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Do Catholics Know Their Theology is Correct?: A Response

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NOTE: On Monday we featured a guest post by one of our non-Catholic contributors, Steven Dillon, titled "Do Catholics Know Their Theology is Correct?". Today Catholic writer Brandon Vogt responds.


 
Before beginning my response to Steven Dillon's thoughtful article at Strange Notions, "Do Catholics Know That Their Theology is Correct?", I want to first thank him for contributing. I've long admired Steven's clarity, good-will, and irenic approach. It's always a delight to interact with him.

Now before getting to the meat of his argument, I wanted to defuse a couple misunderstandings at the beginning. In his second paragraph, Steven writes "an atheist can discern the Catholic Church’s claim to having not contradicted itself in any of its official teachings." Indeed, an atheist can and should examine such a claim. And Steven provides two examples where he thinks the Catholic Church has offered contradictory teachings. The first concerns original sin and salvation:

"The extraordinary magisterium decreed – through the 15th century Council of Florence – that whoever dies in the state of original sin alone goes to hell. But, no one can die in the state of original sin alone if, as the universal and ordinary magisterium currently teaches, God gives everyone the grace necessary to be saved; for the acceptance of this grace removes original sin and its rejection adds mortal or venial sin. Which infallible magisterium is right?"

On my reading, I simply don't see a contradiction between those two statements. I suppose Steven is wondering how someone can die "in original sin alone", and that's perhaps where he sees a contradiction. One example would be a child born into original sin, but who dies before receiving the Sacrament of Baptism but also before committing any mortal sins. It is at least possible that such children are not saved. (Although many Catholics, including myself, believe that such children are saved through a sort of baptism by blood—a technical idea too complex to go into here.) But the point is there is no logical contradiction between the two statements that Steven offered.

Steven's second proposed contradiction concerns the Church's claim of papal primacy. If that teaching was true, and stemmed from Christ and the apostles, Steven wonders, why was it not more widely attested in the early centuries or in St. Luke's Gospel? Without answering that question directly (that's for another article), all we should note is that, again, this entails no logical contradiction here. Even if we grant Steven's supposition that the doctrine wasn't widely professed, that would not contradict its authenticity. Things can be true without being widely known or attested (although I think papal primacy was both.)

With those two points out of the way, let's move on to Steven's key contentions in his article. Steven is primarily interested with the question, "Do Catholics know their theology is correct?" Right off the bat, we run into an obstacle since Steven doesn't define how he's using the word "know." In the field of religious epistemology, there are several types of knowledge and therefore to understand Steven's ensuing points, we have to understand how he's using that term here. (Perhaps in the comment box below Steven can define how he's using it.)

In reading the rest of the article, it seems clear to me that Steven has adopted the central error of Skepticism: equating "knowledge" with "certainty." Although this conflation is common today it is rife with problems. For instance, under such a definition, we couldn't really know anything, even things we're fairly confident about. If you were asked, "Do you know you're typing on a computer?" then under this definition, my answer would have to be:

"Well, I think I am, but perhaps I'm actually a brain in a vat and a mad scientist is manipulating chemicals to make me believe I'm typing on a computer. Since that's at least possible, I can't be certain that I'm really typing on a computer. I guess I don't know whether I'm typing on a computer. So no, I don't know."

Most people would consider this response absurd, even though it flows logically from Steven's equating of "knowledge" with "certainty." But if the response is absurd and untenable, then so is the original conflation.

Let me pose the problem another way. When you assume that knowledge entails certainty, you suppose that in order to know X, you must know with certainty that you know X, which requires you must know with certainty that you know with certainty that you know X, etc. etc. etc. The claim "knowledge entails certainty" is, therefore, ultimately self-defeating because you can never attain certain knowledge of your knowledge.

If Steven's question (do Catholics know their theology is correct?) refers to epistemic certainty, then we Catholics would happily answer "No", just as the computer typist in our example would have to. However, if Steven were using "know" in the most common sense, meaning to "be reasonably aware of through observation, inquiry, or information", then we would give a more affirmative reply. Catholics know their theology is correct in ways similar to knowing our history or physics is correct, although in the case of theology, Catholics also have recourse to a divinely-guided magisterium who distinguishes truth from falsity (on some issues.)

In addition to defining "know", it's also important we understand what Steven means by "their [i.e., Catholic's] theology." Perhaps by "their theology" Steven is referring only to the Catholic Church's magisterial teachings, as delivered through Scripture, Tradition, Church councils, popes, etc. But perhaps he's also including the theology professed by individual Catholics (i.e., "my personal theology", or what I believe about God), which is often diverse and contradictory, and certainly in addition to the Church's magisterial teachings. This is an important distinction because, for example, I may "know" theological truths expressed infallibly by the Church's magisterium but be hesitant about saying I "know" theological truths that I hold personally, but which haven't been formally adjudicated. To be more concrete, I know that Mary was born without original sin primarily because the Church's divine teaching authority has infallibly confirmed this, providing strong warrant. But I don't know whether God has incarnated himself on other planets to other species, although I do have an informed theological opinion about it. It's not clear which, or both, of those scenarios would pertain to Steven's question, "do Catholics know their theology is correct?" since both scenarios concern theological concepts. A Catholic's answer to his question would vary based on which set of claims Steven is referring to.

One more point of confusion. To me at least, it's not clear whether Steven is using "theology" the way Catholics would either. He defines theology as "the theorizing about a piece of divine revelation." But divine revelation only comprises part of theology. For example, one of the largest and oldest sub-disciplines of theology is Natural Theology, which concerns what we can know about God without the aid of divine revelation, simply through nature and reasoned reflection. Thus we can arrive at knowledge of God's existence by reasoning from the contingent world around us (natural theology), or we can arrive at knowledge of God's existence through the divine authority of Christ's Church, which has taught this point infallibly (revealed theology). The same conclusion can be arrived at through two paths, and thus entail different levels of knowledge or certainty.

Those are all necessary distinctions we must settle before we can answer Steven's core question. But instead of just stopping there to wait for these clarifications, I would like to engage one of Steven's major claims. He writes:

"Expert theologians'…reasons for holding this-or-that theological belief have not been good enough to persuade any significant portions of their peers even after centuries and centuries of scholarship…If experts do not have good enough reasons to settle a dispute, then the dispute is not settled. The fact of the matter is not yet known."

The problem I see with this suggestion is that just because a claim lacks complete consensus doesn't mean we lack knowledge about that claim. To see plenty of counter-examples, simply turn to the natural sciences. Many people disagree about evolution, but that doesn't mean we lack knowledge about evolution. It's therefore false to assume that disunity about a particular belief means that nobody has knowledge concerning that belief, or that such knowledge is impossible or difficult to attain.

In the quoted paragraph, I'm also not sure what Steven is referring to when he says "this-or-that theological belief." For many theological beliefs have been widely persuasive. Among expert theologians, there is almost unanimous agreement that Jesus claimed to be God, that he was crucified, and that he rose from the dead. The core tenants of the Nicene Creed are held with equal assent (as Steven later admits). Thus by Steven's own evaluation, in which majority assent is a key feature of true knowledge, theologians can say they "know" the tenants of Jesus' resurrection and the entirety of the Nicene Creed.

So in summary, to answer Steven's original question (do Catholics know their theology is correct?) we must understand what he means by "know" and "theology". It would also help if, instead of considering theology in general, we narrowed it down to a particular theological belief: do Catholics know their theology about [X] is correct?

But if I had to answer in the most general way, "Yes, Catholics have strong warrant to believe their theological beliefs are true."

Again, I appreciate Steven's thoughtful article and I look forward to his responses in the comment boxes.

(For those interested in a Catholic approach to epistemology written by one of the Church's greatest intellects, I recommend Blessed John Henry Newman's classic, Grammar of Assent. You can read it free online or sample his ideas in this article.)
 
 

Brandon Vogt

Written by

Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author, blogger, and speaker. He's also the founder of StrangeNotions.com. Brandon has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. He converted to Catholicism in 2008, and since then has released several books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), and RETURN (Numinous Books, 2015). He works as the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their five children in Central Florida. Follow him at BrandonVogt.com or connect through Twitter at @BrandonVogt.

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  • stahrwe

    This is an interesting discussion though much of it fell into philosophy - the brain in a vat - and h o w we know anything. Brandon's response points to a necessary and missing prerequisite, that of definitions.

    • Doug Shaver

      Some philosophical discussion is unavoidable when we start asking whether and what we know about something.

      I agree, and I think most epistemologists agree, that a certainty criterion for knowledge is unreasonable. That's not because it's wrong, exactly, because definitions cannot be true or false, strictly speaking. They can only be more or less useful, which means they actually do or don't accurately track what ordinary people mean by the words in question. If you and I don't mean the same thing when we talk about knowledge, then there is a literal sense in which you and I are not talking about the same thing.

      There is something like a consensus among philosophers that knowledge is justified true belief (JTB). Most of the ongoing debate (including wranglings over Gettier cases) is over what constitutes justification. The truth and belief criteria seem secure. Practically no one thinks it makes any sense to say anybody knows P if, as a matter of fact, P is false. And, practically no one thinks it makes any sense to say that Sue knows P if Sue denies that she believes P.

      I think the truth criterion needs more attention than it gets, and the reason it doesn't get enough attention is precisely because nobody disputes it. We all agree that if it isn't true, you don't know it, no matter how good your justification is. So, if we all agree, what's the problem?

      We established the JTB definition by considering paradigmatic cases of knowledge: certain propositions that are regarded as incontrovertible instances of knowledge--or so nearly incontrovertible that a handful of radical skeptics can be ignored. And what makes them so incontrovertible is that nobody actually thinks they might not be true. But here's the problem: It is also something of a philosophical dogma that nothing is true just because everybody agrees that it's true. When we say "Everybody knows X," we beg the question of X's truth. At the point when we ask why we should think X is actually true, at that point we move to the question of justification.

      We have to concede, then, that any knowledge claim is provisional. Even if nobody in the world doubts P, because our justification for believing P is unassailable, it is possible that we don't really know P. That doesn't mean that we're not entitled to say we know P. That entitlement depends on our justification for believing P, and that justification does not need to be infallible. It just needs to reduce the probability of error to some level that we may regard as negligible.

      In other words, we must think it possible that a belief can be justified to such a degree that one who holds it is entitled say "I know this," even though it isn't actually true.

      I thus think it inescapable that when we ask, "Do Catholics know that their theology is correct?" we must keep the qualification "assuming that it is correct" somewhere in our minds. As an atheist, I am antecedently convinced that it is not correct, but that doesn't entitle me to argue, "Their theology is false, therefore they cannot know it." That argument, by itself, is little more than a claim of infallibility.

      The most the I can argue is that Catholics are mistaken in thinking that their justification is sufficient to warrant their claim to know the truth of their theology. Obviously, that is what I must actually think, but then the burden is on me to justify my thinking so. I am not entitled to simply presuppose that whatever doesn't convince me cannot convince any other reasonable person.

  • David Nickol

    But if I had to answer in the most general way, "Yes, Catholics have strong warrant to believe their theological beliefs are true."

    Let's take a look at one of the more striking statements in the Catechism:

    390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

    Or let's take a look at an excerpt from Pius XII's Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus:

    44. . . . . by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

    45. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.

    It seems to me that the Catholic Church, in many instances, claims certainty. Pius XII in the excerpt above was defining something infallibly.

    Such claims seem to me be based on something more unequivocal than claiming "strong warrant" to believe them to be true.

    • "It seems to me that the Catholic Church, in many instances, claims certainty. Pius XII in the excerpt above was defining something infallibly."

      I agree with this and the rest of youy comment. That is why in my post, I pointed out the need for different levels of "knowledge" for different Catholic teachings. For example, I would claim to know, with certainty, divinely revealed teachings that have been infallibly declared. However, I would not claim to know with certainty other theological beliefs (such as the Incarnation-in-other-worlds example I gave, or the unbaptized-children-being-saved example.)

      In other words, Catholics are certain about some beliefs, and uncertain about others--but they can still have true knowledge about their uncertain beliefs.

      • GCBill

        If one can adequately support belief in a divinely-guided magisterium, then I suppose it's reasonable to claim infallible knowledge in certain cases. But I dare to push the question back a step and ask "How do you know that the magisterium is divinely-guided?"

        The answer to that question seems to rest on one's interpretation of the historical events surrounding Jesus' life and message. Ask any epistemologist if the methods of history are capable of producing absolutely certain knowledge, and I strongly suspect you'll get a resounding "no," perhaps accompanied by a puzzled look suggesting that the question was foolish. Which of course means that you can't be certain of your certainty.

        In the end, it doesn't matter if infallible knowledge is sometimes possible conditional upon a divinely-guided magisterium. Appeals to divine guidance are just as susceptible to your recursion problem as all other attempts to ground any truths outside of bare logical necessities.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          I basically agree with you, and I would actually like to amplify your general point by suggesting that even this is too much to concede:

          If one can adequately support belief in a divinely-guided magisterium, then I suppose it's reasonable to claim infallible knowledge in certain cases

          In practice, it is not an easy matter to determine what exactly has been infallibly declared and what hasn't. I believe I speak for many Catholics when I say that I have uncertainty as to the exact content of the infallible deposit of faith. Moreover, building on a comment I made to a previous OP, even if I assume that I have correctly identified the exact delimiters of an infallible teaching, it remains to interpret that teaching. Here again, I hope I speak for most Catholics when I say that it is difficult (and probably impossible) to exhaustively understand the practical implications of any given dogmatic statement. After careful study, one can reasonably (but cautiously) infer that one is interpreting certain statements in a "mostly correct" manner, but ultimately I must count myself as a Catholic who does not have certain knowledge of anything at all.

        • TomD123

          "How do you know that the magisterium is divinely-guided?"

          I think that you are correct to a degree with your point about absolute certainty. However, at the same time, I would argue that determining the authority of the Church does not only rest on an interpretation of historical events. There are a number of lines of evidence, of course the historical evidence is one, the fitingness of having a magisterium on the assumption revelation has occurred (i would even say necessity), miracles throughout Church history, the character of those who have lived in accord with the magisterium etc.

          I don't want to argue about each of these sources of evidence which support the magisterium. I am only making the point that the array of reasons is broader than just the historical interpretation of Jesus and the early Church.

        • Ignatius Reilly

          But I dare to push the question back a step and ask "How do you know that the magisterium is divinely-guided?"

          This is my question as well. If the foundation if the claim lies in philosophy or history, I do not see how the claim can be any more certain than the foundation.

          • "How do you know that the magisterium is divinely-guided?"

            The same way that strong atheists claim to know that there is no god.

            I have no problem "knowing" that the Catholic Church is divinely guided. Perhaps the problem lies, not in the divinely guided entity, but in your expectations of what a divinely guided entity should look like?

            I was once what I consider to be a "strong" atheist. I knew that no god existed, anywhere. But, when I suddenly realized that I was wrong, I knew that God existed, then I had to face reality. This world, as you Reilly, have noted, is not neat and tidy. And this world, is divinely guided. The entire world. You and every atheist in it. Everything is divinely guided.

            Therefore, based upon the problems that I see in the entire world, I don't expect an institute, which is divinely guided, to be neat and tidy.

            I expect to see an institution that is beset by problems. But in the end, that institution overcomes the problems and persists in its mission. All the while, fighting off and overcoming problems.

            And I expect it to have the answers to the problems which I perceive in the world. Questions like, "Why does a good God permit good people to suffer?" The best answer, in my opinion, is in Catholic Theology.

            There is no contradiction in Catholic Theology. A problem that is pervasive in every other religion. There is no error in Catholic Doctrine. All the things which I perceived as error have been explained to my satisfaction. There's no substitute for studying and seeking the truth.

            How else do you prove something for yourself?

          • Ignatius Reilly

            The same way that strong atheists claim to know that there is no god.

            The original post claimed that magisterial truths are known with more certainty than philosophical truths. The strong atheist claim is a philosophical claim.

            And I expect it to have the answers to the problems which I perceive in the world. Questions like, "Why does a good God permit good people to suffer?" The best answer, in my opinion, is in Catholic Theology.

            The best answer is to deny the existence of a tri-Omni god.

            There is no contradiction in Catholic Theology. A problem that is pervasive in every other religion. There is no error in Catholic Doctrine.

            Not true. The recent Feser post makes a claim about Catholic Doctrine that is false.

            How else do you prove something for yourself?

            Deductive logic. What do you use?

          • The original post claimed that magisterial truths are known with more certainty than philosophical truths. The strong atheist claim is a philosophical claim.

            What does that have to do with the price of beans?

            1. I answered your question. Not the OP. You asked, and I quote, "How do YOU know that the magisterium is divinely-guided?"

            I gave you MY answer.

            2. Your question asks how I know that the Magisterium is led by God (i.e. divinely guided). It does not ask about my level of certainty. Which, by the way, is a greater level of certainty than that of an atheists.

            3. Your question makes no mention of philosophical vs. theological nor any other field.

            The best answer is to deny the existence of a tri-Omni god.

            That's not an answer to anything. That's another unsupported denial. It doesn't even address the question.

            Not true. The recent Feser post makes a claim about Catholic Doctrine that is false.

            Ugh. Really? Your sentence doesn't even make sense. Am I supposed to assume that Feser proved Catholic Doctrine false? Or that he makes a claim that is false?

            Deductive logic. What do you use?

            Deductive logic properly applied. And I've used it several times to prove your claims false already. Remember our discussion about abiogenesis?

            If you correctly applied deductive logic to the question of God's existence, you would believe in God.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            1. I answered your question. Not the OP. You asked, and I quote, "How do YOU know that the magisterium is divinely-guided?"

            I gave you MY answer

            Yes, and your answer does not guarantee the certainty that the original poster was claiming Catholic Doctrine possesses. To be honest, I really don't find your answer all that convincing.

            2. Your question asks how I know that the Magisterium is led by God (i.e. divinely guided). It does not ask about my level of certainty. Which, by the way, is a greater level of certainty than that of an atheists.

            Perhaps your certainty is greater, but that does not mean that your certainty is properly grounded.

            3. Your question makes no mention of philosophical vs. theological nor any other field.

            If you read my reply in the context of the comment that I was replying to, then it would have been clear that that is what I was curious about.

            Deductive logic properly applied. And I've used it several times to prove your claims false already. Remember our discussion about abiogenesis?

            I wouldn't be so bold as to claim that you proved any of my claims false. I explained several times the difference between random and non-random processes and how the scientific method works. You clearly misunderstood the distinction between a random process and a non-random process, and did not seem to care about how mathematicians and physicists think about the two. It was rather frustrating, so I stopped commenting.

            If you correctly applied deductive logic to the question of God's existence, you would believe in God.

            Perhaps, but you are not applying it correctly to draw that conclusion.

          • Yes, and your answer does not guarantee the certainty that the original poster was claiming Catholic Doctrine possesses.

            My answer, guarantee the certainty? What?

            My answer is in agreement that Catholic Doctrine possesses that certainty. That certainty is guaranteed by God.

            To be honest, I really don't find your answer all that convincing.

            I don't respond to these answers to convince atheists of anything. I do it to edify my fellow Catholics.

            Perhaps your certainty is greater, but that does not mean that your certainty is properly grounded.

            Again, I believe it is and many Catholics believe the same as I. Therefore, I will leave it up to the readers whether my reasons are properly grounded. Especially since you have nothing but denials to substantiate your beliefs.

            I wouldn't be so bold as to claim that you proved any of my claims false. I explained several times the difference between random and non-random processes and how the scientific method works. You clearly misunderstood the distinction between a random process and a non-random process, and did not seem to care about how mathematicians and physicists think about the two. It was rather frustrating, so I stopped commenting.

            Its frustrating when you're proven wrong.

            If you read my reply in the context of the comment that I was replying to, then it would have been clear that that is what I was curious about.

            Ok. Good point. I only addressed the question because it was repeated in several comments.

            This is my question as well. If the foundation if the claim lies in philosophy or history, I do not see how the claim can be any more certain than the foundation.

            As for me, I wasn't seeking for absolute certainty when I began my search for the true Faith of God. I was seeking to make sense of the world as it is in light of my new found realization that God exists.

            Philosophy and history led me to a very unexpected place. The Catholic Church. I did not come to greater certainty of her Doctrines until I accepted the Divine Revelation of Jesus Christ as true. Its only logical, that if I believe that Jesus Christ pronounced these truths. And if I believe that Jesus Christ is God. Therefore, I have a supernatural basis for my beliefs. And that is much higher than philosophy and history.

          • Ignatius Reilly

            My answer, guarantee the certainty? What?

            My answer is in agreement that Catholic Doctrine possesses that certainty. That certainty is guaranteed by God.

            How do you know God guarantees that certainty? Usually it seems that it is a combination of history and philosophy. Thus, history and philosophy are the foundations for your claims about the certainty of the Catholic Church. A claim can only be as strong as its weakest link. In this case that link is history and philosophy. This is why I don't understand why the original poster claimed that catholic teachings are more certain than the truths of philosophy.

            What do you say to a muslim who interprets history and philosophy as demonstrating that Islam is true? Many of the arguments that you make could be said about Islam.

            Again, I believe it is and many Catholics believe the same as I. Therefore, I will leave it up to the readers whether my reasons are properly grounded. Especially since you have nothing but denials to substantiate your beliefs.

            What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence

            Its frustrating when you're proven wrong.

            I don't find it frustrating to be proven wrong. When that happens, I gain new knowledge and am rid of false knowledge. It is frustrating to dialogue with someone who not only does not understand mathematical and scientific concepts, but then claims that they are right about those concepts when they are clearly wrong.

            You still haven't shown that you understand what a random process is.

            As for me, I wasn't seeking for absolute certainty when I began my search for the true Faith of God. I was seeking to make sense of the world as it is in light of my new found realization that God exists.

