Using the Infallibility Card in Moral Arguments

When Catholics debate about moral issues, they often pull out the “infallibility card”, and say that:

  1. The Church teaches X.
  2. The Church is infallible about moral teachings.
  3. Therefore, X is true.

Now, whatever the merits of this argument, it is a terrible way to do apologetics. It’s like starting an argument by saying, “Everything I say is true”, and then – when something you say is later questioned – reminding the person that everything you say is true.

And then – the nerve! – when people question that, you insist that they are just stubbornly resisting the Church and the Holy Spirit. Well, sure, they *might *be, but they might also simply not understand. Or they might be right, and you might be wrong (or you might be wrong about what the Church teaches).

My prayer for this forum, constantly, is that we might be humble. In my estimation, humility involves not falling back on insisting that “I am always right”, but instead providing logical reasons for WHY you are right.

What say you?

I agree. In argument, one should work with whatever common principles one shares with his interlocutor. Aquinas agrees on this point:

I answer that, As other sciences do not argue in proof of their principles, but argue from their principles to demonstrate other truths in these sciences: so this doctrine does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else; as the Apostle from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). However, it is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science; whereas the highest of them, viz. metaphysics, can dispute with one who denies its principles, if only the opponent will make some concession; but if he concede nothing, it can have no dispute with him, though it can answer his objections. Hence Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.

In the case of moral arguments, there are demonstrations from Sacred Doctrine as well as from the science of ethics. If someone does not share the principles of Sacred Doctrine, then in argument with him we should not argue from those principles, unless we mean to be unpersuasive.

Aquinas, yes. He was a model of humility in argument! He would always put his opponent’s view in the best possible light, before responding to it.

I love Mercy,…such a good place to live,…I live on the corner of Mercy and Grace streets myself. It is a lovely life, in this neighbourhood, all is well,…even if it looks not ok, His grace\and mercy change it into good, as I pray about it,…

Infallibility,…? hmmm,…Scriptures are,…and God can keep His Truths from men and devils messing them up.

God can keep His Truths from being obscured. The question is of mechanism. I would be hard pressed to indicate, for example, a Protestant denomination as the denomination which has preserved God’s Truths.

Maybe I could read Scripture myself and follow my intuition as to what it means and, therefore, as to which denomination is right. (I concede that there are verses which, taken on their own, suggest a certain Protestant denomination. I can see where the Reformers were coming from; their claims were far from unmoored in Scripture.) But then I must also believe that others have done the same thing and wound up on the doorsteps of different churches. So that “mechanism” for conveying God’s Truth does not, it seems, really convey God’s Truth.

One could take this to mean that a different mechanism is necessary and that a different mechanism would have been instituted by God. Humans acquire so much of their knowledge by faith (taking that in the non-theological sense) from proper human authorities–just consider your childhood and schooling. The mode of transmission for God’s Truths, perhaps, is the same.

(So here is another example of Aquinas’s principle. A Catholic and a Protestant share belief in Holy Writ, so in dialogue they can take that as a starting point, and the Catholic might argue that the infallibility of the Church is needed to make sense of the authority of Holy Writ, since both Catholics and Protestants concede, generally, that Holy Writ was written by both God and man, and is therefore infallible but also culturally situated and in need of interpretation.)


I agree.

Although, it is technically true that the Church does have that authority, appealing to that authority is definitely not the way to convince the unconvinced. It might work for me if someone were to correct my faulty understanding of something with an appeal to Church documents. But that’s definitely not the best starting point for most apologetics arguments.

I think it’s easy to fall back on arguments from authority for those of us who accept the Church’s authority and perhaps struggle to articulate the reasons behind the teachings. Whenever we are at a loss for words, “Because the Church says so” covers a multitude of our rhetorical deficiencies. :stuck_out_tongue:

I recently read a book that I really liked: How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues. They take that thomistic approach of articulating what their opponents are saying by trying to get at the underlying positive intent behind those who disagree with Catholic moral teachings on a number of issues. And then they move from there to reframe the issues from a Catholic perspective.

I think that’s really the only way to get anywhere. If we don’t at first try to acknowledge that there is something true undergirding even false conclusions (and, perhaps more importantly, acknowledge that the other person is not evil incarnate and one of Satan’s minions), then they are not likely to want to listen to anything we have to say. And who could blame them?

This is a question not a comment and I am sincere in this. If we pursue an argument that involves Church doctrine and seem to be allowing another possibility besides the fact that it is infallible Church doctrine aren’t we opening the door to seeming to approve heresy? I want to be humble in my faith always but I do not see any way to look at discussions which are about Church doctrine without sticking to the Church doctrine. It is not meant to be arrogant but obedient.

