The Roman Catholic Call to Confusion
There is a famous quote in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, which I believe illustrates why much of Roman Catholic apologetics is irrational and self-defeating. Ignatius Loyola was the founder of the Jesuits. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius says, “If we wish to be sure that we are right in all things, we should always be ready to accept this principle: I will believe that the white that I see is black, if the hierarchical church so defines” (The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. A. Mottola, pp. 140–41).
Ignatius can say this because he accepts the fundamental axiom of Roman Catholicism. He accepts the teaching that the Roman Catholic Church cannot teach error. In short, he accepts the doctrine of the infallibility of the Roman Catholic magisterium. We have to remember that the word “infallibility” has to do with ability. To say that a person or institution is infallible is to say that that person or institution does not have the ability to err. It cannot possibly be wrong . . . ever.
If the Roman Catholic Church is infallible, in other words, if the Roman Catholic Church cannot possibly teach error, then it obviously makes sense to say what Ignatius said. If you want certainty about being right, you simply go with whatever this infallible church says, even if what that church says contradicts your own senses or reasoning. If something looks white to you and the church says it is black, you have to believe it is black. You can’t have any certainty if you trust your own sensory or rational faculties. Your sensory and rational faculties are fundamentally unreliable.
Many Roman Catholic apologists use some of the principles underlying Ignatius’s statement when they are attempting to convince Protestants to cross the Tiber and join the Roman Catholic Church. These apologists regularly point to the differences of opinion among Protestants to hammer home the idea that epistemological certainty resides only in Rome.
Protestants are told that they cannot trust their own interpretations of Scripture, church history, the church fathers, or anything else for that matter. They cannot trust their own evaluations of the evidence. They cannot trust themselves to tell the difference between black and white. Their sensory and rational faculties are attacked at every point. Those who buy into this way of thinking start to doubt everything, and they start to wonder where they can find stable ground. The Roman apologist is waiting to tell them that the only ground of certainty is Rome. Rome will tell you what is black and what is white.
Those Protestants who are convinced by this line of argument that attacks their sensory and rational faculties and their ability to have certainty of anything if they don’t listen to Rome then swim across the Tiber, join the Roman Catholic Church and conclude that they are safe now. They think they have certainty and stability. They have Rome to see and to think for them now.
What they often don’t realize is that they have been convinced to reject Protestantism by adopting the philosophical tenets of skepticism. Many of these converts will eventually put two and two together and realize that the principles of skepticism not only undermine Protestantism. They undermine everything, including Roman Catholicism. I am convinced that this is at least part of the reason why so many of those who follow these principles on their way out of Protestantism don’t stay for long in Rome. They end up as either agnostics or atheists.
What Protestants should understand is that once a person accepts the philosophical principles of skepticism, there is no certainty anywhere, and the choice to convert to Roman Catholicism can no longer possibly be a rational choice. At best it can only be an irrational leap of faith, but that leap has no more rational grounds than any other leap – be it into Mormonism or the cult of Jim Jones. The Kool-Aid is the same.
Why is it at best a leap of faith? Because if your sensory and rational faculties are not reliable enough to read, interpret, and understand Scripture, they are also not reliable enough to read, interpret, and understand the claims of the Roman apologists or the claims of Rome. You’re told that having an infallible Bible isn’t enough. You’re told that you need Rome in addition to Scripture as an infallible interpreter. But both of those authorities (Scripture and Rome) are exterior to you. If the only means we have to connect to and understand the exterior world (namely, our sensory and rational faculties) are too unreliable for Scripture to be of any use to us, an additional exterior authority isn’t going to help. If our access to the external world is fundamentally broken, we have access to neither Scripture nor Rome, nor anything else outside of our mind.
In short, the Roman Catholic Church claims that it cannot teach error, that it is infallible. Yet, I’m told by Ignatius and many Roman Catholic apologists that I can’t trust my own senses to tell the difference between black and white. I'm told I have to simply believe what Rome says. But it's not that simple. Rome is exterior to my mind, which means I have to use my sensory and rational faculties to access and understand Rome’s claim. How can I believe what Rome says if it’s true that I can’t trust my senses to hear what Rome says and I can’t trust my mind to understand it?
By relentlessly pushing Protestants to accept the philosophical principles of skepticism, Roman Catholic apologists render their own apologetic activity pointless. Any converts they do win are those who are simultaneously believing that they are blind and that they can see. They don’t understand that they’ve ultimately fallen into irrational fideism.
The very efforts of the Roman apologists are self-contradictory. They regularly present arguments for the Roman claims to Protestants, but they cannot with any rational consistency deny that Protestants have the ability to read and understand Scripture, church history, the church fathers, etc. and then present arguments from Scripture, church history, the church fathers, etc. for their own claims.
We either have this ability or we do not. If we don’t, then all we have is complete skepticism or fideism. If we do, then we have the ability to evaluate Rome’s own claims against Scripture and history. If we do that, we find that Rome’s claims that she cannot teach error are baseless. Of course, if a modern Ignatius asks you to defend that assertion, they are playing a game with you because their starting axiom assumes that they cannot possibly be wrong and that you cannot possibly be correct. If you attempt to show them the contradictions, they will do what any good Ignatius has to do, deny what they see and go with what the infallible church asserts.
If I show the Roman Catholic apologist that something is white, it doesn't matter if it also looks white to him. If Rome says it is black, he has to believe it's black. If you say with Ignatius that Rome is doing your seeing and thinking for you, it's disingenuous to pretend that you are interested in evidence for or against the claims of Rome. As Admiral Ackbar said, "It's a trap!"
As an aside, the books and articles of Richard Popkin have provided abundant evidence that the Roman Catholic polemicists and apologists of the sixteenth century used the, then, recently rediscovered works of the Ancient Greek skeptics as part of their arsenal against the Protestant Reformers. Given what inevitably happens when the principles of skepticism are adopted by anyone, Brad Gregory might want to consider writing a book titled The Unintended Counter-Reformation. I think he'll find more roots of secularism there than anywhere else.