The Duty of External Obedience

While I was doing research for “The Ordinary and Universal Magisterium“, I came across some amazing passages in the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia’s article on infallibility. Since it can be safely assumed that these still represent the Catholic church’s viewpoint, I thought it was worth calling some wider attention to them.

The article starts out by making the same threats that are endemic to all forms of Christianity: the ominous proclamation that the church is infallible, and if you don’t believe what they tell you to believe, you face an eternity of torment:

…the Church is entitled to claim infallible doctrinal authority. This conclusion is confirmed by considering the awful sanction by which the Church’s authority is supported: all who refuse to assent to her teaching are threatened with eternal damnation.

(I like to imagine the pope holding a flashlight under his chin while he says that. Woooo, spooky!)

Now, as I mentioned in the previous post, the church doesn’t claim that all its teachings are infallible, just the ones that it says are infallible. But from the standpoint of the ordinary man or woman in the pews, it doesn’t matter, because the church says that the penalty for rejecting any church teaching, whether claimed to be infallible or not, is the same. Disbelieving anything the church commands you to believe is a mortal sin, and those who die with a mortal sin on their souls, etc., etc. The New Advent article acknowledges this:

…[T]he same penalty is threatened for disobedience to fallible disciplinary laws or even in some cases for refusing to assent to doctrinal teaching that is admittedly fallible.

The obvious rejoinder to this is that it proves the church’s allegedly God-given authority is a sham, because in the past they’ve demanded that people give their assent to claims which even the church now admits are false. The most obvious case, of course, is when a church tribunal censored Galileo’s writings, threatened him with torture and consigned him to house arrest for teaching that the Earth orbits the Sun. And the New Advent article acknowledges this, but the apologetic they propose is truly staggering in its delusional arrogance:

…in the Catholic system internal assent is sometimes demanded, under pain of grievous sin, to doctrinal decisions that do not profess to be infallible. [But]… the assent to be given in such cases is recognized as being not irrevocable and irreversible, like the assent required in the case of definitive and infallible teaching, but merely provisional; and in the next place, internal assent is obligatory only on those who can give it consistently with the claims of objective truth on their conscience – this conscience, it is assumed, being directed by a spirit of generous loyalty to genuine Catholic principles.

To take a particular example, if Galileo who happened to be right [who "happened" to be right? —Ebonmuse] while the ecclesiastical tribunal which condemned him was wrong, had really possessed convincing scientific evidence in favour of the heliocentric theory, he would have been justified in refusing his internal assent to the opposite theory, provided that in doing so he observed with thorough loyalty all the conditions involved in the duty of external obedience.

What this means, if I read it right, is that Catholics are required to believe everything the church tells them to believe – unless they know for a fact it’s false, in which case they can secretly withhold their assent. But even so, they’re still required to act and speak as if they believe the thing they know is false, and they’re still required to obey any command the church gives that’s based on that falsehood, which may include a decree of censorship ordering them to never discuss the thing they know is true or even to destroy the evidence that shows it to be true.

And if the church issues an ex cathedra proclamation, even that option of completely ineffectual resistance is taken away. Anything that’s taught infallibly, Catholics aren’t permitted to doubt, even inwardly. They’re required to believe it wholeheartedly and that’s that, and if they don’t, they put themselves at risk of eternal damnation.

The church’s claim of absolute authority over the lives and even the inward thoughts of its members shows how far it hasn’t come. In fact, its mindset hasn’t really changed at all from its medieval, theocratic past – the days when it really did have the power it now only believes it has, when it could compel governments to obedience and threaten heretics with torture and death. Inside the Vatican, it’s as if time has stood still for centuries: the church’s rulers dwell in faded citadels surrounded by memories of past empire, and still delude themselves that they command the eternal destiny of the world. They’re welcome to live their lives in dreams of the past if they wish, but when they venture out into the present day and pompously proclaim their superiority over the rest of us, the only response they should get is the laughter and scorn they so richly deserve.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://infidel753.blogspot.com/ Infidel753

    Carried to its logical conclusion, this seems to mean that even if you know that the Church is wrong about something and you can prove it, you’ll go to Hell if you say so.

    Such a warped totalitarian mind-set, even Stalin could only envy.

    It’s lucky for these people that their God is imaginary. if he existed, he might well send them to Hell for defaming him by claiming that this is how he runs things.

  • http://www.politicalflavors.com MissCherryPi

    Catholics are required to believe everything the church tells them to believe – unless they know for a fact it’s false, in which case they can secretly withhold their assent. But even so, they’re still required to act and speak as if they believe the thing they know is false

    Yes, Catholics are really, really good at cognitive dissonance. How many red blooded and healthy families in the pews only have one or two children? Catholic women have abortions at the same rates as women of other faiths in the United States. And I know several gay people whose parents love and accept them but still go to Mass.

