Catholic Apologetics

This is my rebuttal to Rev. J.A. Wylie's essay on Infallibility, part of his Dogmas of the Papacy series.  (Though long deceased, Rev. Wylie's award-winning essays continue to be favorites in the Baptist/"Bible Christian" community.)

 

Rev. Wylie's essays are better than the average in anti-Catholic polemics[1].  The World Wide Web as well as published literary works contain no shortage of the worst kind of anti-Catholic nonsense, containing the most amazing levels of ignorance of not just Catholicism but history, Scripture, and logic.  Wylie’s essays are better than much of that, but they are still bad, in terms of getting the basic facts of what the Church teaches, and why, correct.  They also contain substantial logical errors and reveal ignorance of both Scripture and of the history of Christianity, especially the early Church.  Due to these things, the conclusions he reaches are very much erroneous.

 

 

Scripture & The Canon of Scripture

 

Before considering what this essay has to say about the subject of the Catholic doctrine of Infallibility, we need to discuss the author’s comments about Scripture, which he makes casually as if there is no doubt whatsoever about them and nothing at all deeper to the story.

 

Wylie contrasts the authority of Scripture with that of the Church (a false dichotomy).  His first logical error is his assumption that these are mutually exclusive, but, more pertinently, he completely fails to consider the origins of his Bible, something non-Catholics are extremely wont to do – and with good reason.  Wylie does not consider this (or at least does not treat it) because to do so would turn his entire argument against “infallibility” on his head.

 

Every book of inspired Scripture was theoretically immutable when it was initially written.  (I say “theoretically” because we do not possess perfect copies – by one estimate there are approximately 200,000 textual variations total in the Old and New Testament source documents that humanity possesses.)  All Scripture is also inerrant (not just in faith & morals, but in any subject it intends to teach) as God is Its primary author.  For more of what the Catholic Church teaches regarding Holy Scripture, see the Catechism:

 

http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s1c2a3.htm

 

But here is the meat of Wylie’s problem: why does he trust his canon of Scripture?  Where did it come from?  The plain and simple fact is that the canon was defined by the Church in her ecumenical councils, and if Wylie asserts, as he surely does (and as every Protestant I’m familiar with does) that the Church is never infallible in Her actions (and indeed is never even authoritative!) then his complete trust in his Bible is sorely misplaced.

 

I’m not going to go too deeply into the tangent of the canon here; I’ll offer only a few basic facts so that those unfamiliar with the history can see the magnitude of the error in Wylie’s reasoning.  As late as the early 200s, more than a century and a half past the Resurrection, after many thousands of Christians had given their lives in martyrdom, much of the canon was essentially settled (meaning it was considered Scripture by every major church) but there was still serious disagreement on a number of books: James, Jude, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, and Revelation at the least.  And, of course, there were at least a dozen books that did not make the canon considered Scripture in certain areas: 1 Clement (the fourth Pope’s letter to the Corinthians, ~95 AD), the Didache, the Gospels of the Hebrews, Egyptians, Mattathias, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Preaching of Peter, the Revelation of Peter, the Proevangelium of James, Acts of James, Acts of Paul, and the Shepherd of Hermas.  For instance, the canon used by the Church in Egypt (as given by Clement of Alexandria) included all of these in addition to the four canonical Gospels and most other books of the New Testament.  [None of these books contain material judged heretical, but neither were any of them ultimately ruled to be divinely inspired.]

 

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in a letter written in 367 provided the books of the New Testament canon eventually ratified by future ecumenical councils; Athanasius was not speaking authoritatively, but may have been the first to so enumerate these books.  They were subsequently listed by the Council of Rome, in 382, which was ratified by Pope Damascus I (although there is some dispute in this), and were repeated at the local councils of Hippo and Carthage in the last decade of the fourth century[2].  Finally, more than a thousand years later, at the Council of Trent, a full ecumenical council with Papal ratification, the canon was solemnly defined.

 

[Protestant attempts to assert that the canon is self-attesting and was decided without the action of men strain credulity far past the breaking point[3].  However, the fact men were involved in the definition of the canon should not be so unpalatable to them.  Surely, all must acknowledge that men were involved in the writing of the Scriptures; though the Holy Spirit is their primary author, He worked through men who did impart their “signature” to the texts in various ways.  The Holy Spirit worked through His Church to define the canon of Scripture exactly as He worked through It to write the Scriptures; to recoil from this notion is to miss entirely the full effects of the Incarnation.  As the Apostles at the Council of Jerusalem noted with regard to what they decided, “it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us”.]

