On papal infallibility and cognitive dissonance

I often use this blog to point out errors in critical thinking, including logical fallacies and hypocrisy. The goal is to improve the level of discourse. That’s one reason I will modify my older posts if someone points out an error.

While observing Catholics defend their faith, I’ve noticed a glaring example of cognitive dissonance. If one attempts to debate the dogmatic doctrine of the Catholic church, you are faced with the first objection.

(1) Papal infallibility: The Pope, in his official capacity, speaks on God’s own authority and cannot commit an error or contradiction.

Which leads to the first conclusion:

(2) The doctrines of the church are infallible; they are dogmatically true.

The typical follow-up is to note that there have been bad popes who have said terrible things. There is one response to this:

(3)  The pope is not infallible[5]: he is a human who makes mistakes.

Fair enough. If the pope is speaking officially, he is protected by God and cannot make any mistakes. But if he is speaking on his own, he can (and will) make mistakes. We would like, therefore, to see the list of infallible statements so we can tell which statements are infallible and if there really have been no contradictions. How many infallible statements has the pope made? The surprising result? Nobody knows. There is no official list of official infallible dogmatic doctrines and statements. So how do we tell if the pope is speaking on behalf of God?

4) When the pope makes a false statement, then it can’t be by authority of God.

and

5) When he makes a true statement, it is by the power of God and his office as Pope.[1]

The argument is obviously circular reasoning.[2] This leads to the following observation:

6) The papal infallibility assertion is non-falsifiable

Attempting to engage a Catholic on a concrete example of a papal contradiction will lead the defender into citing #4. Alternatively, they may rationalize it, find no contradiction in a papal statement, and cite #5 (as the perfectly safe default). If new information comes to light that shows the original position to be a contradiction, the Catholic will then cite #4.[3]

This is cognitive dissonance.

Because there is no official list of infallible statements, it is impossible to counter this.  Because the discernment of leadership is required in order to determine if a statement is considered infallible (See CCC 801, 890), wouldn’t this be resolved if the Catholic Church published an official list of infallible statements?  But they can’t! In order to determine if a statement is infallible, that declaration of infallibility would itself be subject to the rules of infallibility. In other words, the declaration that made such a list would itself have to be infallible, making the original statement infallible by fiat.

Put formally:

  1. Pope “A” makes a statement.
  2. There is disagreement on whether the statement by “Pope A” is infallible.
  3. Pope “B” makes a statement about the statement by Pope “A”.
  4. There is disagreement on whether the statement by “Pope B” is infallible.
  5. Repeat ad infinitum.

This is why arguing with Catholics online is mostly fruitless. A Catholic may engage in a serious intellectual defense of their doctrines, but they will not seriously allow any argument that treats the papal infallibility as a falsifiable assertion. The doctrines they believe are dogmatically defined by the highest office of the church.[4] There is no questioning of these beliefs as the church holds the keys to salvation. Personal salvation can be revoked by the church at any time.

Having examined Catholicism from a number of angles, I keep coming back to its shaky foundation. While many of its doctrines are shared in common with other Christian denominations, I can’t be a Catholic if its core premise is wrong. I’d be interested in what a devout Catholic had to say about this. In the meantime, I remain unconvinced.

[1] The Catholic will instead claim this to be “If the Pope is executing the power of his office, he can only make true statements”, leaving out those cases where the pope is acting in an unofficial capacity. However, since all false statements are by definition not under God’s  authority (See #4), all that is left is to determine if the true statements are infallible or just normal statements. If you already know they are true, there is no need to debate the phrasing of the #5 proposition. Catholics have ways to determine if a statement is to be considered infallible, but this is only ever post-applied as a rationalization step after #4 is considered.

[2] Occasionally Catholics may claim that this is spiral reasoning, not circular reasoning. Any truth statement builds upon the previous historical foundation in an uninterrupted chain that ends with the authority of Jesus and the Bible. Thus, the authority of the Church is really the authority of Jesus. The goal, obviously, is to get Christians to agree that the Bible is infallible in order to bolster this claim. However, if one rejects this premise, then the reasoning is still circular: The Bible is infallible only because the church says it is. Furthermore, the non-Catholic Christian who believes the Bible is infallible believes that the teachings the Catholic church relies upon are themselves false interpretations. This appeal is ultimately ineffective because one has to presume the foundation of the Catholic church in order to accept the infallibility of the church. Ironically, Catholics fall prey to the same thing they criticize in Mormonism (where accepting the Book of Mormon as truth results in self-validation).