            Before you add faith, what did you think about God? Was he all-loving or all-powerful? As I understand your arguments, you think that a God was necessary to bring about the design of the universe. My objection to this is that the universe is rather poorly designed - this is why I do not find design based arguments convincing. CS Lewis writes that poor design is the best argument against God, so I am usually surprised when theists claim that it is the argument that convinces them.

            Philosophy and history led me to a very unexpected place. The Catholic Church. I did not come to greater certainty of her Doctrines until I accepted the Divine Revelation of Jesus Christ as true. Its only logical, that if I believe that Jesus Christ pronounced these truths. And if I believe that Jesus Christ is God. Therefore, I have a supernatural basis for my beliefs. And that is much higher than philosophy and history.

            But you have historical/philosophical reasons for believing that Jesus is God, correct? This historical and philosophical grounding for your belief in the Supernatural is as certain as you can get. The Supernatural claims should be the least certain of your beliefs, because they are the farthest from your core historical and philosophical beliefs. Let me illustrate this with an example:

            Suppose I believe in Catholicism, because I am convinced that the Gospels were largely historic and that I experienced the presence of God in the Catholic Church. Furthermore, many philosophical deductions that I make are similar to what the Church teaches. However, there are things that I do not understand in Catholic teaching and there are things that do not completely agree with my philosophy. For the sake of this example, let's say I don't agree with the Church on gay marriage, abortion, Mary's Ascension into Heaven, or contraception. However, because I have other reasons for accepting Catholicism, which I judge to be good, I also accept the teachings that I do not understand. It would seem that I would be less certain about the teachings that I do not understand then the ones that I do understand and accept based on reason. Teachings on contraception are far from the philosophical/theological/historical belief that Jesus is God and that he guides the Roman Church. I hope that makes sense.

          • How do you know God guarantees that certainty?

            I've already answered that question.

            Usually it seems that it is a combination of history and philosophy. Thus, history and philosophy are the foundations for your claims about the certainty of the Catholic Church.

            Were the foundation of my claims. Past tense.

            A claim can only be as strong as its weakest link. In this case that link is history and philosophy. This is why I don't understand why the original poster claimed that catholic teachings are more certain than the truths of philosophy.

            You will if you ever follow the same path.

            What do you say to a muslim who interprets history and philosophy as demonstrating that Islam is true? Many of the arguments that you make could be said about Islam.

            What do you say to a muslim who interprets history and philosophy as demonstrating that Islam is true? Many of the arguments that you make could be said about Islam.

            I haven't had one to do so. I have had one who said that the Gospels would be thrown out of court. Here's what I said to him.

            What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence

            That is true. I find that to be especially strong argument against atheism. Since atheism has no positive evidence for any of its claims. Atheism is based upon denial and denial is its strongest argument.

            I don't find it frustrating to be proven wrong. When that happens, I gain new knowledge and am rid of false knowledge. It is frustrating to dialogue with someone who not only does not understand mathematical and scientific concepts, but then claims that they are right about those concepts when they are clearly wrong.

            You still haven't shown that you understand what a random process is.

            I'll let the readers decide who understands what between you and I.

            Before you add faith, what did you think about God? Was he all-loving or all-powerful?

            All powerful and all loving.

            As I understand your arguments, you think that a God was necessary to bring about the design of the universe. My objection to this is that the universe is rather poorly designed

            In your opinion. If you don't like this universe, design your own.

            - this is why I do not find design based arguments convincing. CS Lewis writes that poor design is the best argument against God, so I am usually surprised when theists claim that it is the argument that convinces them.

            “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”
            ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

            To what are you comparing this universe which you say is poorly designed?

            But you have historical/philosophical reasons for believing that Jesus is God, correct?

            Correct.

            This historical and philosophical grounding for your belief in the Supernatural is as certain as you can get. The Supernatural claims should be the least certain of your beliefs, because they are the farthest from your core historical and philosophical beliefs. Let me illustrate this with an example:

            Suppose I believe in Catholicism, because I am convinced that the Gospels were largely historic and that I experienced the presence of God in the Catholic Church. Furthermore, many philosophical deductions that I make are similar to what the Church teaches. However, there are things that I do not understand in Catholic teaching and there are things that do not completely agree with my philosophy. For the sake of this example, let's say I don't agree with the Church on gay marriage, abortion, Mary's Ascension into Heaven, or contraception. However, because I have other reasons for accepting Catholicism, which I judge to be good, I also accept the teachings that I do not understand. It would seem that I would be less certain about the teachings that I do not understand then the ones that I do understand and accept based on reason. Teachings on contraception are far from the philosophical/theological/historical belief that Jesus is God and that he guides the Roman Church. I hope that makes sense.

            Not to me. I've already explained that at one point, all I had were philosophy and history. I didn't even have faith at the time. I had no reason to trust God (i.e. faith).

            When I realized that God exists, I had to revisit all my philosophy and history and re evaluate them based upon my new world view. I had to test the premise again. Does God exist? And this time, I came up with a vehement, "Yes!"

            Now that I knew that God existed, that left me with a problem. What am I supposed to do now? Obviously, to my mind anyway, if there's this all powerful Being, I need to be right with Him. So, I had to dig further and my tools, at the time, were science, logic, philosophy, theology and history. History was no help at that time. I mean, everything looks bleak if you look at history from outside the Catholic Church.

            One other thing I had was a strong bias against the Catholic Church. Since I had converted out of the Catholic Church, it was not even on my radar.

            However, I had a Christian bias. Being raised in the US, I leaned towards believing in Christianity. But the first thing that I encountered were two doctrines which I dismissed outright. I tried to force myself to believe them. But I couldn't sustain the hypocrisy. Scripture alone and faith alone. They are, in my opinion, self contradicting and illogical doctrines. So, I soon rejected those theologies which teach those doctrines.

