• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

Black and White and Misread All Over

Black and White

NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his own blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.


Philosopher Dale Tuggy recently quoted a famous passage from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola:

"To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it, believing that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride, there is the same Spirit which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls. Because by the same Spirit our Lord Who gave the ten Commandments, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed."

This is a favorite quote of skeptics looking for a proof text demonstrating the manifest irrationality of the Catholic understanding of the Church’s authority. Dale does not seem to be making quite so strong or aggressive a claim, but he does regard Ignatius' position as “unreasonable” insofar as it amounts, as Dale tells us, to the view that “tradition trumps sense perception.”

But that’s simply not what Ignatius said. For one thing, he says nothing about “tradition” in the passage quoted. He speaks instead of what the “Hierarchical Church” decides. True, when the Church formally pronounces on some matter in a fashion that requires the assent of the faithful, she always does so in light of tradition. But tradition per se is not what is at issue in this passage. What is at issue is the epistemological status of the Church’s pronouncements themselves. That narrows things considerably, because while the Church does pronounce on many things, and while it is by no means only those pronouncements presented as infallible to which the faithful are expected to assent, the range of actual pronouncements is still narrower than the deliverances of tradition. (For example, there is support for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in tradition, but you will not find a formal pronouncement on the matter until relatively recently, which is why Thomas Aquinas was in his time free to disagree with it.)

Secondly, the subject matter of those pronouncements always concerns those areas in which the Church claims special expertise, namely faith (i.e., theological doctrine) and morals—matters which are relevant to “the salvation of our souls,” in Ignatius' words. The Church does not claim special expertise or authority in purely secular matters. This is just basic Catholic theology, with which Ignatius was of course familiar. The stuff about black being white if the Church decides it is meant as hyperbole—which should be clear to any charitable reader, and certainly to anyone who knows that the Church has never claimed any special expertise in the physics, physiology, or philosophy of color perception per se.

Thirdly, Dale suggests that what Loyola says about sense perception would seem to entail as well that tradition “would also trump a strong intuition of falsehood—as when a set of claims appears self-inconsistent." That makes it sound as if Ignatius' view, and the Church’s, is that we ought to ignore what we know about logic if it seems to conflict with Church teaching. But the Catholic position is that even where theological mysteries are concerned, apparent logical inconsistencies can be and should be exposed as illusory. The Church rejects any attempt to pit revelation against reason, whether motivated by skepticism or by fideism. She teaches that while there are theological truths that cannot be arrived at by unaided reason, these truths nevertheless must not and do not conflict with reason. We must accept both the Church’s teachings on faith and morals and logic, and if there seems to be a conflict, the theologian has a duty to show why this appearance is illusory.

Fourthly, the Church’s teaching about the epistemological status of her own pronouncements on matters of faith and morals is itself grounded in reason. She doesn’t say, in circular fashion, “You must accept what the Church teaches vis-à-vis faith and morals. Why? Well, we just told you why: because that is itself something the Church teaches!” The Catholic position rather follows from the Catholic understanding of divine revelation. The Catholic view is that the occurrence of a divine revelation is something that should be and can be confirmed via its association with miracles, where the occurrence of the miracles in question itself can and should be confirmed by rational arguments.

Still, if such revelation is to be efficacious, it cannot come to us merely in the form of a set of prophetic oral teachings passed on from generation to generation, or a book, or the declarations of a series of councils (though of course it can and does include these). For by themselves such sources of revelation are inherently subject to alternative interpretations, and being mere words on a page they cannot interpret themselves. In particular, they cannot tell us what they mean when the meaning is not entirely clear, and they cannot tell us how we are to apply them to new and unforeseen circumstances.

Hence, if a revelation is to be efficacious, it must be associated with an authoritative interpreter. And since the human lifespan is relatively short, that interpreter cannot be identified with some particular individual human being if the revelation is to be efficacious over a period of centuries. It has to be embodied in an ongoing institution, and ultimately in an executive office whose occupants have supreme authority to have the final say in matters of controversy.

Moreover, divine assistance must preserve this authority from error just as it preserved the original revelation from error. For if the authority can err in its interpretation and application of the revelation, the latter will, once again, be of no effect, even if free of error itself. In short, you can’t have an infallible Bible or infallible ecclesiastical councils without an infallible institutional Church and an infallible Pope. Without the latter, the interpretation and application of the former become arbitrary in principle, as every private interpreter becomes an authority unto himself.

Obviously this is bound to be controversial, and various details and qualifications would need to be spelled out in a complete treatment of the issue. The point for our purposes here is that the Catholic position is grounded in an argument about how a divine revelation given at some point in history has to be transmitted and applied if it is going to be transmitted and applied effectively. (If you want a more detailed presentation of the argument, see the book by fellow Strange Notions contributor Mark Shea, titled By What Authority?. It offers an excellent, popular exposition.)