 

Much more could be said about this subject but that will suffice for our purposes here.  Wylie cannot have it both ways: either ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church in union with the See of Peter (more on these requirements below) are endowed with the God-given charism of infallibility in faith & morals or he has no guarantee that his Bible is inerrant and complete. A Book with a fallible canon is no infallible Book.  This is a very simple logical structure and it is ironclad.

 

 

The Catholic Doctrine of Infallibility

 

It probably makes sense to say a few words about what infallibility is not since there are so many non-Catholics with completely incorrect beliefs about the subject.  Infallibility does not mean impeccability or omniscience; it has nothing to do with not sinning and nothing to do with having all possible knowledge.  A pope (as stated in detail below) enjoys the charism of infallibility only under certain (very restrictive) conditions; he must be giving a teaching on faith & morals in an official capacity and whilst intending it to be binding upon the entire Body of Christ.  Likewise, a council of the Church is considered infallible in its decisions only when it is a true ecumenical (general) council of the entire Universal [Catholic] Church teaching in harmony with the See of Peter.         

 

To explain the Church’s teaching, the place to start is the Catechisim (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p123a9p4.htm):

 

889 In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a "supernatural sense of faith" the People of God, under the guidance of the Church's living Magisterium, "unfailingly adheres to this faith."417

 

890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:

 

891 "The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an Ecumenical Council.418 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed,"419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith."420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.421

 

892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a "definitive manner," they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent"422 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

 

I will now demonstrate that these teachings have a firm basis in Scripture and (contrary to the silly assertion of Wylie’s paper) were believed and professed in rudimentary form at least by the Church from Her very beginnings, long before a “full thousand years after Christ and his apostles” had passed.

 

Let's examine some of the passages of the New Testament that are related to the Church’s protection from error; these are passages that any competent Catholic apologist would reference. 

 

Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. [17] And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. [18] And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. [19] And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven. (Matthew 16:16-19)

 

Later, the power of binding & loosing is extended to all of the apostles:

 

And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more: that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand. [17] And if he will not hear them: tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican. [18] Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven. (Matthew 18:16-18)

 

A careful reader should see from these passages alone that the Church simply must enjoy some sort of divine protection from error – that is, infallibility.  Christ here promises that God Himself will endorse the Church’s teachings, and God cannot endorse error - can He?

 

Then there is Luke 10:16:

 

He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me.

 

The literal and direct meaning here is that those who hear the Apostles hear Christ Himself.  We can intimate from the text of Scripture Itself[4] that what Christ says to His Apostles applies to the successors they ordained as well; we will also speak to this briefly below.

 

But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth. (John 16:13).  The Holy Spirit will teach “all truth” to His Church; likewise,14:26 states that the Holy Spirit will teach the Church “all things”.  We know this implies truth with come to the Apostles’ successors as well, since John 14:16 says the Paraclete will abide with the Church “forever”.  Also, Christ told the Apostles that they were not given all truth initially, but that there were things that would come later.

 

We see that Christ clearly promises that the Holy Spirit will be with the Church (he is speaking, again, to the leaders of His Church, not to disciples in general) forever.  The “Gates of Hell” shall not prevail against this Church; if Hell itself attacks It than It is a divine institution by nature.  Such a divine creation of the Savior Himself could not teach error in Its official capacity or His promises are null – broken.

 

And of course we must mention 1 Tim 3:15, Paul’s famous statement about the Church:

 

“The church of the living God is the pillar and foundation of the truth.”

 

Here we have told to us as plainly as possible where the buck stops.  It is not the Bible – a creation of the Church – that is the very “foundation of truth”, but the Church that gave us that Bible.

 

Kittle’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (a Protestant work) explains this passage as follows: "A Church is established which protects and defends the truth against the confusion of myths. It gives the faith and thinking of individuals a sure ground in confession. No longer God alone, but also the Church of God, now guarantees the permanence of the aletheia [truth]. The steadfastness of faith has now become loyalty to the Church and the confession."  Clearly “protects and defends the truth” and “guarantees the permanence of the truth” suggest the charism of infallibility at least in some form.  How is the Church the very foundation of truth if it has no guaranteed ability to not teach error?  We see how many Scriptural passages there are that demand such a divine protection for the Church.

 

Related to this, we have examples in Scripture of people making infallible statements, and we see that this is not even necessarily related to a person’s personal sanctity, but rather their office:

 

But one of them, named Caiphas, being the high priest that year, said to them: You know nothing. [50] Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.  [51] And this he spoke not of himself: but being the high priest of that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation. (John 11:49-51)

 

Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am? [16] Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. [17] And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 16:15-17)

 

Jesus even tells us how Peter was given this knowledge about His true identity: God Himself gave the knowledge to him directly.  And so now we know how a fallible, sinful man is able to accurately transmit an infallible teaching from God!

 

And then there is, again, the Council of Jerusalem as described in Acts, where the leaders of Church decided issues pressing upon them at the time[5], on their own authority, yet implicitly knowing that the Spirit infused His Church and would keep Her from error: “For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us”.

 

Thus, we see that the notion of the Church that Jesus Christ founded has a divine protection from teaching error follows quite directly from the text of the New Testament, and the fact that it struck Rev. Wylie as such a curious and downright nutty notion raises doubts about the good Reverend rather than this teaching or of Scripture.  Indeed, when we examine the attitude of the Church towards this teaching from Her earliest days, and contrast them with what Wylie has to say about that, we will see that his knowledge of Christian history is seriously lacking as well.

 

Let us look at a small selection of quotes from early Church Fathers regarding the nature of the Church and Her mission of truth – of infallibility:

 

"the preaching of the Church is everywhere consistent, and continues in an even course, and receives testimony from the prophets, the apostles, and all the disciples… For in the Church, it is said, God hath set apostles, prophets, teachers, and all the other means through which the Spirit works; of which all those are not partakers who do not join themselves to the Church, but defraud themselves of life through their perverse opinions and infamous behavior. For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 180 AD).

 

"But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 180 AD).

 

"But we who hope for the Son of God are persecuted and trodden down by those unbelievers. For the wings of the vessels are the churches; and the sea is the world, in which the Church is set, like a ship tossed in the deep, but not destroyed; for she has with her the skilled Pilot, Christ. And she bears in her midst also the trophy (which is erected) over death; for she carries with her the cross of the Lord…As the wind the Spirit from heaven is present, by whom those who believe are sealed: she has also anchors of iron accompanying her, viz., the holy commandments of Christ Himself, which are strong as iron. She has also mariners on the right and on the left, assessors like the holy angels, by whom the Church is always governed and defended.” (Hippolytus, Christ and Anti-Christ, 200 AD)

 

"But I shall pray the Spirit of Christ to wing me to my Jerusalem. For the Stoics say that heaven is properly a city, but places here on earth are not cities; for they are called so, but are not. For a city is an important thing, and the people a decorous body, and a multitude of men regulated by law as the church by the word - a city on earth impregnable - free from tyranny; a product of the divine will on earth as in heaven." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 202 AD)

 

"And Peter, on whom the Church of Christ is built, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail..." (Origen, On John, 232 AD)

 

"For the rock is inaccessible to the serpent, and it is stronger than the gates of Hades which are opposing it, so that because of its strength the gates of Hades do not prevail against it; but the church, as a building of Christ who built His own house wisely upon the rock, is incapable of admitting the gates of Hades which prevail against every man who is outside the rock and the church, but have no power against it." (Origen, On Matthew, 244 AD)

 

Would heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence Apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come?” (Cyprian of Carthage, 256 AD) Would they, indeed?

 

This is only a very small sampling of quotes from the Church Fathers.  In reading the Fathers in their entirety, it cannot be missed that they generally believed that the Church was a divine Institution possessing divine characteristics such as the inability to teach error – which should not be at all surprising given that Scripture teaches that clearly as well. 

 

Unprofessional non-Catholic polemicists frequently quote early Fathers in disingenuous (or just ignorant) ways.  For example, one may find a quote from a Father interpreting the “Rock” of Matthew 16:18 as Peter’s faith rather than Peter.  However, when this is the case, it is also the case that not only is there no evidence that the given Father did not also see the Rock as Peter himself (given the clear Greek, the fact that Peter was renamed Rock, and the clear testimony of the Church from the earliest times), in almost all cases we have another quote from the very same Father interpreting Rock as Peter himself – it is not an either/or proposition. 

 

I am not aware of any Church Fathers who did not believe in the absolute authority and indefectibility (another word for infallibility) of the Church – even though individual Fathers could and sometimes did err in other matters (although all would and did submit to the Church’s decision if and when the Church came to a formal decision on the question).

 

[One of the critical misunderstandings that is very common among (at least the less professional) anti-Catholic apologists concerns the development of doctrine.

 

All Christian teachings (that is, all Catholic teachings) have as their source Christ and the Apostles: all were present in at least some form in the Deposit of Faith, public revelation, which ceased with the death of the last Apostle (John).  However, it is clear from the history of the early Church and from Scripture as well that the Church’s understandings of these teachings increased with time – the teachings do not change, but the Church’s ability to articulate and understand them more completely grows.  (And this is ultimately the province of the Spirit – were told the Spirit would guide the Church into all truth – that’s a process unfolding over time.  Likewise, Christ likened the Church to a growing mustard seed – it would not only grow drastically in size but also change its external form drastically.)

 

We see this development of doctrine at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts, where the Apostles conclude that the majority of the Mosaic Law is not binding upon Christians.  We see it throughout the history of the early Church as the most core doctrines of Christianity (the nature of Christ and the Holy Trinity) are developed until they are finally formalized (at the Council of Nicea in 325).  The teachings existed from the beginning in some form – all orthodox Christians knew and believed that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate from the moment the Gospel was preached publicly – yet the deep meanings and nuances of such an awesome divine Mystery do not come immediately.  Nor are we in a position to demand that they should have.]

 

As we will see below, Wylie’s treatment of a quote from St. Augustine is either based in serious ignorance or is dishonest.

 

 

Misrepresentation of Catholic Teaching and Catholic Arguments

 

Wylie’s paper is quite full of ignorance about the Catholic doctrine he’s addressing as well as the proofs that the Church brings forth in support of them, including the testimony of the Church. 

 

Let’s start with this: "But Romanists hold that it is not in the words, but in the sense of these passages that the proof lies; and that of that sense the Church is the infallible interpreter. They hold that the Scripture is so obscure, that we can know nothing of what it teaches on any point whatever, but by the interpretation of the Church. It was the saying of one of their distinguished men, Mr. Stapelton, ‘that even the Divinity of Christ and of God did depend upon the Pope’.”

 

I’ve never known any “Romanist” who held that it is “not in the words” of these passages where the proof lies!  What “Romanists” is the reverend referring to here?  Did it occur to Rev. Wylie to perhaps direct his inquiries to official sources of Church teaching rather than random individuals?  Further, he did not even consider the most important Scriptural passages – the ones the Church refers to and the ones that any competent Catholic apologist refers to.  (He mentions his treatment of other passages, but evidently doesn’t seem them as related enough to the topic of Church infallibility to even so much as state them here.)

 

Then we have “They hold that the Scripture is so obscure, that we can know nothing of what it teaches on any point whatever.”  Is there a reason that the Reverend does not actually cite the “Church teaching” he’s “refuting”?  Could it be because it doesn’t exist?  Is Rev. Wylie not aware of what the Church really teaches regarding Scripture and Infallibility?  Could he not have quoted the catechism of his day, or the actual pronouncements of popes and councils on these subjects?  Is it that he’s ignorant of the actual teachings, or that he prefers to speak to the teachings he wished existed instead of the ones that do?

 

In fact, none of what he stated here is true: The Church does not teaching anything close to Scripture being “so obscure” that “we can know nothing of what it teaches on any point whatever”.  Even if he is exaggerating for effect the statement is still ridiculous.  Of course, he could not and does not quote any Church teaching remotely close to his bizarre (yet common) distortion.  Any Catholic who attends Mass daily for a period of about three years will have essentially the entire Bible read to him.  As for individual study, the Church teaches that Scripture is edifying for the soul and helpful for the spiritual life of any Christian but has indeed sought throughout the centuries to ensure that Christians approach the sacred texts intelligently and humbly, for, as It teaches, “no prophecy is a matter of personal interpretation”.  While much of Scripture is readily intelligible by people of average education and background (although I could give many stunning example of just such people giving the most strangely erroneous interpretations of simple passages, even by Protestant standards), as the Scripture also says, some of it is indeed “hard to understand”.  Some of it is “hard to understand” even for scholars reading the original Hebrew or Greek text with deep knowledge of the originating cultures and deep spirituality – what of the common man?  What has been the result of “every man for himself” Scripture interpretation for the last 400+ years (this was not even possible for the first 75% of Christian history, before the printing press)?  The result, as Catholics are indeed fond of pointing out but quite justified in doing so, are dozens or hundreds of major sects and denominations (they are the same thing) and literally tens of thousands of minor ones, all of them disagreeing with each other on something but all of them claiming quite firmly that their teachings are based on the Bible.

