By What Authority? A Secular Case for Knowing What the Church Says is True.

As Catholics, we believe that Jesus intended to create a church that would be his presence on earth, serve as a physical sign of his continued connection to the world and to preach, teach, forgive sin and heal in his name.  As such, we believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church and allows the Church to teach what is true.  We believe this to such a degree that we acknowledge that we can know that some teachings of the Church are absolutely true, in fact, infallibly true. 

But these are all statements of faith and not particularly convincing to the skeptic.  Is it possible to make a secular case for the authority of the Church?  Is there some way to argue from the social sciences that the Church has a valid and reliable means of asserting truth claims that are at least as true and authoritative as any other research published in a peer-reviewed, well-respected, social science journal?  I would argue that the answer is, “yes.”

How Do Scientists (including Social Scientists) Know Stuff?

There are two ways a scientist (including a social scientist) can claim to have discovered something about the truth.  Quantitative research and Qualitative research.

Quantitative Research involves counting things.   If I give 100 people a survey, score that survey, and report the scores, I’ve done a quantitative study.  If I count the number of hours 100 depressed people sleep and compare that to the number of hours a non-depressed people sleep, I’ve done a quantitative study.  The advantage of quantitative research is that it is purely objective. It involves numbers.  The disadvantage is the quality of the information.  For example, how do I know a score on a test really represents anything important?  Is a person who scores 110 on an IQ test really smarter than a person who scores 105?  If so, in what way?  Quantitative research can’t tell me that.   Likewise,  does counting the number of hours a group of depressed people sleep really tell me anything particularly meaningful about the experience of depression or the experience of the depressed person?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

If I really want to know about the details of the inner-life of people and what is true based on human experience, I need a different methodology.  That’s where qualitative research comes in.

Qualitative Research involves in-depth interviews with lots of people from a lot of different walks of life, ideally,  over a long period of time.  Qualitative studies are harder to validate because the data they produce is subjective (i.e., I’m asking people about their opinions instead of counting the number of times they do X or giving them a score on a quiz).  BUT  using various, accepted methods, the social scientist can confidently assert that somethings are generally true based on qualitative data as long as certain practices are respected.

Qualitative studies are validated through triangulation (i.e., comparing the results of one sample or study with the data from another sample/study and seeing what remains consistent across studies), richness of data (how detailed the information gathered in an interview was), and by the quality of the sample (i.e., a study that asks questions of 1000 people of various ages and cultures and walks of life is generally more reliable than a study that asks the same questions of 10 white middle-class college students).  While social scientists are loathe to say anything is “true” or “proven” we do feel comfortable arguing that, based on the quality of the methodology behind a partcular study or studies, we can be more confident about certain findings than others, and we agree that those findings should guide our practice because they are (for wont of a better way of putting it) “more true” than other studies whose methodologies and samples are not as reliable or valid as others.

So What Does Any of this Have to Do with The Teaching Authority of the Catholic Church?

One way to think of “religions” is to think of them as longitudinal qualitative research projects who are attempting to answer the fundamental questions of human existence. We can (and should) evaluate the truth claims of various religions using the same methods that we evaluate/criticis the validity of any qualitative research project. How long has the data been being gathered? What is the depth and breadth of the sample that has participated in the discussion of the research questions? What is the richness of the data and the consistency of the themes that have emerged from the discussions?

I would argue that, seen from this perspective, Catholicism has the clearest perspective on the question, “What is truth?” Here’s why.

 1. Length of data gathering– A two-thousand year old conversation is hard to argue with. If you know anything about the development of doctrine, you know that contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t handed down from on high. It emerges from systematic discussions that go on for centuries in some cases and, in almost every case involve the whole world.

One might counter that Judaism (circa, 1900 BC), Buddhism (500BC), or Hinduism (depending on how you trace it, about 1000 BC) also have a good case to be made here (Islam is, historically speaking, a new kid on the block, beginning with Muhammad in about 600 AD). And while they are reasonable contenders, there are other problems with their data that must be considered.

