Paul Griffin is no great fan of papal infallibility but finds it more palatable than many of the alternatives. Our grasp of the truth is never easy and we err if we seek to trivialize the issues involved

Among the developments in Roman Catholicism over the centuries since the Reformation, to our Protestant eye, are many signs of movement towards us. Attitudes to the circulation of the Bible, to the language of the Mass, and to hymnody are only three.

Such developments may lead us to feel comfortable, so that we see ourselves as divinely appointed initiators, letters-in of light to dark places, the vanguard of truth. Some such thoughts perhaps lay behind the ordination of women priests – the happy belief that however long it takes the Vatican authorities, they will come round to it one day. Maybe they will; but could it be that Protestantism is beginning to see itself like Rome, as a source of infallible truth?

The source of truth

The question of where we get our truth needs to concern us, as it concerned nineteenth century Popes. The doctrine of papal infallibility is more easily rejected than understood. It begins by being an expression of the conviction that there must be an ultimate source of truth, and ends rather weakly in the assertion that the combined efforts of the Church are a long way ahead of individual human reasoning .

Where then is our own, Protestant source of truth? Our first and repeated appeal is to the Bible, but as repeatedly we qualify our appeal, in various ways. We talk of textual significance and variations, of Councils, Creeds and the tradition of the Church, of Revelation and of being led into the truth by the Holy Spirit, while all the time hoping desperately to have science and human reason on our side. Can it be that these two sources are in the end the basis of our belief? And if so, can they differ?

We live in a world that is clearly imperfect, but that does offer what are called indisputable scientific facts. Some of these, such as gravity and tides, are directly observable. The nature and immediate causes of gravity and tides are not, so we accept them from clever scientists. Much of what we call certainty comes from the say-so of others. Here our reason begins to come into play.

The only observable fact about Christianity is its existence. Its nature and history and causes, on the other hand, depend on the say-so of others, who present the deductions of clever theologians, and the reported words and acts of a certain person who lived two millennia ago. Most persons accept that this person existed, but there is far less acceptance of the details of what he is likely to have said and done. Here is a second process of reasoning, in which we say: ‘Yes, I know what the Bible/Creed/tradition says, but it doesn’t (or does) seem reasonable to me.’

Observation and reason

So the source of our religious truth becomes not the assertions of the wise, but the machinery of our own minds. Yet if we were to have it positively proved as a scientific fact that some item of religious belief was right or wrong, we should probably fall in with the discovery.

On the face of it, then, we have two sources of truth, direct observation and our own reasoning power. The latter operates on two ways, on the observations of others we trust and on their and our deductions about what they signify. There is a difference between truth that can be verified if necessary, and truth independent of scientific discovery. This enables us to distinguish, for example, between the belief that the 10.30 will leave from Paddington for Newton Abbot and the belief that the Holy Spirit came on Whitsunday. The first requires only a very slight effort of faith, the second a considerably larger one. Also the first remains in the realm of the natural world, the second not entirely.

The supernatural is more in evidence than we tend to think, as any scientist will confirm. We may accept the force of gravity, create equations to describe it, use it in practical matters, but you will not find a scientist who can explain exactly how and why it happens. Like so much else, it is a natural and a supernatural matter rolled into one, like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which we have to recognise as true, but have barely an idea why it is true.

Perceiving the supernatural

It is merely silly to mean ghosts and apparitions when we talk of the supernatural. We are surrounded by it, and it hardly matters that in fact the natural is only the supernatural brought within man’s understanding. We sometimes point out in sermons that our faith is founded upon a supernatural event, but it would be more sensible to say that our entire lives are led among such events, and that the Creeds are just a small selection.

I know all this reeks of apologetics, and confuses our mild worldly needs for faith with that much greater stretch of credulity St Paul catalogues. I want to be sympathetic with the Vatican‘s talk of Infallibility by pointing out the extraordinary complications of living without some secure basis of truth. Even Protestants talk of the Bible and the Creeds being that basis. I suppose the Popes wanted to be free to build upon the Christian faith, without encouraging the hordes of modernizers that now complicate our lives.

It is customary to say they got it wrong because truth simply cannot be left to one man. I would say their error was almost the opposite, that they actually wanted truth to be the result of the democratic process, that what emerges as a consensus, expressed through the papal mouth by their most skilled representatives, must be right.

Try applying that to the General Synod of the Church of England! At the same time remember that Pilate’s ancient question, ‘What is Truth?’ requires a lot more thinking about yet, and is certainly not answered by, ‘What I believe.’

It may be comforting to do what Sir Thomas Browne says he loves: ‘to lose myself in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an O altitudo’: but to the people we are trying to persuade the option is not open. They believe, as Aquinas believed, that truth can never defy reason. Ultimately, as Aquinas also believed, God can be reached through reason. That far, but surely no further, we should go with the nineteenth century Popes.