[3] For example, see this discussion on the Church’s condemnation of Galileo. One defender appeals to #5, rationalizing each explanation as new information is presented. Another defender appeals to #4, claiming that the condemnation isn’t an official declaration. It isn’t whether or not the arguments presented are strong or not, but that such an approach is unavoidable due to #6.

[4] In discussions with Catholic theologian Tyler Graham he admitted that the primary reason for holding a particular believe against the one I was arguing for was that the Catholics have a system of orthodoxy to measure doctrinal beliefs against. In other words, because the church said it was so, it didn’t matter how good my argument was, as the doctrines are non-negotiable. It was refreshing to see that level of honesty.

[5] or impeccable.

See here and here for examples of circular reasoning used in the argument and a more comprehensive treatment of the subject.

7 Comments

  1. Just a few quick thoughts after a very brief read; first of all, thank you for your kind words with respect to me (in your fourth footnote). I am somewhat encouraged to see that you enjoyed conversing with me at least as much as I did with you. However, I’d like to offer some correctives which may help improve your brief treatment of the issue. First, in your third point, I think you meant to write “The Pope is not impeccable…” Catholics get incalculable mileage out of that distinction, and it’s hard to believe that you didn’t have it in mind as the knee-jerk Catholic response to being presented with examples of bad popes.

    You also write “If the pope is speaking officially, he is protected by God and cannot make any mistakes.” So, that’s both imprecise and inaccurate. It is imprecise because the Pope may still make mistakes (e.g., grammatical mistakes), but what cannot happen is that the Pope teaches error when teaching with the full weight of the authority of his office. It is inaccurate because in no way is the Pope protecting God, anymore than the Apostle Paul protected the Holy Spirit; in fact, it is just the reverse: ex hypothesi, it is God who protected the prophets, Apostles, authors of Holy Writ, (and Popes) from teaching error, not they who protected him.

    If you can show a Catholic a single instance of a Pope, in his official teaching capacity, teaching something erroneous, then that person, if intellectually sober and honest, must abandon her faith; that Catholic is in a roughly analogous position as an evangelical would be if they could be convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the Bible taught error about something they considered essential to evangelicalism (though, this is a bit more slippery, since Protestant theology works without much of a net, and remains, in principle, indefinitely malleable).

    “When he makes a true statement, it is by the power of God and his office as Pope.”
    This is clearly incorrect. There’s no reason to think that when the Pope says something like “if I raise my hand then 2+2=4” (which is an analytic statement whose truth-value is fixed across all logically possible worlds), he is speaking by the power of God and his office as Pope.

    “The papal infallibility statement is non-falsifiable.” Actually, the papal infallibility statement makes Catholicism the most falsifiable/verifiable of all Christian theologies. There is simply no analogous principle of falsification available to Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Autocephalous orthodox, or Protestant Christians.

    “… In other words, the declaration that made such a list would itself have to be infallible, making the original statement infallible by fiat.” I’m not sure I see where the problem is supposed to be here.

    “A Catholic may engage in a serious intellectual defense of their doctrines, but they will not seriously allow any argument that treats the papal infallibility as a falsifiable assertion.” I think this is slightly uncharitable of you. Perhaps a Catholic will be reluctant to admit that any Pope has taught fallibly in his official capacity as Pope, but that’s no different from the reluctance of Protestants to admit that any passage of scripture (at least about something perceived to be doctrinally essential) is false. We (the Catholic and the Evangelical) are in a roughly analogous position here. The difference is that Catholics think that true Christianity consists of a whole lot more content than evangelicals do. As Peter Kreeft once put it: Protestants think Catholics believe too much, [while] Catholics believe Protestants believe too little.

    “Personal salvation can be revoked by the church at any time.” This is absolutely false. Excommunications (like the kind practiced by St. Paul in the early Church (see 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20)) do not deprive a person of salvation necessarily – they are intended, in fact, to save people by taking away from them the ordinary sacramental *means* of salvation, in the hopes that their longing for Christ will motivate them to correct themselves. An excommunicated person can be as saved as a communicant person can be damned.

    1. I’m not quite sure what happened with my last comment; unless you retroactively edited both your post and my quotation of your post, I must have misread “If the pope is speaking officially, he is protected by God and cannot make any mistakes” as ” If the pope is speaking officially, he is protecting God and cannot make any mistakes.”

      1. Ram-Man

        I did not edit it. You misread. I was in the process of pointing that out. It is fortunate though as it provides me an opportunity for a side note. Also, I will edit my posts (have already done so) and my comments, but I will never edit a comment by another person without an explicit editorial note.

    2. Ram-Man

      You seem to object to some of the imprecision in my argument. This is by design. My argument is a somewhat informal, which should be obvious by snark in #5. Every Catholic will disagree with me on one point or another, but I would like to see which points those are and how they do it. That’s the revealing part which leads to better serious discussion. I feel somewhat bad for baiting you, as your arguments tend to be so precise.

      I think you meant to write “The Pope is not impeccable…”

      I’m not sure how the distinction between infallible (incapable of making mistakes) and impeccable (faultless or incapable of sin) is meaningful in this context. Splitting hairs doesn’t change the basic thrust of the argument. Perhaps I should have said he is not ‘always’ infallible, but that’s unambiguously implied by the argument and I don’t object to that. The whole point of #3 is to show that he is not protected if he is not speaking according to #1. Regardless, I’ve noted it in a footnote.

      It is imprecise because the Pope may still make mistakes (e.g., grammatical mistakes), but what cannot happen is that the Pope teaches error when teaching with the full weight of the authority of his office.

      No, this is not imprecise. Grammatical mistakes in a ‘full weight’ teaching would be an error just as much as any other error. This objection has the appearance of circularly defining away mistakes that you don’t think should count, which is the point of my post.

      It is inaccurate because in no way is the Pope protecting God, anymore than the Apostle Paul protected the Holy Spirit; in fact, it is just the reverse: ex hypothesi, it is God who protected the prophets, Apostles, authors of Holy Writ, (and Popes) from teaching error, not they who protected him.

      I didn’t make this argument. Perhaps you read it too quickly? That said, I am going to be writing a more serious post on the Peter, the ‘keys to the kingdom’, and the root of papal authority on my apologetics blog in the near future that will discuss this very issue. It’ll probably show up as a pingback on this article.

      If you can show a Catholic a single instance of a Pope, in his official teaching capacity, teaching something erroneous, then that person, if intellectually sober and honest, must abandon her faith

      But I’m making the argument that no Catholic would ever admit this. That they have so carefully defined papal infallibility to automatically exclude anything erroneous. It’s circular reasoning. So instead, my thesis (or one of them anyway) is that because papal infallibility itself is circularly defined (in practice), any intellectually sober and honest Catholic should consider abandoning the RCC due to the centrality of the doctrine.

      Protestant theology…indefinitely malleable

      I’ve made this point before. The theological consequences of this are not often discussed, and it is fertile ground for many articles on religious philosophy.

      This is clearly incorrect. There’s no reason to think that when the Pope says something like “if I raise my hand then 2+2=4” (which is an analytic statement whose truth-value is fixed across all logically possible worlds), he is speaking by the power of God and his office as Pope.

      Ha! Sometimes your analytic precision prevents you from seeing the plain intended meaning of a statement. I think this is one of those times. Your example argument is not ‘valid’ in the general sense, that is, it is a useless argument and everyone would recognize that. Not so point #5. The intention of what I said is that when the pope says something true of religious significance (official or not), it is inspired by God by definition. The truth value of the pope’s statement was determined after the fact and then assumed to be from God. The snark is intended to imply an accusation of confirmation bias. You might want to consider my first footnote, as it was intended for you in preparation for your objection to the phrasing of #5.

      Actually, the papal infallibility statement makes Catholicism the most falsifiable/verifiable of all Christian theologies.

      I actually agree with that and will try to show this my follow-up article. However, the deck is stacked in such a way to prevent it from being shown to be false, that is, preventing anyone from actually being convinced that it is false. I don’t believe it is, generally, being approached in an intellectually honest way.