2. Triangulation/Depth and Breadth of Sample.

This is really where Catholicism shines. It is the only one of our contenders that is not overly geographically or culturally bound. Judaism’s search for truth is limited to the chosen people. Historically, there is very little interest in engaging in a dialog with peoples outside of itself. Same with Islam, only moreso. Buddhism has certainly spread throughout the west, but that is a recent occurrence, say the last 200 years if we are generous. It’s truth claims were well-established by the time it was introduced more broadly. Hinduism suffers here too because of how culturally and geographically bound it is. It has very little appeal outside of certain ethnic groups.

Only Catholicism can legitimately assert that its truth claims–i.e., doctrines–were the result of centuries long discussions/arguments with the entire known world, and these truth claims have continued to be tested and found valid over time and across cultures. In fact, these truth claims have been found so solid, that they serve as the foundation for the vast majority of the things we take for granted, not in just Western Civilization, but what is considered civilization anywhere.

Likewise, while there are professionals who arbitrate these truth claims (bishops and priests serve a similar function as journal editors/peer-review boards in this regard) they do not pronounce the truth claims out of thin air. They facilitate and arbitrate–very much like peer-review boards and journal editors. (And not to be triumphalistic, but while we’re at it, Protestantism suffers because of both its realtive youth and because it tends to get rid of our metaphorical journal editors and peer-review boards).

 3. Richness of the data

Here again, Catholicism comes out strong. It is certainly possible to argue with the Church’s conclusions, but it is harder to dispute the methodology and the fact that the truth claims that support doctrines emerged out of themes that have repeated themselves again and again over centruries and across cultures. ANY social science researcher would kill to have data like this to plug into ATLAS (a computer program used by qualitative researchers to analyze interview data).  It is the strength of these emerging themes across cultures and time–a depth and breadth of data gathering that other religions simply can’t claim– that adds to the secular case for the Church’s right to assert that its teachings are true.  Another aspect of this argument is the fact that the Church is open to truth where it may be found (i.e., it triangulates its findings) in other “conversations” (i.e. other qualitative research projects aka. religions and sciences). Contrary to popular, ignorant, opinion, the Church’s positions are not simply rooted in revelation. Although revelation certainly serves as a starting point in the Church’s quest for truth, the Church always insists that revelation has to be tested in the qualitative laboratory of human experience (and often, in the quanitative lab as well, which is why it invented so many of the hard sciences) and time before it is validated and pronounced upon (that’s why the Church distinguishes between “private” [i.e., untested] revelation and revelation that is doctrine). There is simply no other religion that comes to its truth claims the same way. See Rodney Stark’s book, The Victory of Reason.

Whatever you think of Catholicism’s truth claims, their qualitative methodology is the most rigorous of all world religions, philosophies, or even academic systems of truth gathering. Therefore, the conclusion must be respected and even considered true–or at least as close to truth as we can get in the social sciences– since these truth claims represent the most rigorous , qualitative search for truth undertaken by anybody, any instititution (religious or not), and at any time.

What are the Limits to this Argument?

The first limit of the argument is that it could be taken by people-of-faith to mean that the Holy Spirit has no place in the development of our understanding of the truth. I AM NOT SAYING THIS AT ALL.    Science can’t study the Holy Spirit and how he moves.  Science can only observe the mechanisms of his movement.  That the process the Church uses for discerning what is true closely resembles the methods the social sciences use to assert truth claims should not be surprising, but it doesn’t displace the need for, or presence of the Holy Spirit.

Second, this argument really can’t prove beyond the shadow of a doubt–from a secular point of view–that what the Church says is unquestionable true.  I grant that that requires faith.  BUT this argument can show that the methodology the Church uses to assert truth claims is very similar–in fact, almost identical– to the methodology used by social scientists to assert truth claims in the most prestigious professional journals.  Therefore, the truth claims of the Church ought to be considered with at least as much respect as any other argument made by published, peer-reviewed, social science research.

The Church takes the quest for truth very seriously.  It should come as no surprise that the methods used by the Church to assert truth claims would be rigorous by any researcher’s standards.  The problem is, no one thinks of the Church’s methodology this way.  I hope these reflections do at least a little bit to get people thinking about the way we know anything and how the quest for religious and scientific truths really are not that far apart.


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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit