Reviewing Wright’s Universal Apologia: Part 6

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This the sixth in a series reviewing John C. Wright’s A Universal Apologia for the Catholic Church. See the index.

We now examine the contentious topic of infallibility.


I have so often heard denunciations of the often-misunderstood doctrine of Papal Infallibility, that I have no patience for those who both utter that denunciation and then claim individual infallibility.

If the pope does not actually have the authority the church claims, even in part, then he is falsely taking on the authority of Christ himself. This would, quite literally, make him an anti-Christ by definition. Far from being the concern kooks and crackpots, the doctrine of infallibility is, for believers, the single most important dogma of the Roman Catholic religion, regardless of how many times it has been used.

Every Protestant, Anabaptist, and Orthodox Christian rejects the RCC’s authority, which must include the Pope’s authority. Logically, if one reject’s the church’s authority, they are obligated, as a matter of reason, to call the Pope anti-Christ, for he falsely claims to wield God’s power.[4]

On individual infallibility, sola scriptura claims as its axiom that “the Bible alone is the Word of God”. It does not claim that individuals are infallible, for it does not require human attestation. It is an axiom. But even were an individual to claim infallibility, such a claim would be limited to that individual and or else logically require a rejection of sola scriptura. But the Pope represents half of all Christians and his authority is foundational. The Protestant isn’t hitching his horse to any particular founder, but even if he were, such an anti-Christ is long dead. Not so the papacy, which ensures a non-interrupted line of living anti-Christs.

The doctrine of Papal infallibility [is] the promise of Christ that the Holy Spirit would teach the Church and protect her from error. This does not mean that the Church makes no mistakes. This means that the Christian teaching preserved by the Church, teaching on the matter of faith and morals, is without error, because the Holy Spirit protects it.

The Roman Catholic believes that the body of believers—including the Pope—can and do commit doctrinal errors, but that the denomination—its sacred tradition, the Word of God—cannot. The Holy Spirit only infallibly protects the latter, not the former.

We do not dispute that the Pope can commit errors. Instead, we reject infallibility on logical grounds by the rejection of its authority. This may be emotionally try the patience of the Roman Catholic because it is devastating to the legitimacy of the denomination. This rejection obligates us to view the papacy as anti-Christ, but it doesn’t require us to reject the church, the body of believers. The church is supposed to live in unity, not a particular denomination.[4]

For Wright and the RCC, infallibility is not merely important, but central and fundamental. Would Wright have any disunity with me (or lack of patience) if he didn’t so strongly defend a particular Christian denomination with its central dogma, rather than the church itself? 

Since the Pope has the final veto on debates within the Church on matters of faith and moral, logically his decision — an authority he has used exactly twice in all of history — is inspired by and ratified by the Holy Spirit, hence is infallible.

He states it plainly: the authority is infallible if it is guided by the Holy Spirit. But this begs-the-question. In order to avoid circular reasoning, you must have a list of infallible statements, which Wright now provides.

Timothy F. Kauffman writes:

The truth is, the infallible list of ex cathedra papal statements exists nowhere within what Rome calls her three sources of revelation: the Bible, the Magisterium, and Tradition, leaving the faithful to struggle through this issue, groping blindly on their own. In fact, their own teachers will not and cannot tell them.

Interestingly, Wright claims to know how many infallible statements have been made, despite so many different Catholics that cannot agree on how many infallible statements their are, nor has any pope ever clarified the issue (which would be circular reasoning anyway). He cannot provide an official link to that list, because no such link exists. It does not exist in the deposit of faith. Sure, virtually all agree on the two common ones, because they were declared so explicitly, but they don’t agree on whether or not to stop there. A contested list of infallible statements is not itself infallible, making it completely useless. Wright’s claim of two is and can only ever be nothing more than his personal opinion for his own edification. The CCC#67 confirms:

Throughout the ages, there have been so-called “private”revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history.

Kauffman continues:

Thus it can be said of Rome that something fundamental to her system of beliefs exists outside of her revelation. So while the Roman Catholic thinks to prove that Sola Scriptura is self-refuting because the list of the canon of the Bible exists outside of Scripture, by his own standards he instead proves the insufficiency of Rome because something fundamental to the belief of the Roman Catholic actually exists outside of Rome’s only sources of revelation. The Roman Catholic is therefore forced to rely on information which he gathers independently of the Magisterium, the Bible and Tradition in order to understand fallibly what it is that his religion might be teaching him.

