Theology and ideology in Roman Catholic apologetics

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When we think and discourse, we are always thinking and discoursing about something or other. The truth of our thought and speech is a matter of their conformity to their objects. As Aristotle said, to speak truly is to say of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not. For this reason, we cannot simply take for granted that our preconceptions and prior judgments about things are true, but rather seek to confirm them, testing them critically against the standard of the objects themselves which we wish to know. Such a confirmation can only come in the form of an experience in which the thing itself shows itself to be (or not to be) such as we thought it was.

Ideology is a form of thinking that is really non-thinking. It is not concerned with truth, understood as the conformity of our ideas and speech to their objects, but rather with its own propagation and expansion. What matters to the ideologue is not first and foremost that he or she put her ideas to the test, but rather that they spread so that his or her purposes can be achieved, whatever they might be.

If an ideology is to spread, it cannot be easily falsified. Otherwise, any prospective convert to it could simply see that it is false and go on his or her way. Generally, people care enough about the truth that they not willingly sign themselves up for something they know is not true. Thus, ideologues make use of various means for preserving their ideas from critical verification. One possibility is the use of violence and threats. Another possibility is that one expands one’s system into a grand system that cannot be verified in principle because it makes use of concepts or ideas that go beyond what can be experienced. One begins to speak about “secret” or “hidden” realities which account for why not are all in agreement with one’s own position, or else why some apparently incongruent phenomena are not proofs against one’s system after all.

If an ideology is to be efficient in its self-propagation, it cannot be concerned purely with what is inaccessible and invisible. It must also have some connection with what is visible and experienceable in ordinary circumstances. Only in this way can it get people interested in it. Very few people if any are concerned with the realm of pure ideas. But, at the same time, in order to preserve itself against falsification, the central and most important claims of the ideology cannot be purely about the visible and accessible, about things that anyone can check and see for themselves, but rather about the inaccessible and invisible. Only in this way can they be beyond the possibility of falsification. In this way, with ideologies, the visible acts as the “hook” by means of which people are caught in a web, committing themselves to what are really the more important claims about the “invisible.”

In short, ideology is a mode of non-thinking in which one is more concerned with the propagation of one’s ideas rather than with being true to the things themselves. And one important theoretical method for the propagation of ideologies is the artful use of unfalsifiable theses or explanations.

Ideology is clearly a reality in the political and social spheres, but it is also (and more subtly) at work in theology. Theologians engage in ideological non-thinking when (i) they propose “invisible” realities as substantive theses or explanations for their theological systems while (ii) at the same insisting that disagreement with them or failure to assent to what they say is spiritually dangerous.

Roman Catholics, at least at times, arguably engage in ideological non-thinking. On the one hand, the Roman Catholic Church proposes itself as the “One True Church,” submission to which is an absolute requirement for salvation, knowing and willing dissent from which being sufficient for perdition. On the other hand, it makes a number of carefully crafted claims that are absolutely impervious to experiential (dis)confirmation. In this way, it forces assent to its system by means of a mix of rational and non-rational factors which are hard to distinguish.

Among the unfalsifiable theses of the Roman Catholic Church are, for example, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the notion of invincible ignorance (on which see this post by my friend Suan).

The doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that, at the consecration during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine are transformed substantially into the body and blood of Christ while their accidents as bread and wine remain. They look and taste and are experienced as bread and wine would be, but they are in substance the body and blood of Christ. Because experience only ever confirms a substance by means of its apparent accidents, and because the eucharistic elements retain all the accidents of bread and wine while only being transformed in substance, it follows that the doctrine of transubstantiation cannot be falsified. Of course, this also means that it can never in principle be confirmed, either, but this is not as important for Roman Catholic theology, because the mentality at work is ideological: what is important is not that the idea is (seen to be) true but that it is believed by others. So also, in Roman Catholicism a person is threatened with refusal of participation in the Eucharistic meal and the salvation that it offers for rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation.

Something similar takes place in the notion of “invincible ignorance.” I previously argued that, according to the logic of the apostles, a person who has received the Holy Spirit is in fellowship with the Father and the Son and thus has achieved belonging in the Church. Because there are such persons in the very many different churches or ecclesial communities that exist in the present day, it follows that there is no need to belong to any one particular church or community as such. My friend Suan argues that the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine of “invincible ignorance” makes it possible to accommodate this observation. Such persons receive the Holy Spirit because they are in a state of “invincible ignorance” which excuses their failure to accept and submit to the claims of the Roman Catholic Church. But there are also persons who seem knowledgeable of the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings and claims and reject them, all the while preserving the appearance of being in fellowship with Father and Son through the Holy Spirit. Moreover, such persons actively seek to draw people away from the Roman Catholic system of doctrines and practices on the grounds that they are idolatrous and harmful. The Reformers were like that, as are numerous Christians in the present day, especially converts to Protestantism from majority-Catholic countries. What is to be said about them?