 

"This is a demand that we should lay aside the Bible, as a book utterly useless as a revelation of the Divine will, and that we should accept the Church as an infallible guide."  Again he demonstrates his ignorance (willful?) of what the Church really teaching by continuing with his either/or Scripture/Church false dichotomy.  Wylie may have preferred to believe that the Church “demanded that we lay aside the Bible” but that is nothing but pure ignorance of actual Catholic teaching speaking.  Again, the Church holds that Holy Scripture is inerrant; it is the written Word of God.  One who really and fully respects Scripture will also respect what it has to say about the Church.  A person who reads and understands all of Scripture taken as a whole will see how thoroughly Catholic it is, and how Wylie’s illogical assertions about the Church vs. Scripture are not at all what Scripture really teaches[6]

 

That the Catholic Church says the things that Rev. Wylie wished She did about Scripture is an enduring part of that Deep Protestant Mythology – that collection of distortions and outright falsehoods that keep the majority of non-Catholics from ever honestly considering the Catholic Church, which history clearly demonstrates is indeed the actual visible, hierarchical Church that Jesus Christ founded.

 

Regarding the last sentence of the quote above: I’ve no idea who “Mr. Stapelton” is, and actually what he has to say regarding Catholicism is quite irrelevant unless we also establish that what he says is really what the Church teaches.  It clearly makes no sense to assert that a truth depends on someone recognizing it.  Infallibility even in the general sense refers to recognizing or teaching truth, not in defining it.  (In defense of Mr. Stapelton, it does seem more likely that Wylie misunderstood what he had to say rather than that he misspoke so grossly.)

 

So we see that Rev. Wylie has packed this very short quote with a savage distortion of actual Church teaching on more than one subject.

 

Wylie then declares “the seat or locality of that infallibility remains to this hour undecided”.  Unbeknownst to Mr. Wylie, perhaps, but hardly “undecided”, for Christ decided that question when He founded His Church on he whom He renamed “Rock”[7].  And as clear is the entire record of the Church, from the earliest records we have: Peter and his successors are the heads of the Church on earth; the Apostles and their successors share in the leadership; as every body needs a head, the Church has one, in Heaven, eternally, and also one here on earth whom that eternal Head has put in place.

 

For Wylie to deny the primacy of Peter is one thing, but for him to pretend (for his purposes here) that Catholics don’t teach it simply disingenuous.  Now, of course infallibility and primacy are not “the same thing”, but it ought to be pretty clear they are likely related at the outset.  And they are, and the Church has always taught this, implicitly and explicitly.  Remember that quote from Cyprian from 256, almost a century before the doctrine of the Hypostatic Union (Christ’s Two Natures – God and Man – one of the most critical, basic doctrines of Christianity that virtually all non-Catholics accept) was defined: “Would heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence Apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come?”

 

Is it clear that Cyprian not only believed that the Infallibility of the Church rested in the Chair of Peter, but that he simply took this for granted, as something every Christian then believed? 

 

Wylie’s numerous incorrect statements belie not a disagreement with Catholicism but serious lack of understanding of it, including a severe ignorance of the early Church.

 

Another seriously deficient statement: “Infallibility was never heard of in the world till a full thousand years after Christ and his apostles.”  We know at this point that is very far from true, but here are a few more resources:

 

http://www.scripturecatholic.com/the_church.html

http://www.scripturecatholic.com/primacy_of_peter.html

http://www.catholic.com/library/Origins_of_Peter_as_Pope.asp

http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2000/0002fea2.asp

 

And another horrid misreading (or deliberate distortion) of history: “’I ought not to adduce the Council of Nice,’ says St. Augustine, ‘nor ought you to adduce the Council of Ariminum, for I am not bound by the authority of the one, nor are you bound by the authority of the other. Let the question be determined by the authority of the Scriptures, which are witnesses peculiar to neither of us, but common to both. Thus this father rejects the authority of fathers, councils, and churches, and appeals to the Scriptures alone.”

 

Well, that settles the question about Augustine, doesn’t it?  For someone who has not actually read any work of St. Augustine’s (and, again, has no real understanding of the early Church), perhaps.