Herein lies the problem. There would be no need for ex cathedra statements if the Deposit of Faith—the revealed Word of God—already contained what was needed, no need for the Holy Spirit to further elucidate it, no need to resolve disputes that were already resolved. It must instead appeal to something external to it, not already included in the revealed Word of God. But the church is not permitted to do so. The CCC#66 explains:

“The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.”

This is a recipe for circular post hoc rationalization: everything is revealed, but there is plenty of room to make explicit revelations as needed. For example, when a Pope speaks ex cathedra, the Catholic does not believe the Pope is making a statement with external attestation. He believes it is with internal attestation, that is, the Pope is merely explaining what is already the case, what is already contained in the ‘Deposit of Faith’. What was implicit is being made explicit. There is no new revelation.

Kauffman concludes:

Rome’s answer to Sola Scriptura is Sola Verbum Dei, or “The Word of God Alone.” Rome believes that the Word of God is contained in the Scriptures, Tradition, in her Magisterium—including ex cathedra papal statements. But Rome cannot produce an infallible list of ex cathedra papal statements from within what she calls the Word of God. Thus, in order to convey the Word of God, Roman Catholics must appeal to something which is not contained in the Word of God. Sola Verbum Dei therefore becomes self-refuting by the standards of Rome’s own apologists.

In revealing an explicit list of infallible statements, Wright is acting in error, revealing that which is not revealed in the Word of God. Wright also says:

But if not from the Church, from where would this Magisterial authority [to canonize infallible scripture] come?

Where indeed? Wright rejects sola scriptura because its infallibility is a logical deduction from the axiom that it is the Word of God. This is not acceptable to him. He rejects internal attestation because it is axiomatic (a form of circular reasoning). But so is papal infallibility when viewed as internal attestation!

Logically, if one is to reject sola scriptura because they require Bible canon to have external attestation, then one must also reject sola verbum dei—the Word of God revealed in scripture, tradition, and the Magisterium—because it also requires external attestation. Either it relies on internal attestation and is thus axiomatic circular reasoning or it requires external attestation and should thus be rejected.

Since sola scriptura and sola verbum dei are mutually exclusive, we arrive right back where we were in part 4: a stalemate, where subsequently examining the evidence does not favor the Roman Catholic. Except this is not precisely true. By its own historical actions, the Protestant, Anabaptist, and Primitive Church do not strictly require a universal canon, but the RCC lives and dies on its authority to rigidly define it. While sola scriptura is merely circular reasoning—by nature of being axiomatic—sola verbum dei is a self-refuting contradiction and the RCC’s existence as a denomination is premised on that contradictory claim.

Either sola verbum dei is self-refuting by logical contradiction (external attestation required), or else it logically reduces its epistemology to the axiom sola ecclesia: “Rome is the true church established on Peter and the Popes are his successors” (internal attestation only). This is damning either way.[1]

Wright continues:

The [Roman Catholic] Christian has the additional assurance that his faith is a grace of God and is protected by error from the Holy Spirit.

But this is not true. The Roman Catholic has no assurance of his faith, he has only the promise of the denomination’s authority:

The Catholics believe this power vests in the official body of the Church, laity and clergy both, when they act as one, and therefore in the bishops and archbishops and in the Pope.

Any doubts of the denomination’s authority directly manifest as doubts on their assurance of faith, because the assurance only applies to the official church, when they act as one. When, precisely, does the laity and clergy both act as one? And how is it that the whole church acts as one when the Pope speaks on his own authority? When is the power official and when is it unofficial (e.g. the CCC)?[2] On matters of doctrine, he has no assurance at all:

In other words, something that the main mass of Christian men have always taught and believed, such as abominable nature of sodomy, cannot be in error.

By Wright’s own admission, this doctrine is not declared infallibly. If his opinion—and that is all that it is—is correct, then it is only implicitly declared in the Deposit of Faith. As per CCC#66, the full significance may not yet have been made explicit.

Many professing Christians—including Catholics—argue that it has not  “always [been] taught and believed”. Jesuit priest James J. Martin SJ’s views are so different from the mainstream that the Archbishop Charles Chaput had to state that “Father Martin does not speak with authority on behalf of the Church”, but of course neither was the Archbishop either. So how does anyone know whether to believe the Father or the Archbishop? Both claim to be acting for God, and Martin isn’t being called to repentance for sinning against any infallible teachings of the church.