I think there are definitely different ways to go about conversations depending upon the group of people conversing.

When I am discussing these things with Catholics who are intent on adhering to authentic Catholic teaching, then we all come to the conversation with the base assumption that the Catholic position is correct. Then we might seek ways to better understand that teaching even while all admitting that the teaching is definitely true.

But when conversing with people who do not pay attention to (or care about) whether the Catholic position is “right” or not, then there is no such shared base assumption. We cannot pretend that there is. To set aside arguments from Church authority does not meant that we are being arrogant, disobedient, or somehow open to heresy. It means we are trying to be all things to all people and explain things in a way that the person in front of us might actually find convincing. For us, it may be taken for granted that the Church is right. But, since the Church does not decide moral matters arbitrarily but based on the reality of the human person, we can always explain those teachings in a way that does not rely on footnotes to magisterial documents.

Thanks for the question. All I can offer is my opinion.

There are many truths that you don’t need to mention, in a given conversation. For example, if I’m arguing with a feminist about whether to have an abortion, I ought to keep my objections to feminism to myself, even if these are good and true objections. All my efforts should be focused on convincing her of one thing: that killing a fetus is wrong. That has nothing to do with feminism.

Likewise, if I’m arguing with a person about gay marriage, I see no reason to mention the Church’s infallibility in my argument, unless this person already agrees that the Church is infallible. If the person does not agree, then I’ve made my task harder: now I not only need to convince them that gay marriage is wrong, I ALSO have to convince them that the Church is infallible.

So the point is that, although the Church is infallible, it’s not very helpful to point this out to unbelievers. This sort of thing can only be seen with eyes of faith, and intellectual conversations don’t cause us to have eyes of faith.

Hope this helps!

Beautiful post, Joe! I love the approach the book you mentioned takes. It’s a good reminder, though it’s hard to remember in the middle of the fray sometimes!

That’s a good way to put it. We actually increase our workload when we introduce such things. It’s the same with using quotes from Scripture with non-Christians.

That’s why these types of discussions can so quickly fragment. We can find ourselves in a position of trying to explain and defend a dozen different things at once. It is always better to focus on one thing at a time!

Thanks to both of you, I think I understand where you are headed with this. In the past few months I have been around several old friends who call themselves Catholic but disagree with everything. One of them even attended an ordination of a “female Catholic priest”. In their presence I have had a difficult time trying to find a place to land where I do not deny the teachings of the Church but keep the door open so that if they ever have a change of heart I won’t have driven them away. I have had a fear that I was promoting heresy by this attitude so your thread made me want to ask. Your answers, Prodigal_Son and Joe 5859, have been greatly appreciated.

Gee, thanks. :blush:

I’m offering up a prayer for your friends, and your ability to call them onward!

While not endorsing the attendance at the ordination of female Catholic priests, love for your friends is ongoing and it’s a good thing that you will never have to worry about not keeping the door open.

I have hung out with Catholics who seem to disagree with too much the Church teaches and practices. Even so, I hang out with them without letting them know that I approve their disagreements. I too have questioned traditional Church rules, such as the requirement for celibacy of secular priests. However, there is no element of infallibility regarding celibacy, as Pope Francis himself has pointed out. So where infallibility is not in question, it is safe to doubt so long as we continue to question our own doubts.

Doubt and the expression of one’s doubts is a healthy mechanism for getting at the truth.

Aquinas himself was doubtful about some of his own well reasoned conclusions, and we know this from the words he reportedly spoke as he approached death.

“Thee have I preached; Thee have I taught. Never have I said anything against Thee. If anything was not well said, that is to be attributed to my ignorance. Neither do I wish to be obstinate in my opinions, but if I have written anything erroneous … I submit all to the judgment and correction of the Holy Roman Church, in whose obedience I now pass from this life.”

It does seem that those conversations are the most difficult. When discussing these issues with other Catholics, one would think we should share a common set of presuppositions about certain things. But that is definitely not always the case. And it can be very difficult to see the best path forward. So we keep praying and trusting the Spirit. I always pray that I do as little damage as possible while stumbling through such conversations. :o

In my arguments I always try to find real life examples to support my point, but sometimes there are no easy examples. Other times you will find studies or papers on some issue with opposite conclusions. In addition, some arguments require the assumption of core beliefs. If someone is not willing to believe in that core, they won’t accept any arguments based on it. Just myself, I don’t usually “argue” with non-believers. I only try to be informative of what I believe. I let them know they are welcome to ask more questions in the future if they are curious, but I don’t expect to convert them. That is up to God’s grace through the Holy Spirit.

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