            This is getting kind of long, so, suffice to say that I searched outside of Christianity for a Theistic philosophy (i.e. religion) which lined up with history, science, and reality in general. That led me, reluctantly, back to the Catholic Church.

            And this is when I discovered the richness, elegance and beauty of Catholic Teaching. This is when I began to truly trust in God. And this is when I discovered that certainty which is far more than one can have with mere human wisdom.

  • David Nickol

    Among expert theologians, there is almost unanimous agreement that Jesus claimed to be God, that he was crucified, and that he rose from the dead.

    Does this include expert Muslim and Jewish theologians? Not all theologians are Christian.

    I don't think there is a consensus among biblical scholars (including Catholic scholars) that "Jesus claimed to be God."

    • "Does this include expert Muslim and Jewish theologians? Not all theologians are Christian."

      Ha! I originally wrote "Among expert Christian theologians..." but felt the sentence was too clunky and removed the word "Christian." I felt since Steven's article implicitly referred only to Catholic theology, my meaning would be clear, even without the word.

      Nevertheless, my point still holds. Even if there is theological disagreement about certain views, whether that be among Catholics or among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims, it does not follow that none of them can have theological knowledge. Wouldn't you agree that disagreement doesn't preclude true knowledge?

    • jessej

      Rabbi Neusman explains exactly what power Jesus is claiming in His teaching.

      Newsman's book, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, is clear. Jesus claimed his divinity when He sat "on the mountain and taught them" (Jews would instantly be moved to recall God teaching from "the mountain" at Sinai.

      Neusman points to the phrase Jesus uses here, "you have heard it said, but I say."

      In fact they had heard it, and it was God who spoke. Any official provisos would require an authority equal with God. Neusman may reject Jesus claims of divinity, but he knows what the claims were.

      Granted, Neusman is not "most theologians", Jewish, Muslim or Zoroastrian but he is an excellent example of someone who does not shy away from the obvious.

      • David Nickol

        Rabbi Neusman explains exactly what power Jesus is claiming in His teaching.

        I have read at least one book by Rabbi Jacob Neusner (not Neusman), and although it wasn't A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, I wonder if you are accurately reporting his views. I recall him saying that the "you have heard it said, but I say" fit well with the Jewish notion of "building a fence around the law." When Jesus condemned not just murder, but being angry with someone, he was "building a fence around the law." That is, he was going beyond the law in order to make sure his listeners not only didn't break the law, but didn't get close to breaking the law.

        Jesus claimed his divinity when He sat "on the mountain and taught them" (Jews would instantly be moved to recall God teaching from "the mountain" at Sinai.

        This doesn't sound right to me. Perhaps you can quote from the book. The gospel authors may have wanted to suggest a connection between Jesus on a mountain and God on Mt Sinai. But it is hard to imagine no Jew could teach on a mountain without it being interpreted as a claim to be God.

      • Presumably Neusman doesn't think Jesus rose from the dead.

  • Loreen Lee

    In response to David Nichol: may I post a couple of links regarding the distinction between knowledge rather than certainty that is sought in science, particularly physics; as distinct from the certainty that is referred to in his comment in regard to faith: and it's attendant dogmatics, authority, etc. . I'll also try to find something about Kierkegaard's comparison of faith to a form of madness. Just a few things to reflect upon.
    Will come back to delete what is unnecessary. Here's the first link:
    l. On knowledge in physics: http://edge.org/conversation/a-philosophy-of-physics
    2. When it comes to ideas about certainty I thought it might be best to stick to 'opinion' grin grin. So I offer these quotes. Enjoy. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/certainty

  • David Nickol

    One example would be a child born into original sin, but who dies before receiving the Sacrament of Baptism but also before committing any mortal sins. It is at least possible that such children are not saved. (Although many Catholics, including myself, believe that such children are saved through a sort of baptism by blood—a technical idea too complex to go into here.)

    Don't you mean baptism of desire rather than baptism of blood? It is difficult to think of infants who die without baptism and before the age of reason as in any way suffering a martyr's death. The Vatican has even declined to classify aborted infants as martyrs (as some antiabortion advocates had campaigned for).

    • "Don't you mean baptism of desire rather than baptism of blood?"

      No, I do not, since babies do not have sufficient use of intellect and free will. A person can only desire and choose what he or she knows. Therefore, the type of non-formal baptism must be of blood.

      "It is difficult to think of infants who die without baptism and before the age of reason as in any way suffering a martyr's death."

      I agree. I don't think a baby killed in utero, or who dies prematurely in adolescence, necessarily needs to suffer a martyr's death to be "baptized by blood."

      Anyways, this is all beside the focus of the main conversation. The only thing it highlights is my original point: that some theological truths we can know with certainty (such as that God removes original sin through sacramental baptism) and others we can know with more limited certainty (such as that unbaptized infants can still be saved.)

  • Steven Dillon

    Thanks for the kind words Brandon, I appreciate your reply and hope you had a fun New Year's Eve.

    I'll try to touch on what seem to be your biggest concerns.

    1. The contradiction between the Council of Florence and the current universal and ordinary magisterium is that the former says dying with original sin alone is possible while the latter says it's not. Florence "says" this by decreeing if anyone dies with original sin alone, they go to hell (a useless statement unless it communicated what could really happen). But, the universal and ordinary magisterium says God offers everyone the grace to be saved. If that's the case, then everyone either accepts this offer and loses their original sin, or rejects it and gets saddled with mortal or venial sin on top of original. Either way, no one can die with original sin *alone*.