If the Pope were to agree with Father Martin and declare so in his full official capacity, the new way would have then always been the teaching of the church, with those teaching otherwise having been in error the whole time.  The assertion that a thing must have always been so because it is the case, is so obviously circular reasoning that I know of no simpler explanation.

Ironically, this would mean the Protestants were ahead of the curve and understood the Deposit of Faith better than the Catholics, just as the Anabaptists were ahead of the curve on church sanctioned violence. While there are plenty of practical reasons to think this outcome is unlikely, it is not, as a matter of dogma, statistically impossible.

But don’t stop there. If the Pope were to declare that condoms were acceptable birth control (which very nearly happened) or that women could become priests[3], or that the Roman Catholic Church must be a theocracy again and murder heretics, then the dutiful Catholic could not appeal to the full Deposit of Faith and say “Christian men have always taught and believed thus, so this must be in error”. If there is no new revelation and the Pope cannot be in error, it is you, the Catholic who thought he knew what the denomination taught, that was in error. This perfectly illustrates the Roman epistemology of sola ecclesia.

David Mills says of today’s “polarized catholic discourse” that we shouldn’t focus on these divisions. But, it doesn’t bring unity to ignore these differences as if they don’t exist. We can’t stick our heads in the sand. Nor is it helpful to focus on others:

The only difference is that the Protestants believe this power vests in the King of England, or in their particular founder or leadership council, or in the individual, or in the Bible itself.

This is the tu quoque fallacy. It thus demands further no response.

Interestingly, avoiding the fallacy completely by refusing to name a “one true church” is much derided by Wright and Roman Catholics in general.

How the book could be sacred and infallible but the men who wrote and canonized the book could be not only fallible, but scoundrels bent on corrupting the book and its message is an impossible paradox.  Any argument for the independent, non-clerical, and non-apostolic authority of scripture fails.

Here Wright’s reasoning veers very badly off course.

First, the Roman Catholics did not write the Bible. Specific individuals did, none of which were scoundrels trying to corrupt the message. Nor did the Roman Catholics make the Bible the Word of God. They assembled it into a specific codice and declared it to be official canon on assumed authority. Far from being infallible, as shown in parts 3 and 4 of the series, this act of canonization was itself a corruption by men who did not themselves write any of it.

Second, there are documented instances where Roman Catholics corrupted the Bible’s text, inserting alterations to the text that were later discovered by comparing extant manuscripts and fragments. Much of this textual anaysis is performed by non-Catholics.

Third, the power of the Holy Spirit, as attested by the Bible itself, is sufficient. No additional authority is required. Indeed, only the Catholic Church claims that the Holy Spirit is required to act as the ultimate authority in its doctrine of Papal Infallibility while simultaneously claiming that the Holy Spirit’s power alone is insufficient to authorize the Bible. This is both logical contradiction and unbelief.


[1] If sola ecclesia is axiomatic, then there is no need for A Universal Apologia for the Catholic Church, the purported goal of which is to explain the reasons that the Roman Catholic Church is the correct church. If you must accept as axiomatic the very thing you are trying to prove, then there is no reason, only blind obedience and faith.

[2] At least the Protestant and Anabaptist can say “You have assurance right here in scripture, which is the infallible Word of God. You need nothing else from anyone. You can read it and verify it for yourself.” The Roman Catholic can’t even know for sure how many teachings are infallibly taught.

[3] As one Catholic noted, the seeds for the female priesthood have already been laid: Mary has already allegedly acted as a priest:

“The book of Judith is a two edged sword. She cut off the head of Holofernes with two strokes of a sword. She is a type of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary who crushed the head of the serpent with her double Fiat. The first stroke against the serpent’s head was when she consented to the salvation of the world at the Annunciation. The second blow was on Calvary when she did not call him down off the cross, but offered Him, to the degree that she could , to the Father. The first Eve plucked the matter of our downfall off the tree. The Second Eve left the Cause of our salvation hanging on the tree of the cross.”

[4] If the Catholic church has legitimate authority, then every other denomination is in error. There is no middle ground on the issue of denominations. There can never be unity of denomination without there being uniformity of denomination, so long as the Roman Catholic church exists and is not the sole denomination. Fortunately, Jesus wanted the church—the body of believers—to be in unity, not the denomination (which is a foreign concept).


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