Assessing God’s Authorities

Were I not a believer, I’d scoff at the idea of any person claiming to speak with the voice of God.  As it is, I find the prospect reasonable, assuming certain presuppositions about God’s interaction with the human species.  If you believe that God exists and founded a religious institution and, as a means of guiding that institution in its purpose of proclaiming and interpreting divine revelation, established a system of authority within the institution, then you don’t stretch the imagination to hold that God can and may speak through all too human figures in authority.  It would seem weirdly ineffectual to entrust an organization with divine truth only to leave it to its own faulty and fallible devices.

Of course, if you stand back from all the religious authorities, you realize there’s a the big problem of legitimacy.  How do we determine who, if anyone, speaks for God and who speaks only for themselves?  If you don’t hold to any particular foundational religious beliefs, then all you’ve got is the say-so of the self-proclaimed authorities. Maybe that’s all you have anyway.

Lately I’ve been wondering if the problem of legitimacy remains even if you assume the legitimacy of the basic structure of religious authority.  I want to think here about the conditions in which a religious authority teaches as a religious authority.  More precisely, I’m interested in under what circumstances these conditions could appear to be present while not actually being present.  Religious authority functions differently in different religions, and so my speculations here ought not to be taken as universally applicable, but to get underway, let me consider the authority of the pope as a starting point for a thought experiment.

Canon law states that, by virtue of his office, the pope possesses infallibility in teaching when as the supreme pastor and teacher of the faithful, who strengthens his brothers and sisters in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held.  In other words, canon law specifies conditions that have to be present in order for the pope to be able to proclaim a truth in a way protected by the charism of infallibility.  Furthermore, these conditions have to be manifestly evident for the faithful to know that the pope has spoken free from error as the Supreme Pontiff and not simply as a fallible man giving his theological opinion.  The faithful are not bound to assent to everything the pope says regarding matters of faith or morals.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the pope actually possesses this gift.  Assuming this, is it conceivable that a pope could fake the conditions spelled out by canon law to give the appearance of an infallible pronouncement?  I’ve asked this question to a few theologically-trained friends, and I’ve gotten a mix of answers.

If a pope could deceive the faithful about the presence of these conditions, then the certainty of infallibility ends up resting, theoretically, on the trust one places on the man in the office.  This prospect doesn’t destroy infallibility, which would be operative if the pope were to act in accordance with the conditions, but infallibility would lose its teeth if one has cause to doubt whether the conditions are really manifestly evident even while appearing to be so.  Legitimate religious authority becomes then a question of the reasonableness of doubting the man in the office instead of the evidence of the conditions for legitimate teaching.

I lean toward this line of thought, although I’m open to correction by those more knowledgeable than I am about canon law and Magisterial authority.  The idea that infallibility would prevent a pope from faking the conditions of legitimate teaching seems, to my mind, to restrict the free will of the pope and assign to him a limited impeccability.  It’s one thing to say that the pope possesses infallibility when he freely teaches in accordance with the conditions necessary for infallibility.  The alleged infallibility follows from his teaching in what’s believed to be an infallible way.  It’s quite another thing to say that infallibility prevents the pope from lying about an instance in which he apparently teaches infallibly.  This isn’t just freedom from error, but an obstacle to a particular sin, a problematic notion to say the least.

One lesson in all this may be that I don’t know what the heck I’m saying–I may be writing from serious ignorance about the nuances and particulars of these matters.  In any case, I’m coming at this matter epistemologically rather than doctrinally. Another lesson I may suggest: legitimate religious authority should not be a substitute for thought.  The authorities themselves, what they say, and the conditions in which they speak all call for critical interpretation and assessment.  I might say that any religious authority that’s fearful of critical thought doubts its own legitimacy.

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Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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9 Responses

  1. GordonHide says:

    When all your suppositions are based on a premise for which there is no general consensus and for which there is very little evidence then the rest of your convoluted argument just reveals the pointlessness of the whole exercise.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Why should I restrict my thinking to premises for which there is general consensus and plenty of evidence? Doing so would keep my thinking away from more than matters of a religious sort. A premise may have very little consensus and evidence now, but general consensus and much evidence in the future. Sometimes you have to proceed on a hunch or an intuition to get underway. Consensus and evidence are indicators of truth, but they don’t determine truth.

      Your term “pointlessness” makes no sense to me. Religion seems anything but pointless in religious people’s lives. And given the extent to which religion shapes and guides thought, I think it a fine topic for exploration, even if the path one treads proves convoluted.

      • GordonHide says:

        You should restrict your thinking to proceed from premises for which there is good evidence otherwise you will waste most of your time. Your thoughts will be no more valuable than day dreaming.

        If you have a hunch or an intuition you should only follow it if you can test it an an early stage. You and I have a different view of what truth means. In my view if something cannot be logically demonstrated from minimal, well defined and generally agreed premises it does not merit the term. I think you may be confusing utility with truth. It often happens that an idea has utility even when it cannot be demonstrated to be true.

        There is no doubt that for many people their religion has utility in many ways. It is certainly a fine topic for investigation because of its utility. But you can’t investigate it starting from premises that you know you won’t be able to verify.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          You leave no room for trusting that another person has spoken the truth when you and/or she cannot demonstrate that she’s spoken the truth. There are many circumstances in which someone tells me something the truth of which I cannot test or otherwise verify. I either have to believe her or not believe her.

          • GordonHide says:

            You don’t have to believe anyone. You can choose to take someone at their word provisionally if the question of their veracity is not vital. If someone tells you their favourite colour is blue it will probably cost you nothing to believe them even if they are lying.

            You can trust people to extent that you have previous experience of their reliability.

            Trusting others on vital matters without good evidence is usually a weakness not a strength.

  2. Jaybird says:

    To oversimplify greatly, I have encountered two types of people who claim to have heard God’s Message. The former tends to wander around telling other people that they’re doing things wrong. Stop doing this, stop doing that. The latter tends to stop whatever s/he is doing and says “holy cow, I need to change my life” and suddenly changes. They stop doing this, they stop doing that.

    It’s easy for me to just write off the former as someone who knows that “I don’t think you should do that” is worth a bucket of warm spit but “God says you shouldn’t do that!” actually feels like it is worth something.

    The person who changes his or her own life? Maybe s/he did hear something.

    • GordonHide says:

      I think there is little doubt they are convinced something happened of significance. Unfortunately there is probably a range of explanations for what they experienced and none of them are supernatural.

  3. Matt says:

    Based on GordonHide’s view of trust, could he ever truly be in love?

    • GordonHide says:

      Well of course being in love means different things to different people. So from your point of view where trust is apparently important as part of love perhaps not.