 

Perhaps we should consider a couple other quotes from St. Augustine before trying to get to the real meaning of the above.  There is this famous one:

 

Rome has spoken; the case is closed.”

 

Do we smell any support for the authority of the Church there?  Or for the primacy of the See of Peter?  Even Infallibility, perhaps?  And then we have this:

 

For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichaeus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you;-If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichaeus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel.

 

In fact, the councils that Augustine was referring to in the passage quoted by Rev. Wylie were local councils[8].  It has been understood since the beginning of the Church that only general (universal) councils ratified by the supreme pontiff are binding upon all the faithful (and thus infallible); Augustine was merely pointing out the simple fact that each man was not bound by the decision of the other’s local council – neither made any claim as to divine protection from error.

 

Wylie also advances the contention that the Catholic Church merely assumes that Infallibility must exist [in some sense]; he says: “From the great variety of interpretations to which the Scriptures are liable, such a living tribunal, say the Romanists, is necessary; and because it is necessary, therefore it is. Was there ever a more glaring non sequitur? If Romanists wish to establish the infallibility of the Church of Rome by fair reasoning, there is only one way in which they can proceed: they must begin the argument on ground common to both parties. What is that ground? It is not the infallibility, because Protestants deny that. It is the holy Scriptures, the inspiration and infallibility of which both parties admit. The Romanist cannot refuse an appeal to the Bible, because he admits it to be the Word of God. He is bound by clear and direct proofs drawn from thence to prove the infallibility of his Church, before he can ask a Protestant to receive it. But the texts advanced from the Bible, taken in their obvious and literal import, do not prove the infallibility of the Church…”

 

As we have seen, by no means does the Church simply declare that “because [infallibility] is necessary, therefore it is” – such is only the author’s impression due to his ignorance of the subject.  (It is interesting, though, that he doesn’t discuss this logical necessity – he makes no attempt to show it false.  He’s right; the fact that Christ’s Church is capable of teaching without error is logically necessary, but that is hardly the entire proof of it.)

 

As we have seen, the “Romanists” by no means “refuse an appeal to the Bible” – the Scriptural support is very strong indeed.  Wylie rejects it (the subset that he even appears to consider, that is).  He insists that his interpretations are the correct ones – such is the way of the un-Biblical doctrines of sola scriptura and private interpretation.  But Wylie not only does not read these passages in their “obvious and literal” senses, his interpretation is about as diametrically opposed to that of the entire body of writing from the early Church bishops, priests, and deacons that we have as is possible.  In that and in the Scriptures Themselves lies the proof of Wylie’s errors.

 

[It is interesting that Wylie (condescendingly) suggests that the authority the Catholic Church proposes is logically circular, when actually it is, rather, spiral and it is the sola-scripture believing Protestant that cannot escape circular logic in defending the authority of Scripture – for he bases it, by definition, solely on Scripture.

 

The Catholic spiral goes like this:

 

1) Scripture is historically accurate (premise).

2) Scripture says that Christ established a divine Church possessing the charism of Infallibility.

3) The Scriptures are inspired because the Church says so.

 

Take it or leave it, but, properly understood, this is not circular logic; the conclusion is in no way stated or assumed by the premise.]

 

I’ll just touch briefly upon a few of Wylie’s ancillary statements and assertions. 

 

He claims that Catholics believe that only the pope is “possessed of sound senses”.  Wylie fumbles around Catholicism like an ape beating the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Being possessed of sound senses and being protected by the Holy Spirit from promulgating an official teaching in faith or morals that is erroneous are very different things indeed!  (In fact, of course, such statements reek much more of prejudice than simple ignorance.)

 

And, lastly, there is Wylie’s amazing complaint (or argument?) that “not one in ten” believes the Catholic Church’s teachings regarding infallibility!  Well, that’s certainly worthy and logical ammunition against this doctrine, is it not?  What portion of people were there who believed the Earth was round in the 10th century?  What proportion of the people of the Rome in the 2nd century accepted the truths of Christianity (which virtually all were familiar with)?  The truth of a proposition or teaching has nothing whatever to do with how many people in a certain setting or time, place, or culture accept it.

