Did Jesus establish his church to give us personal certainty and perfect clarity?

Assuming so reveals a rather rationalist view of the church. A view that is typically used as a fortress to rebuff questioning or dissent, or to guard against unflattering bits of church history, or to preserve an idealistic but unreal vision of the church, a vision useful for apologists but loosely connected to reality. A view that assumes that the development of doctrine must be linear and logical, never including any human misunderstandings, overreach, or mistaken assumptions because it is feared that would mean that the gates of Hell have prevailed after all.

This often manifests itself specifically in an idea of infallibility that sees infallibility as an oracle, something that can be relied on to give us the answers we want, when we want it; rather than a living body that is guaranteed to be growing into the truth. Where do we get this Cartesian view of infallibility? Why do we think that the purpose of infallibility is to give us a clear and distinct set of propositional truths about morality, the Church, or whatever?

People complain that Pope Francis is bad because he is so unclear and causes confusion. Have they not been paying attention to the popes in their own lifetime? Have they not looked into the history of the church or of theology at all? When Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, said “I have never seen a communique from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that explains the words of the pope after the fact. I think it’s unique. And it demonstrates how many complaints and serious criticism the Vatican has received“, he wasn’t talking about Pope Francis. He was talking about Pope Benedict. And like Pope Francis, people were more inclined to ”correct” Benedict rather than challenge their own limited theological understanding.

But it’s not just recent popes that are “unclear”, the history of the Church is full of confusion. Ratzinger once wrote that “every one of the big basic concepts in the doctrine of the Trinity was condemned at one time or another.” The people of God have always had to trust that the Holy Spirit is indeed leading the Church into all the truth because this stuff will never be sorted out in anyone’s own lifetime.

Ratzinger also reminded us that the Church is not an intellectual system. The truth is not really Man’s truth except as a Way and Life. Truth is not so much a proposition as it is a person. Our convictions and our certainty come from communion with Christ and with each other, not from a set of doctrines that are guaranteed to provide perfect understanding. And our conviction and certainty is not in the form of “clear and distinct ideas”. It is something deeper than intellect but just as certain.

“The heart has reasons that reason knows not” Pascal said, and from this “heart” a conviction can come, as when the apostles said, “Lord, where would we go – for you have the words of eternal life!”

When the apostles spoke those words, after everyone else had walked away, they weren’t any less confused about what Jesus’ words meant. They stayed because they had a kind of certainty, but they certainly did not have clarity. Jesus’ words had power, but they were still puzzling. Our certainty comes from the mystical body, from the awareness of a humanizing power, not the comparatively ineffectual power of propositional truths. “We have politicians – and even religious leaders – who wonder why people do not understand and follow them, since their proposals are so clear and logical. Perhaps it is because they are stuck in the realm of pure ideas and end up reducing politics or faith to rhetoric” (Evangelii Gaudium 232). Our conviction is the conviction of things not seen, not of things seen with crystal clarity, for we walk by faith not by sight.

Pope Francis has famously said that time is greater than space. Isn’t such a rationalist view of infallibility an attempt to confine and to grasp the mystery of the Church in space, rather than to be content to let it unfold in time? At the risk of sounding hypocritical, let me clarify that certainty is a good thing, even propositional certainty (as long as it’s kept in mind that these truths are always developing). The kind of certainty I am objecting to is the certainty that is an excuse to attack the pope, a certainty that is reductive, a certainty whose aim is to dissect and distinguish but is impotent to call man to conversion, a certainty that is a temptation to walk by sight and not by faith, a certainty that is proud and ignores the human element of the Church.

The Church does indeed give us certainty, but it is the certainty of faith that the Church is always going in the right direction, rather than the certainty of a Platonic Idea that is untouched by the messiness of existence, or a divine dictionary that we can triumphantly use to judge people and feel self-righteous.

Husband, father of six, idea-tinkerer, amateur pianist non-theologian. Used to live amongst the Christmas trees, now lives surrounded by cacti. Brian is a co-conspirator of Where Peter Is.

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4 Responses

  1. chris dorf says:

    Thank you for this essay.
    I am in a Facebook group called ‘Pints With Aquinas’, and I find that your essay expresses the feelings that the contributors often give me…they stand often to judge because they believe that Thomas Aquinas has given them perfect clarity of the Faith and of all Truths.
    Thank you again for this essay.

  2. Dominic A Ford says:

    Actually the Church has always taught the same truths that can not change. How those truths are understood and expressed in teachings can change as long as the teaching does not alter the truth. The Church teaches that by the power of the Holy Spirit it can not error on faith and moral teachings. Now sometimes a truth is not fully understood but once the Church declares that a particular teaching is in itself truth and part of the Divine Revelation or the Natural Law in a council, or through the Pope ex cathedra, or has always clearly taught something since the founding of the Church by Jesus (ordinary infallibility) that teaching can not be changed. This is known as a de fide teaching. For instance, the Trinity, indissolubility of Sacramental Marriage, Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, law of Chastity (Sex, Procreation and Marriage must always be integrated). Your statement kind of comes across as relativistic and contrary to what the Church actually teaches. I love Pope Francis and think he is an incredible Pope and agree with nearly everything he teaches. However, he has created some confusion in the Church with one particular footnote in Amoris Laetitia and varied and contradictory interpretations of this exhortation have been promulgated by the Bishops conferences. The Holy Spirit thought is always at work and clarity and any erroneous interpretations will eventually be rooted out. Popes at times can error and are only protected infallibility ex cathedra. Now he receives special graces and ordinarily needs our assent. But there can be cases (though rare) where he may teach something incorrect and if this is the case we need to pray that he corrects his erroneous teaching as has happened in the past. We always need to be charitable and praying for him. But the Divine Teachings of the Church the Pope and all of us are subject to and can not be changed.

    • Q.E.D. says:

      But isn’t the question of discipline for communion and objective sin in the Pope’s authority to change? Doesn’t JPII’s code of canon law permit Orthodox Christians to receive communion on a case by case basis, even though they are in objective schism?

      And suppose you were to say that JPII declared it closed, some traditionalists claimed that some pope bound the Latin mass for all time, but here we are with the Novus Ordo. Can one pope really bind a discipline for all time that no other pope can unbind? Neither can someone appeal to conscience (to resist the pope), for conscience is the application of reason, which recognizes the obligation to submit to the pope.

  3. Sheila McKenna says:

    Timely. Thank you Brian.

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