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.