Sunday, 5 June 2011

Explaining the Catholic Church to an atheist: my response to Al

I wrote here about a question that was put to me on a local neighbourhood forum by a very convinced atheist called Al.
I won't bother copying here the preamble, in which I explain that the following answer is only partial, but will likely be best fleshed out in response to any questions, or objections he has.
As I said in my earlier post, I got some great input from some posters at The Catholic Spitfire Grill .
Here's how I responded to Al:

Firstly, I want to briefly address the doctrine of infallibility.
Infallibity is not to be confused with impeccability ( although it usually is)

Catholics can acknowledge the shameful episodes in church history, bad priests and wicked Popes  and still see the Church as an institution that is divinely ordained and inspired ( Dante, who was a devout Catholic and believed that the Pope and the church were divinely inspired, placed at least one Pope in hell).
The doctrine of infallibilty refers to a negative protection. It holds that the Magisterium ( that is, the teaching authority of the church that rests in the College of Bishops, in communion with the Bishop of Rome) is infallible when it teaches on matters of faith and morals that have been passed down in unbroken succession from the apostles. In other words, our faith does not change. Our understanding may deepen...but teaching must always come DIRECTLY from the teaching of the Apostles as it has been passed down to us in unbroken succession.
So the church can be in error, and they can make mistakes ( like electing a Borgia) and get things wrong ( the Crusades and the inquisition were not the churches finest hours) But even if these things were bad ( although, in the context of the times, it is possible to make a reasonable defence of the Crusades) they did not result in a corresponding change in doctrine/dogma.
Even the very wicked womanising, murdering Popes did not attempt to change church teaching in order to make their bad behaviour permissible.
So a catholic can be sharply critical of the church,  and yet also be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church. In fact we have some famous saints who rebuked their Popes.
Actually, considering the history of the church, catholics often regard the fact that the Catholic church is still here 2,000 years later as something of a miracle in itself.
We do not see the authority of the Church as earned, but rather that it is a gift that no human institution, by itself, could ever live up to.

Leah is an atheist who blogs here.
She is a student at Yale who is dating a catholic boy. Her blog strapline says " A geeky atheist picks fights with her catholic boyfriend"
It's a fascinating read. Some of it is a bit over my head, but I really love following the conversations of egg heads like these.
During the course of her blog she has had many conversations about catholicism and has aquired an impressive grasp of some very complicated catholic issues.
She belongs to an email list that I am a member of and I was interested to know how she would explain the need for church authority.
I really liked her answer so I am going to c&p it here:

Even as an atheist, it makes a lot more sense to me that Christianity would be better served when people were anchored in a church rather than left to their own devices. It's an error check, at the very least. You might tell your atheist friend that belonging to a church isn't that much different that the idea of peer review in science. Both systems substantially delay the acceptance of any new idea, to prevent large numbers of people from suddenly going wrong. A new teaching has to clear a high standard of evidence and be convincing to the people with the most experience and relevant knowledge. The scientific process of peer review is constituted the way it is because people so frequently go wrong on their own. And, presuming Christianity is true, the consequences for going wrong on your own are a lot smaller if your field is theoretical physics instead of theology/ethics.

It may take a lot more doing to convince your interlocutor that the Catholic church is 'a truth telling thing' as Chesterton said, but it might help to convince him that Christianity, like any field of study, needs some kind of regulatory institution

To that, I want to add that sometimes the authority of the Church is compared to that of an umpire or a referee. You can see that the authority that rests in the umpire, or referee, does not require him to be personally without any fault or flaw, but nonetheless the game depends on his authority in order to avoid descending into chaos.
Al has responded to say that he is reading through it and will take his time, and will give me his thoughts in due course.
I'll post here when he does.
I just want to add that I'm keeping a copy of the discussion here, not to heap scorn on Al's position, but to keep a copy of an interesting exchange, and  perhaps also because it might be of interest to other readers.
My thanks to Patricius and Part Time Pilgrim for  their thoughts on the first post.
Again, if anyone has any thoughts on this I would be interested to hear them.


  1. I found your explanation of infallibility very interesting. It is something I've never understood and have linked it myself in my mind with impeccability too. V. interesting. Cheers.

  2. Clare

    I like the first part which I think puts the situation very well.

    As for the Leah's Peer Review analogy at first I was really taken with it, then on reflection I decided it was weak. Scientists are not any more rational or logical than other people. Although they might claim otherwise lots of scientific disagreements are based on personality rather than emprirical evidence (Gammov and Hoyle over the "Big Bang" for example) and there are plenty of examples of lone scientists being right but having their ideas rejected by the scientific establishment. (John Snow and Alfred Wegner for example) Having thought about it even more I decided that actually strengthens the analogy. In spite of imperfect poeple, the system actually works.

  3. Thanks both of you for your comments.
    Apologies for the delay in publishing them. I somehow missed them in my email inbox and didn't check my blogger account for them ( because I assumed they weren't there)
    Sorry 'bout that!

    I agree that analogies are difficult because they do break down at some or other point, and can also be misleading. Nonetheless, they are useful ways of helping the other to shift his thinking a bit, to help him to see things from a different perspective.
    The peer review and umpire analogies help inasmuch as they underline the fact that none of us really believe that having an authority in any area requires those who submit to it to be unthinking drones or slaves.
    Thanks for your comment!