    Catholics feel entitled to their Catholicism, regardless of the logical implications. I know I did!

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

    Pretty much the DMG definition of a Lawful Evil organization.

  • Steffen

    “Catholics are required to believe everything the church tells them to believe – unless they know for a fact it’s false, in which case they can secretly withhold their assent. But even so, they’re still required to act and speak as if they believe the thing they know is false, and they’re still required to obey any command the church gives that’s based on that falsehood, which may include a decree of censorship ordering them to never discuss the thing they know is true or even to destroy the evidence that shows it to be true.”

    This was the first thing that came to my mind when reading these lines: George Orwell, “1984″, “Doublethink”.

  • Ally

    @Lou Doench

    It’s…kind of scary how true that is. o___o

  • Rick

    ..the Church is entitled to claim infallible doctrinal authority. This conclusion is confirmed by considering the awful sanction by which the Church’s authority is supported: all who refuse to assent to her teaching are threatened with eternal damnation.

    Holy crap, what a bunch of deluded circular reasoning.

    A) We’re allowed to claim we’re infallible
    B) because [we] threaten anyone who disagrees with damnation
    C) and those threats support our infallibility
    D) therefore we’re infallible.
    E) Because we said so. So there.

    It doesn’t even make sense if we assume that the threat of damnation comes from God… “We’re infallible because God might send to hell anyone who doubts us.” No, that doesn’t make you right. It just means you’ve got a big sky bully.

    How many red blooded and healthy families in the pews only have one or two children?

    I have two families in my close acquaintance who a) are Catholic, and b) have only 2 kids. Both husbands, at over 40 years old, had vasectomies. Clearly they pick and choose their Catlick doctrines.

  • http://waialeale.org Mike Kersey

    Also consider how the church’s teaching are at best, a moving target.
    Example, before the enlightened teaching of Aquinas and others, it was sacrilege to believe in Demons. Then they changed their mind and started burning witches.

    Today it’s sacrilege to claim demons don’t exist. The church still teaches demonic possession and has in recent years, stepped up the training of exorcists as the church has grown in Africa. Of course they soft pedal this in the US. I suspect most Priests know it’s bullshit.

    The claims of Papal Infallibility, Immaculate Conception(deception), abortion as murder, etc. are Nineteenth Century Brainstorms as the church was pushed back into the Vatican.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    “Yes, Catholics are really, really good at cognitive dissonance.”

    I think, at least from my experience, it is more that they pick and choose which of the Church teaching they actually agree with. It’s not that they simultaneously believe that contraception is wrong but still use it, it’s that they think the Church is wrong about contraception. I’m sure they would all disagree with the church teaching of obedience Ebonmuse mentions above in the article. Calling yourself Catholic is more of a cultural thing than a belief thing.

    Also: If, through some wacky misunderstandings and hijinks, I ever become pope, I would make as many infallible statements as possible. They’d start off reasonable but then taper off into the absurd and self-contradictory. That would put the whole “infallibility” thing into question in the minds of most believers or, if not, create a very amusing religion.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    It’s worth noting that starting in the 1500s, the Jesuit priests (members of the Society of Jesus) were allowed to withhold “internal assent” while swearing loyalty oaths to Protestant monarchs and spying on them for the Church. Or more bluntly, committing perjury. I doubt the “oh, I withheld internal assent” argument is going to work if you ever lie under oath and commit treason.

  • Jeff

    It’s lucky for these people that their God is imaginary. if he existed, he might well send them to Hell for defaming him by claiming that this is how he runs things.

    Comment #1 by: Infidel753 | September 21, 2011, 7:46 am

    If I were God, I’d sue humanity for defamation of character.

  • Steven

    I don’t know how it is in other parts of the world, but most of the American Catholics I have known do indeed pick and choose what they believe. Back in my younger days when I was a church-going Protestant I had some spirited discussions with Catholic friends about some of the ridiculous things their Church taught. They’re response was often along the lines of “maybe so, but here are some ridiculous things Protestants believe.” Those discussions actually helped move me along the road to disbelieving the whole lot of it.

  • http://cafeeine.wordpress.com Cafeeine

    “Refusing internal assent” is such an elegant way of saying “lying”.

  • Hendy

    Wow. Even as a former very faithful Catholic with decent understanding of how “infallibility” works, I had no idea about the application of issues with disbelieving even fallible statements! This is pretty insane. How can one expect someone to be able to “choose” to “inwardly assent” to something they know to be false even if it’s been made from an infallible standpoint?!?

    I’ve experienced my non-belief/deconversion very much not as a choice. I took in information and it simply formed my non-belief. To any of my religious friends who wish to insist that it is a choice, I simply ask if they could choose to believe in Islam tomorrow. Or that the sky is black.


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