This is part one in a series:
(1) “On papal infallibility and cognitive dissonance” (This article)
(2) “Did Jesus Give Peter the Papacy”
(3) “Sacred Tradition of the Old Testament”
(4) “Catholic Circular Reasoning”
(5) “The Keys to the Kingdom” (Coming)
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: 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.
5) When he makes a true statement, it is by the power of God and his office as Pope.
The argument is obviously circular reasoning. 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.
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.
- Pope “A” makes a statement.
- There is disagreement on whether the statement by “Pope A” is infallible.
- Pope “B” makes a statement about the statement by Pope “A”.
- There is disagreement on whether the statement by “Pope B” is infallible.
- 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. 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.
 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.
 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).
 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.
 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.
 or impeccable.