. He wouldn't have been considered the smartest fellow of his day.


Much love to both of you!


R. E. Aguirre. said...


Reading your blogsite is an example in humility and sharp acumen that is truly inspiring. You definately do not "lack in intelligence". Moreover, the fact that you keep moving forward in the quest for truth can be nothing more than the fruit of the Spirit.

In response to your question, I would say that putting it that way is setting up a false dichotomy. It is not an either/or. It is not that the Triune God looks for sincerity apart from knowledge, but that sincerity comes hand in hand with knowledge, one cannot be accepted without the other. Surely we should remain always humble in spirit and no doubt that is what God loves and desires for us. St. Paul is the iconic example of this. It is said that he had the equivalence of two PHD's by the age of 21. Studies have been done on his Greek literary style - which claim here is a veritable master of philosophy and theology but consciously averted using well known rhetorical spins of the day. So while God looks at the heart and considers this good (the sincere plea of the dying thief on the cross)the knowledge that the heart is pleading for must be found (the thief's admission about Christ and who He is).


R.E. Aguirre

George Weis said...


Thank you for the kind words. I am in no way in your league or Tim's in the amount of reading on these subjects, but I am on my way. I work from home, so maybe I'll catch up at some point.

Of course in no way do I mean to set aside intellectual consent as you have pointed out. It was only a question about Intellectual Christians gravitating to the CC or something close in nature.

I think there is something to be said for intellectuals gravitating towards some form of orthodoxy in many cases... but certainly not in all.

Amazing what the Apostle Paul Accomplished as you noted. I did hear that some time ago.

Thank you again for your kindness. May the Lord truly bless you as you seek to live out His will for your life.