    2. I don't think there's any contradiction in the Church's teaching on Matthew 16. I just think atheists can dispute the Church's interpretation, towards the end of dialogue with Catholics.

    3. What is knowledge? If I can adapt a statement of Augustine's about time: If no one asks me what knowledge is, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

    By 'knowledge', I'm referring to that commonly experienced state of mind in which we've correctly and with sound reason judged how things are. As you noted, this needn't involve certainty.

    How can anyone correctly judge a theological matter with sound reason, when no one's reasons for judging theological matters are good enough to persuade any significant portion of those who are best equipped to assess their strength?

    Here I include any expert theologian of any faith. E.g. Christian theologians have failed to persuade many Muslim theologians, and Catholic theologians have failed to convince many Eastern Orthodox theologians, etc.

    Thanks again for the reply Brandon, hopefully this clarifies things.

    • TomD123

      A minor point I want to make about the problem between Florence and grace to all. One could of course take Florence to be a statement about the hypothetical possibility which is never realized due to God offering sufficient grace to all. "One man's modus tollens is another's modus ponens." In other words the fact that sufficient grace is given to all is what shows the situation described by the council is never realized.

      I think however that there is a better interpretation. Generally when Catholic theology speaks of God offering sufficient grace to all, this is meant to encompass those with the use of reason. In other words, infants are not included in this statement. The reason to interpret the statement in this manner is that the grace being spoken of is "actual grace" which is the kind of grace only one with the use of reason can benefit from. It doesn't make sense to even speak of an infant using actual grace.

      • Steven Dillon

        If all the universal and ordinary magisterium is saying is that God *happens* to offer everyone the chance to be saved, but doesn't have to, then there's no contradiction here. But, the universal and ordinary magisterium seems to say that God offers everyone the chance to be saved because God wants everyone to be saved, and God wants everyone to be saved because God is love. In other words, God has to offer everyone the chance to be saved because it's in his very nature to do so. This implies that God enables those like infants to understand his offer.

        • Mark Neal

          In other words, God has to offer everyone the chance to be saved because it's in his very nature to do so.

          Also, because it is in man's very nature to be damned, due to original sin. Thus, God offers sufficient grace to all men precisely because we would be damned without it (as Florence stated). Far from contradicting each other, each of the two doctrines actually wouldn't make sense without the other one.

        • TomD123

          God does not have to give grace to anyone. That is Church teaching as well. But again, we can easily interpret the doctrine (and I think this is more correct) as restricted to those who have attained the use of reason hence it wouldn;t apply to those in original sin alone

          • Steven Dillon

            The Church's teaching that God only wills his own goodness out of necessity seems like another inconsistency to me, but as far as whether we can -- on the assumption that my apriori considerations fail -- interpret the doctrine as being restricted to those with the use of reason, we'd have to examine the sources used by the universal and ordinary magisterium, which could range anywhere from encyclicals and papal allocutions to catechisms and canon law.

  • David Nickol

    The problem, it seems to me, is that if the Council of Florence declared (infallibly) that a person who died in a state of Original Sin alone (that is, Original Sin but no "actual" sin—i.e., no committed sin) goes to hell, then to say that there must be a way to salvation for unbaptized babies, or miscarried/aborted babies, makes the declaration of the council meaningless.

    According to Jesus, unless a person is baptized, he or she cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. This presents troubling situations, like having someone who is planning to get baptized die, or someone who is planning to get baptized actually die a martyr's death. So the Church invented—out of whole cloth—"baptism of desire" and "baptism of blood." Another troubling situation is that of an infant who dies before baptism, who, according to the clear teachings of the Church, dies in a state of Original Sin. So St. Augustine invented—almost out of whole cloth—the Limbo of Infants.

    Then, in 2007, the Vatican's International Theological Commission makes headlines ("Catholic Church Abolishes Limbo!") suggests that there are good reasons to "hope" that unbaptized infants are saved. Nobody knows how this can be, given the necessity of baptism and the infallible statement that those who die in a state of Original Sin alone go to hell.

    Now, it is nice to know the Catholic Church doesn't believe God sends innocent babies (innocent save for Original Sin) to roast in hell for all eternity. I remember having a long discussion with a Protestant friend in which he insisted that everyone who did not explicitly acknowledge Jesus as their savior went to hell. This included, for example, all the native populations of the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. This didn't bother my friend at all. To the credit of the Catholic Church, it has at least since the time of Augustine struck most Catholics as unfair. (Although I have heard many an argument that nobody, no matter how virtuous, deserves heaven, and so it would be fair for everyone to go to hell.)

    And now modern medicine tells us that perhaps the majority of human conceptions never result in a live birth, so if life truly begins at conception, the majority of human beings conceived have no chance of being baptized. And so Catholic theology has pretty much painted itself into a corner. But the answer is that everything that has been taught up to the present says that unbaptized babies are not saved. They may go to Limbo instead of hell, but they don't go to heaven. And then suddenly the Vatican announces that Limbo has never been an official teaching of the Church, and that we can hope the unbaptized will be saved. But we can't imagine how.

    Meanwhile, that leaves us wondering about the necessity of baptism. There's baptism of blood, baptism of desire, and now apparently some kind of "baptism of dying before baptism." If those who die before birth are guaranteed salvation, it is certainly better to die before birth and risk damnation. Who in their right minds, if given the choice between guaranteed eternal bliss (death before birth) or risk no matter how small of eternal damnation (a life on earth, even including baptism) would not choose the guarantee?

    • Mark Neal

      Wow, David - I find myself agreeing with pretty much everything you've said.