      I’m not sure I see where the problem is supposed to be here.

      If the pope makes a statement of declaration about which doctrines are infallible, then it doesn’t matter whether or not the original statement was itself infallible. They become infallible even if they weren’t infallible, which is logically incoherent. If you say they must have been prior infallible because they are now being infallibly confirmed, then that’s circular reasoning.

      Anyone can make declarations of truth, but that doesn’t make them valid: you are relying on the doctrine of infallibility to show the pope’s authority to declare infallible previous statements. But this is the very claim under debate. One cannot assume both an official list of infallible doctrines and the doctrine of infallibility, because the former is used as proof of the latter.

      When discussing papal infallibility, inevitably someone will ask for the list of infallible statements so that they can go through them and see for themselves. But this is faulty, for the list would also exclude those fallible infallible statements that were left off the official list.

      I wasn’t saying that they couldn’t, in actuality, make such a list. I was saying that such a list is useless from an apologetics standpoint. But, and this is critical, it would be used that way and thus mislead a great many people through intellectual dishonesty.

      I think this is slightly uncharitable of you

      Yes it is slightly uncharitable. As I pointed out, I was being snarky and baiting a response. You deserve a higher level of respect than that, although I wonder if you would have responded if I had not done so. But I really do think that the majority of Catholics are not taking this seriously and are not being completely honest (honestly dishonest?).

      Perhaps a Catholic will be reluctant to admit that any Pope has taught fallibly in his official capacity as Pope, but that’s no different from the reluctance of Protestants to admit that any passage of scripture…is false.

      I discuss this topic on my blogs all the time. Many Protestants are guilty of this. I wish I had more time to reply to this!

    3. Ram-Man

      Protestant theology…indefinitely malleable

      Let’s examine this more closely and see if, perhaps, Catholic theology is also indefinitely malleable. If it were, then there would be no benefit to papal infallibility. Since I am a (ex-?)Protestant, I’m very good at manipulating malleable doctrine, so let’s see what happens:

      Let’s say that the leadership of the church, excluding the pope’s ‘full weight’, compiles and publishes an exhaustive list of every pope’s infallible statements. Let’s examine the potential problems. A statement could be shown to be infallible that was not included and should have been. Or a statement could be shown to be fallible that was included. What would happen in either case? Does the church cease to exist? Absolutely not: the list itself was not declared infallibly.

      What if the pope uses his full weight to publish such a list. What happens if either of the two problems happen, does the church then cease to exist? No, because the original declaration could not be infallible because it was not a teaching on faith and morals. It was a teaching on a teaching on faith and morals. That is, because it was a meta declaration, it cannot be an infallible statement by definition. (A corollary to this is that it is impossible to make an infallible list of infallible statements, but let’s ignore this possibility and move along.)

      Now let’s say that no declaration was left out and none were found to be fallible after the fact. Mere existence of such a list is still not enough to ensure full falsifiability. We don’t know if any fallible infallible statements were left out. We don’t know if there exist infallible statements that we just don’t know about or are hidden in secret church libraries. We can’t use existence in the list to know whether the original statements were actually considered to be infallible originally, which was one reason for the list in the first place, because they become infallible by merely being included in the list. Moreover, we can’t use the list, authenticated by papal authority, to show that papal authority is valid, which was another reason for making the list in the first place.

      There is real risk that if such a list were made that a discrepancy would be found and Catholicism would end. So who would take that risk? The current setup is safer because it is ambiguous (or should I say, malleable).

      Catholics can argue and argue about what counts as an infallible statement, but there will be no consensus. Various claims will be made that a statement is infallible and used to selectively push or defend certain Catholic doctrinal stances. Such arguments need only be used long enough to effectively end any objections. The goalposts can always be moved later. This was shown in the Catholic Answers discussion on Galileo that you participated in.

      Within a given Christian denomination, the theology is not all that malleable. That goes for Catholicism as well. Every church has its own reason for believing that its particular brand is correct. For the Catholic church that is papal infallibility. Yet, the lack of clarity with regards to infallible teachings puts it right on par with the malleability of Protestant theology.

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