There are at least two options for the Roman Catholic to take, but they are both ideological. (1) He or she could say that such persons do not in fact have the Holy Spirit since they knowingly work against the Roman Catholic Church, but this would amount to table-pounding since such persons give precisely the same evidence of the possession of the Spirit as are mentioned in the New Testament: gentleness of spirit, love of Christ, submission to Him, and so on. Indeed, they may present more evidence of the Holy Spirit than many persons in fellowship with the Roman Catholic Church. In such a case, being Roman Catholic by itself would count as the ultimate test of being in the Church, which is obviously ideological and self-referential in the present context. (2) Alternatively, he or she could say that perhaps they are in fact invincibly ignorant, in spite of appearances to the contrary. At this point, the essential invisibility of “invincible ignorance” would effectively be granted on a platter. It would always be possible to reject an apparent counterexample to the Roman Catholic’s teaching by appeal to an essentially unfalsifiable claim about invincible ignorance. The fact remains that there are persons who give every evidence of being in fellowship with God in spite of their rejection of the Roman Catholic Church.

There is a further point to make here about the ideological force of the notion of “invincible ignorance.” On the one hand, the Roman Catholic Church claims that it is the one true Church, founded by Christ, outside of which there is no salvation. On the other hand, it grants that those outside of its visible boundaries who appear to have the Holy Spirit are nevertheless invisibly united to it in some way as a matter of grace, in spite of their invincible ignorance. At the same time, it says that knowledgeable and willing refusal to submit to the truth of its uniqueness as Christ’s one true Church is damnable. But at precisely this point a trick is performed.

The Roman Catholic system preserves itself from falsification and reconciles itself with the phenomena, so to speak, by means of the supposition of “invincible ignorance.” It posits an invisible factor that is responsible for the visible data that previously seemed incompatible with it. Thus, it continues to make its exclusive claim of uniqueness while showing itself compatible with the visible data. But being consistent with the visible data is not the same thing as being true to the visible data. One can easily confuse the consistency of a thesis with a certain range of data with the truth of that thesis, i.e its grounding in the things themselves. When one is presented with a thesis, one considers it as a description of things and asks whether anything in the world might seem to exclude it. When nothing is plainly incompatible with a given thesis, one gets the sense that it is true. But when the thesis in question proposes something that cannot be experienced in principle (e.g., the invincible ignorance of Roman Catholicism’s Christian objectors), then we must be careful not to confuse its adequacy to the phenomena with its grounding in the phenomena. It is compatible with what we see, but it is not necessarily true. Furthermore, because it posits something that cannot be experienced in principle, it follows that we can never know it to be true. We can never confirm it an experience; it always remains a postulate, a speculation.

There is nothing wrong with proposing a speculation. But the Roman Catholic system proposes speculations in order to preserve itself from falsification while at the same time insisting that those who knowingly dissent from its claims about itself are putting themselves in spiritual danger. And because one can easily confuse the sense of the empirical adequacy of Roman Catholicisms’s claims with a sense of their truth, one ends up wondering to oneself: Am I knowingly rejecting the truth of the Church? Could I be endangering myself by not submitting to what the Roman Catholic Church says? This is how the ideological trick works. One is presented with unfalsifiable theses alongside a claim to exclusivity coupled with a threat, confuses the sense of the empirical adequacy of Roman Catholicism’s claims with a sense of their truth, and then slowly but surely succumbs to the force of the threat about knowing, willing dissent. One is converted to something one takes oneself to know as true without ever having confirmed it in an experience.

This is not so much theology as ideology in practice. Nota bene: It is only ideological because the Roman Catholic Church does not present itself as merely one more church among others, attempting to find its way to God by means of its preferred teachers and traditions. If that is all it did, there would be no objection to make. Rather, it claims that it is the one true Church and that all others must in the ordinary case submit to it on pain of damnation. That is what makes it ideological. It may well be that most or even almost all of what Roman Catholicism teaches is true. (On the other hand, it makes so many claims about things are unconfirmable in principle that it could never know that what it teaches is true.) But it is nonetheless ideological in the way in which it understands itself and propagates its own teachings.

I have a PhD in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.