Protestants who engage Roman Catholics often leave the discussion in frustration. It seems that Roman Catholic apologists have an answer for everything. At times, Roman Catholicism appears to lack falsifiability.
The idea of falsifiability will be in the background of this article, but my primary purpose will be to show that, given its theological system, Roman Catholicism lacks public verifiability. What I mean is that a Roman Catholic apologist, due to the parameters of his own theological system, cannot present sufficient reasons for a potential convert to believe the Roman Catholic Church’s claims for itself, namely, that it is the one true visible church of Christ, such that one must, by good reason, assent to its authority. So, in other words, Roman Catholic apologists cannot publicly verify the authority-claims of the Roman Catholic Church.
A Roman Catholic can consider a text to be Holy Scripture only after the Roman Catholic Church has declared it to be Holy Scripture. This means that when a Roman Catholic cites a text as scripture he is implicitly acknowledging 1) the Church’s authority to declare a text to be scripture and 2) that the Church has declared this particular text to be scripture. So when Roman Catholics cite a text as scripture in support of Roman Catholicism they must already assume Roman Catholicism. This form of circular reasoning abounds in Roman Catholic apologetics, but it isn’t simply a mistake on their part. Roman Catholic apologetics, given Roman Catholic theological assumptions, is inherently question-begging.
We should take this further and consider what it takes and what it means for a Roman Catholic to present evidence for Roman Catholicism.
In order to avoid circular reasoning, a Roman Catholic must provide reasons for one to become Roman Catholic without using reasons that assume Roman Catholicism. This is basic argumentation: one cannot present evidence that points to a conclusion assumed by the evidence. This means that a Roman Catholic must assume a theoretical position of neutrality when presenting evidence. Or, to put it differently, he must theoretically suspend his belief in Roman Catholicism to put it on public trial.
When a Roman Catholic takes a neutral stance toward Roman Catholicism and provides evidence for it, he assumes that Roman Catholicism is open for a legitimate and a conclusive public trial: evidence must be either sufficient or insufficient to convince one to become Roman Catholic. In a public trial of this sort, anyone not yet convinced of Roman Catholicism does not need to disprove Roman Catholicism; he needs only to show that the evidence is insufficient to warrant belief in it.
Fundamental to Roman Catholicism is the idea that only the church can provide sufficient reason to believe any divine truth. Hence, one can know that the Roman Church is the only true visible church of Christ is divine truth only if the Roman Church declares it to be such. This means, however, that no argument can sufficiently support this supposition without begging the question — without assuming the conclusion from the outset. No Roman Catholic, therefore, can honestly enter public debate, for they cannot publicly verify their claims for the Roman Church. By the very act of presenting evidence as public evidence — as sufficient evidence to believe for the church’s claims for itself — they undermine the notion that the Church is the sole arbiter of divine truth. They cannot attempt to verify their claim without refuting their claim. Roman Catholic apologetics is inherently self-defeating.
One might claim that evidence is necessary but not sufficient for the claim. Let us grant this to be true. Let’s assume that I’ve heard all that is necessary. What is it that would compel me to move forward and make the assent of faith? The Roman Catholic cannot provide me sufficient reasons for faith, for that would undermine the claims of faith.
Having heard it all, I am in a position to say (ironically with) the Roman Catholic that he has provided insufficient evidence to believe. Roman Catholicism has failed in its public trial. Indeed, Roman Catholicism must fail in a public trial — it cannot provide sufficient reasons to believe. I am left with nothing but an exhortation to make a leap of faith, which I have no reason to make.
A related argument is offered by Cardinal Newman. Here is a summary of the position:
It is not a violent assumption, then, but rather mere abstinence from the wanton admission of a principle which would necessarily lead to the most vexatious and preposterous scepticism, to take it for granted, before proof to the contrary, that the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the first, whatever may be the modifications for good or for evil which lapse of years, or the vicissitudes of human affairs, have impressed upon it.
This “vexatious and preposterous scepticism” is the Protestant paradigm, according to Newman and others: a Protestant has no principled means of distinguishing between divine truth and human opinion. The debates on this characterization of Protestantism have raged and raged. I suggest that we look at some of Newman’s assumptions.
Notice in his statement that we must “take it for granted” the continuity of “substance” of the “very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught” throughout church history. With this principle, according to Newman, we can assume the continuity of apostolic teaching: the theology of the Roman Catholic Church at present is of the same substance as the theology of Christ and his apostles. By this move, he thinks that he avoids the skepticism that can arise from allowing people to interpret texts and determine divine truth. According to him, the type of interpretive analysis required in Protestantism must generate uncertainty and a diversity of opinions. For this reason, Protestantism cannot possess a principled means of distinguishing divine truth and human opinion.
Newman’s position is self-refuting. Here is why.
Newman can claim the need for a principled non-skeptical means of distinguishing divine truth and human opinion only on the assumption of divine truths. How can one recognize the need for a principled means to distinguish the divine teaching of Christ from mere human opinion without already believing certain divine truths: that there was a man Jesus Christ who was the messiah, who died and rose again, who founded a church, and who commissioned apostles to faithfully transmit the deposit of faith? All these are divine truths that Newman has presumed to be true, apparently on the basis of human opinion. On the basis of these divine truths, Newman demands a principled means to distinguish between divine truths and human opinion. Newman’s argument is not only self-defeating — it assumes the very Protestant paradigm he’s trying to avoid.
Given my argument above, I conclude that a Roman Catholic cannot provide any evidence for his church without self-refutation, question-begging, or assuming the Protestant paradigm.
The situation is different for the Reformed Protestant apologist. The Reformed Protestant always has reasons to believe what he believes apart from some magisterial church authority. His belief is not based on reason alone, that is, from natural theology or philosophy alone. He has sufficient reasons to believe given all of God’s revelation to the world (general and special). The Protestant has public and sufficient reasons to believe such that anyone in his proper mind would come to accept them.
In the Reformed Protestantism, special revelation is just as self-authenticating as general revelation. Those in their right mind—those who have been renewed to see the handiwork and handwriting of God—see Scripture as God’s inscripturated self-disclosure to the world. Scripture, then, is public evidence. God has condescended in a special and direct way to the world in creation and Scripture: he reveals himself to humans immediately, not mediately through some earthly institution. Humans, when seeing the world as humans ought to see the world, will recognize the evidence of God. Grace renews people to see the evidence of God’s work in creation and redemption in Christ; and this evidence is sufficient to believe apart from some earthly authenticating authority.
True neutrality, then, is admitting all the handwriting of God as reasons for faith. Of course, nonbelievers will reject scripture as evidence, but this is due only to their degenerated view of neutrality. The claims of Scripture are reasons to believe whether or not they recognize them as such. If they were to adopt a true stance of neutrality, they would recognize Scripture as evidence of God’s work in the world. Nonbelievers unjustly declare this true evidence inadmissible. Only humans renewed by grace—humans who see as humans ought to see—naturally find all evidence admissible. Therefore, a Protestant apologist can legitimately enter all of revelation as public evidence because he knows that God has condescended to provide sufficient reasons to believe, not only to Christians but to the whole world. Scripture is a public document for the world to see; and humans in their right mind would see it for what it is: fully admissible evidence. One therefore has good reason to believe in the objects of faith. Thus the Protestant can theoretically place his faith on public trial with sufficient reasons to believe without presupposing the question at hand.