 

There are a number of other statements I could speak to – in fact, the document is filled with errors from start to finish.  In the interests of reasonable brevity I’ll stop there.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Wylie’s attacks on the doctrine of Infallibility come from both ignorance of the doctrine and its basis but also from a seemingly unrealistic and petulant demand for complete and total clarity – a twisting of the Holy Spirit’s arm, if you will.  Such demands do remind me of similar exasperated requests from atheists and agnostics for God to simply make Himself known “clearly” to them by writing in the sky or some such thing.  (Of course, I declare that God has made Himself perfectly clear to those who search honestly and thoroughly, and I declare the same thing about every official teaching of the Catholic Church.)

 

Almost all non-Catholic Christians accept teachings and decisions of early Catholic councils such as the New Testament canon, the Hypostatic Union, and the Trinity – but frequently their acceptance stops thereabouts.  Why?  The fact is that there is no sensible answer to that question.  If the Church was not able to define the canon to inspired books and only inspired books, their Bibles, based on that canon, are not trustworthy – their base of authority has to be the Church whether this is realized it or not. 

 

Another fact is that there is stunning practical evidence for the Church’s claim to be able to teach without error in the fact that Her huge body of official teachings is so incredibly consistent over a period of 20 centuries.  Of course, claims of “new” Catholic teachings abound, but, again, these spring from ignorance – most typically a mistaking of the formalization of a teaching with its origination.  (And so we can read on any number of fundamentalist websites how Papal Infallibility was “invented” in 1870 when it was finally formalized, though we have just seen that the teaching has always been with the Church.)

 

That mustard seed is indeed a Living Thing, led in a sense by men on earth yet guided by Her spouse, Jesus Christ.

 

In fact, we have 20 centuries of teachings of popes and councils, as well as condemnations - anathemas upon anathemas – and yet the best that [knowledgeable] critics can come up with is two or three cases of alleged changing of infallible teaching out of the thousands or tens of thousands of such pronouncements.  (Yet another gross misunderstanding is mistaking matters of discipline – such as clerical celibacy – with faith or morals.  Matters of discipline are prudential and not bound to immutable Truth.)

 

It should also be pointed out that it is essentially necessary for non-Catholics (who are committed to remaining non-Catholics) to reject the notion that the Church does not teach error, out of hand: to acknowledge it would be tantamount to accepting all the claims of the Catholic Church and morally obligating oneself to join that Church.  Further, the Protestant understanding of “church” as only an invisible entity (something, of course, completely at odds with the historical Church of the New Testament, which is very much visible) obviously precludes such a teaching: How can an invisible church really teach anything, officially, with or without error?

 

But, the Church that Christ founded is indeed visible, then and now: visible and hierarchical, with a visible earthly head, and visible teachings.  It is only such a visible Church that can actually be the “pillar and foundation of truth” that the Bible calls It.

 

 

Sources

 

Catholic Answers Online

John Salza, The Biblical Basis for the Papacy

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

Steve Ray, Upon This Rock

 


[1] The phrase “Anti-Catholic” is not meant to convey anything other than material that disputes the doctrines, practices, and history of the Catholic Church.

[2] Some less-than-professional and less-than-credible modern Protestant apologists have tried to assert that the set of books defined at Hippo and Carthage is not the same as that of Trent – this is based on confusion surrounding the naming and “packaging” of the books of Ezra, which can be a slightly confusing topic – however, when the relatively simple facts are known, it is clear that  there is no case whatsoever.  See http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=137641 and http://cathapol.blogspot.com/2007/04/canon-catholic-response-to-webster.html for example.  Furthermore,  these men are unable to see that if they were correct on that question it would do nothing at all for their argument against Catholic authority: the canon was not officially closed until it was dogmatically defined at Trent.  If what they assert were true they would succeed only in demonstrating that the canon is far from self-attesting.

[3] See http://www.catholicthinker.net/sola-scriptura/, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03274a.htm.

[4] http://www.catholicthinker.net/th-source-of-catholic-authorit/

[5] Note that not only did the Apostles not rely on a “sola scriptura” mindset, but they decided the opposite of what such a mindset would have led them to.

[6] See http://www.scripturecatholic.com/the_church.html, http://www.scripturecatholic.com/scripture_alone.html, and http://www.scripturecatholic.com/oral_tradition.html.

[7] See http://www.catholicthinker.net/peter-the-papacy/.  Also note that all serious modern Protestant apologists acknowledge that Peter is the Rock: http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/1998/9801word.asp

[8] Much thanks to Mark Shea for his assistance on this passage.