It should be clear, then, that the Church—and Ignatius, in summarizing the Church’s view of her own authority—is not saying “tradition trumps sense perception,” nor, contrary to what skeptics suppose, is it advocating a shrill fideism. Its claim, stripped of hyperbole, is rather: “Given the Catholic understanding of revelation—an understanding the Church herself insists is and must be in harmony with reason—we are obliged to assent to the Church’s formal pronouncements on matters of faith and morals rather than to any private interpretation that might conflict with those pronouncements.” Whether or not one agrees with this claim, it is hardly the jarring call to irrationalist dogmatism skeptics make it out to be.

Now, Dale might respond: “That’s fair enough as far as it goes. But what happens when we apply Ignatius' principle, as you claim it should be understood, to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in particular? In at least that case, isn’t the result pretty much the view I attributed to Ignatius—namely, that we ought to reject what sense perception tells us when it conflicts with tradition, or at least with the formal pronouncements of the Church?”

But that is not the result. Or, if the result is that we ought to reject what sense perception tells us, this is so only in a loose, innocuous, and uncontroversial sense. To see how, consider Jim and Bob, who are identical twins with similar personalities. You approach someone you take to be Jim, begin a friendly conversation, and after a few minutes say “Well, I’m late for a meeting. Nice chatting with you, Jim!” He responds: “I’m not Jim, I’m Bob!” If we conclude that your senses deceived you, are we committing ourselves to a shockingly irrationalist skepticism about sense perception? Are we endorsing a bizarre Bob-oriented fideism according to which “Bob’s say-so trumps sense perception”? Obviously not. Indeed, strictly speaking, it wasn’t really your senses that deceived you in the first place. The man you were talking to really does look like Jim; your senses told you as much, and they were right. The trouble is that you drew the wrong conclusion from this fact, because you failed sufficiently to consider that Bob looks and acts the same way.

Something similar can be said of one’s sense perception of the Eucharist. One might judge that it is bread that one is looking at, touching, tasting, etc., even though it is not bread at all, but the Body of Christ. But to say that one’s senses are deceiving one in this situation is to speak loosely. As in the case of Jim and Bob, strictly speaking your senses are not really deceiving you at all. They told you that the accidents of bread were present, and they really were present. (Aquinas thinks so. Why? Precisely because “it is evident to sense” that they are.)

The trouble is that you drew the wrong conclusion from this fact, insofar as you assumed that the presence of the accidents entails that the substance of bread must be present as well. That is to say, you failed to consider that the accidents might still be present even if the substance is not. As in the case of Jim and Bob, what is going on here is not that what sense perception tells you should be “trumped” by something else. It is, in both cases, something far more mundane—the senses are accurate as far as they go, but haven’t given you the whole story, and since you failed to realize this you drew a mistaken conclusion. This happens all the time, and hardly only when non-Catholics come to Mass.

“But I don’t buy the metaphysics and theology underlying the doctrine of transubstantiation!” you exclaim. Fine, but that is irrelevant to the point at issue, which is that there is nothing in the doctrine per se, nor in the Church’s claim about her teaching authority, nor in Ignatius' colorful statement of that claim, that entails some bizarre pitting of tradition against sense perception. If one wants to reject the doctrine, or the Church’s claims about her own authority, shouting “You claim that tradition trumps sense perception!” is not a good reason to do so.

Dale offers a further consideration against the Catholic position, as expressed by Ignatius. He says: “Suppose, contrary to fact, that Mother Church had long, strongly asserted that uneaten, consecrated wafers never rot. Then, you’re cleaning up the church, and find a wafer that you remember the priest dropping during Mass some months ago. It is rotten—covered with bread mold. You can feel, smell, and see the rot. Surely, you can (and will) reasonably believe that the wafer is rotten.”

Apparently Dale thinks this hypothetical scenario poses a problem for the Catholic view of the Church’s teaching authority. But it’s hard to see how. Consider another hypothetical scenario: Suppose, contrary to fact, that the Bible had asserted that all Volkswagens are poached eggs. Then, you’re cleaning your Volkswagen one day, and you happen to notice that it is not a poached egg. You can feel, smell, and see that the Volkswagen has no poached egg-like qualities at all, and many qualities that are incompatible with its being a poached egg. Surely you can (and will) reasonably believe that the Volkswagen is not a poached egg.

Now, having formulated this scenario, would you rush to the computer and write up a blog post entitled “Protestantism: The Bible Trumps Sense Perception”? Would you think you’ve discovered a powerful objection to the authority of the Bible? Presumably not; in any event, I doubt Dale would think you had. For the argument seems to be: “We can make up a story where the Bible asserts something at odds with a veridical sense perception. Therefore the Bible is not in fact authoritative.” And this argument is clearly no good. What matters to assessing the Bible’s authority is what it actually says, not what we can imagine it saying in some weird story we’ve made up. But this argument seems parallel to Dale’s implicit argument against Ignatius' view of the Church’s teaching authority. If the one argument has no force, then, neither does the other.
Originally posted at Edward Feser's Blog. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Twitrcovers)

Dr. Edward Feser

Written by

Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.