Sunday, May 13, 2012

On Infallibillity

[Proposed synopsis (subject to change;  and to annulment, if the Reaper has other plans):
(I) As in earlier essays, we point out certain similarities between theology and mathematics; we adhere to Realism in both.
(II)  The principle polemical thrust is, accordingly,  to defend the doctrine of Papal infallibility against hasty or superficial criticism.
(III) Yet an undercurrent or counterthrust is that, within mathematics itself -- that citadel of certitude -- there lies paradox.   In Trinitarianism as well, of course; but mathematical philosophers have done an extraordinary job of getting their arms around a host of problems like incompleteness, antinomy, and independence results.  Perhaps the rest of us may take heart.
(IV)  We finally touch on the analytic/synthetic distinction, and the central/peripheral distinction of Quine. ]

It is among the vices of the dimestore psychologizing  that has characterised our American age, ever since some notions of Freud et alia  began to be packaged along with the bubble-gum (“You got a inferiority complex!” -- Bazooka Joe), to regard the dogma of Papal Infallibility (and note, as is our wont, we neither affirm nor deny the same, but merely treat the matter logically, as per our brief) from a low and sneaking, narquois nether-perspective -- as were the Pontiff indulging some vanity or personal whim.
Now, in this matter, I must speak, not at all ex cathedra, but extra ecclesia, being myself as yet unreceived into the Historical Church.  But spend some time beneath the thinking-cap, and you might come up with this:

(1) From the merely psychological standpoint (which, as always, interests me almost not at all) we might venture rather  that His Holiness finds this doctrine  if anything  personally vexatious  -- ecclesiastically needful, but a source of anguish to his personal self.  For:

  (a) All ordinary Christians, if they reflect at all, experience Doubts.  And that, repeatedly. 
  (b)  Any Pope  was once an ordinary Christian -- indeed, at one time, a puling squawling fist-clenched infant -- and in his incarnated capacity, probably still is.
  (c) Hence:  The anxiety we  ever  each of us  feel, whenever we venture, on our ownsome, to change the world, must be incalculably multiplied, when such an intervention  comes with a solemn assurance of infallibility:  so that, should the Pontiff grievously err, through some sin or defect of his own, he not merely propagates a false doctrine, but tears at the very foundations of the modern Church.

(2) From the theological standpoint, I am not qualified to comment, having no standing.   But it at least makes sense that a religion built upon Revelation should be open to further revelations;  and the Credo, for instance, is not put forward as a “working hypothesis” or a philosophical RFP.

(3)  And from the logical standpoint -- ah! -- here we have our home, here we may sing, Walt-Whitman-like, upon the upland meadows.

Even in the most formalistic, David-Hilbertian view, mathematics is not simply about proceeding firmly, logically, to sound, nay unshakeable, conclusions:  for it must of necessity start somewhere.   And this starting-point consists of intuitions (as it might be, Revelation), which we formalize as axioms. --  (I am here taking axioms in the nobler, Gleasonian sense, discussed here.)  -- In faith, as in math:  What is to found our certitude, such as it is?  Surely not the latest stray vaporings from the Vatican, some mayfly thought  that (wafting in the window at tea-time)  seemed like a good idea at the time;  let alone the latest rant  from the tabernacles of Texas.
Rather, the pontiff -- like the geometer -- must retire to his inner chamber, and seek guidance:  guidance of a sort he has come to trust, though he does not understand.

These observations  do not  of course  go any length towards justifying the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, but simply point, (for  a mathematician) plausibly, to the need for same. 
And to those who would disparage the Infallibility doctrine  on the (superficially plausible) grounds of its late date (here I venture into possible heresy, thus speaking under correction -- but the analogy is clear):  such “infallibility” is, both in the Catholic and the mathematical case,  relative to our understanding.   The axioms of Euclid -- there was nothing wrong with them at all -- they were right -- superbly right -- in their own domain.  Only … two thousand some-odd years later, a bit more light was shed on the subject, by Lobachewsky and Bolyai.  And we rose to a geometrical understanding that  -- sublated the Euclidean (in Hegelian terminology):  preserving and transcending at the same time.
In the same way:  The fact that not every jot and tittle of Church doctrine was already present in ought-X A.D., in no way impugns our present understanding, save to those who (intellectually frozen) repugn history and evolution.   In terms of everyday human behavior, we may be worse off today than we were a few hundred years ago, when both Pope and Professor  were treated with deference and respect.  But in terms of what the best of us know -- standing on the shoulders of giants in either case -- there has indeed been progress, both in mathematics  and (dare we suggest it) theology.

[Note, lest you imagine I am simply shilling for RCC orthodoxy:  That reference to “relative to our understanding” alludes to the failure, or at least the re-imagining, of the Hilbert “infallibility” program for mathematics.  Gödel and others have nuanced this considerably.  And it may be, something comparable may be forthcoming for theology.   But just as with Gödel/Loewenheim-Skolem/Cohen  in the once seemingly-settled  field of logic, these developments will not be easily summarized  on TV. ]

[To Be Continued, D.V.]

1 comment:

  1. A fine contribution to the topic, uniquely grounded in arguments not hitherto brought to bear in the service of theology.

    Opponents of the Doctrine of Infallibility (which include the vast majority of my Eastern Orthodox co-religionists) tend to make what you term "hasty or superficial criticism." It is also true that the Western Church, since framing it, is searching for a way to re-contextualize it theologically in a way acceptable to the East. And as such, there has been an obvious avoidance of its employment until such an understanding is reached. Apparently the only infallible statement made recently is a retroactive determination that Blessed Pope John Paul the Great's declaration that the Church cannot ordain women was infallible--a point on which the East will not disagree.

    The East will not accept the formulation in its current wording, but does implicitly accept the purpose for which infallibility was asserted--that the Unity of the Church and the Purity of her teaching is somehow effected by the Holy Spirit.