      I would say that, while Limbo is not infallible dogma, the Vatican's International Theological Commission is also not infallible - not even remotely. St. Augustine is a lot more reliable!

      • David Nickol

        I would say that, while Limbo is not infallible dogma . . .

        I found the following quote from the future Benedict XVI when he was still Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

        Limbo was never a defined truth of faith. Personally—and here I am speaking more as a theologian and not as Prefect of the Congregation—I would abandon it since it was only a theological hypothesis. It formed part of a secondary thesis in support of a truth which is absolutely of first significance for faith, namely the importance of baptism. To put it in the words of Jesus to Nicodemus: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God" (Jn 3:5). One should not hesitate to give up the idea of "limbo" if need be (and it is worth noting that the very theologians who proposed "limbo" also said that parents could spare the child limbo by desiring its baptism and through prayer); but the concern behind it must not be surrendered. Baptism has never been a side issue of faith; it is not now, nor will it ever be.

        I have been aware that the existence of the Limbo of Infants was never a defined doctrine, although I believe I and many others who went to Catholic school were taught that it was more or less a fact. I had never heard anyone say that "parents could spare the child limbo by desiring its baptism and through prayer," and I would be curious to know more about that. But that raises another knotty issue for me. What would be the fate of an unbaptized infant whose parents didn't desire baptism for their deceased infant (because either they weren't baptized themselves, or weren't Christian, or never heard of baptism, or any number of reasons)? Does the eternal fate of a child who dies without baptism really depend on his or her parents? And for every "loophole" that allows salvation without baptism, doesn't baptism itself become less and less important?

        I personally think what needs to be abandoned (or radically interpreted) is the idea of Original Sin itself. The idea that anyone, especially a miscarried baby, should suffer eternal punishment or even eternity in limbo instead of heaven because of something done by the remotest ancestors one can imagine is simply unfair. It is similar to racial discrimination—treating people differently because their ancestors were from the "wrong" group.

        • Mark Neal

          Does the eternal fate of a child who dies without baptism really depend on his or her parents?

          Well, a child depends on his parents for literally everything he has - food, shelter, education - without parents an infant cannot dress himself nor even walk around. Children are created by God but entrusted to human parents. It makes sense that the influence of parents would be of tremendous significance to a child's salvation - for better or worse.

          Personally, I have always had difficulty with the idea that infants are incapable of sin, and I don't think the Church has actually declared that, even though some Catholics talk as if she has. Infants are persons, which means that by definition they have an intellect and a will, and the "Law of God is written on their hearts," like anyone else. I don't know what kind of sin an unborn child would be capable of, but I don't see any reason to say they certainly are incapable of sin.

          And for every "loophole" that allows salvation without baptism, doesn't baptism itself become less and less important?

          Absolutely it does!!!!

          God save us from the seekers of loopholes...

          The idea that anyone, especially a miscarried baby, should suffer eternal punishment (or even eternity in limbo instead of heaven) because of something done by the remotest human ancestors one can imagine is simply unfair.

          Ah, but as none other than Steve Dillon pointed out in his article, nobody can actually die in a state of Original Sin alone! Everybody receives sufficient grace for salvation, which means that everybody who gets damned has committed Personal Sin of some sort in addition to Original Sin.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            And for every "loophole" that allows salvation without baptism, doesn't baptism itself become less and less important?

            Absolutely it does!!!!

            God save us from the seekers of loopholes...

            Perhaps I misunderstand your point, but if you are saying that canonical baptism is only important because it enables some sort of human unshackling of the Holy Spirit, then I say without any intended exaggeration or humor that I think you are in the grips of The Deceiver. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is not now, nor has it ever been, constrained by the canonical forms that the Church has developed. The distinction between baptism and the special form of baptism that is canonical is not a "loophole".

            The question: "Why even have canonical forms, if God can save without them?" is sad and misguided. The questions should be instead: "Why would we NOT want to participate formally in the sacraments? Why would we NOT accept God's invitation to actively participate in His saving plan? Why would we NOT glorify the sacraments with beautiful canonical forms?"

          • Mark Neal

            I think we are both on the same page here, Jim, although I am not quite sure what "canonical forms" means.

            When I said "seekers of loopholes," I was talking about Catholics who wrongly believe that Baptism is unnecessary for salvation, and who try to stretch certain parts of Catholic theology in order to make it as unnecessary as they can (IOW, they search for loopholes). They are doing great damage to the Church with heterodox teachings. David Nickol touched on this, and I was simply agreeing with him.

            Too many Catholics have been led to believe that Baptism isn't a big deal, because they think it is cruel or unfair for a man to be damned simply because he was never Baptized.

  • Tim Dacey

    "Catholics know their theology is correct in ways similar to knowing our history or physics is correct, although in the case of theology, Catholics also have recourse to a divinely-guided magisterium who distinguishes truth from falsity (on some issues.)"

    There could be a serious problem here as "a divinely-gudied magisterium" employs different "epistemic credentials" from the kind of "epistemic credentials" that physicists employ. It it could be argued (and has been) that those individuals who think the "epistemic credentials" employed by physicists are valid (or at least superior) to the kind of "epistemic credentials" religious believers employ. This may not be worrisome because to either party would simply be begging the question if they believed that their "epistemic credentials" were valid (or superior) while the other party's was not. My point though is that the analogy is probably not going to work (for an idea of what I mean see John Pittard's Conciliationism and Religious Disagreement").

  • vito

    "I know... but I am not certain"... Sounds very strange to me.

  • ML

    Sorry to be picky but : '...theologians can say they "know" the tenants of Jesus' resurrection...' ---- I believe you mean "tenets."