Is Catholicism Rational?: Reflections on the Catholic-Protestant Divide

Suppose someone, like me, a life-long Christian, after considering the arguments for and against Catholicism, decides that the case for Catholicism makes more sense to me than does the case for Protestantism, even though I believe that one can become and/or remain a Protestant without being unreasonable in doing so.

I raise this query because there are some–on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide–who think that if you don’t see the obvious truth of either position (depending on which side is arguing) you either (1) suffer from an epistemic defect in your cognitive equipment, (2) fail to appropriate to your noetic structure, either as a consequence of oversight, ignorance, or stubbornness, that one essential argument, book, or article written by this or that fabulously gifted apologist, or (3) have a sub-rational motive or cause for maintaining, or converting to, your current ecclesial home.

It seems to me that if one approaches the Catholic-Protestant question with one or more of these assumptions about the other side it requires that one must accept a clearly false belief, namely, that everyone approaches the question with the exact same evidential set or plausibility structure. What is that? In short, an evidential set (or plausibility structure) consists of sources of authority, background beliefs and reasons that one brings to the discussion and for which one has no reason to believe are unreasonable or not worthy of acceptance. So, for example, suppose I am reading the Book of Romans and I come across those passages that are often cited by Protestants as clear evidence of a Reformed view of soteriology. But instead of accepting the Reformed view, I actually do not find it compelling, since, in my plausibility structure, those passages not only do not have epistemological priority in my reading of Scripture (since I don’t think there are any good hermeneutical reasons for me to embrace that priority, though I understand why some people would do so) but in fact must be able to cohere with a host of other passages that if read in a certain way may serve as defeaters to the Reformed view–e.g., passages from Jesus’ teachings, the non-Pauline corpus, as well as other portions of Paul’s writings, the latter of which seem to cohere well with the Reformed account but in a way that some of us find too ad hoc and strained.

So, it seems to me that although I may find the Reformed view unconvincing I do not find it to be irrational, since I can see why some of my very smart friends accept it or some version of it. Thus, in order to convince a Catholic to abandon Catholicism, one must not just show that the Reformed view has explanatory power (I, and some other Catholics, don’t deny that!) or even that its explanatory power is better than the Catholic view’s explanatory power (since one’s embracing of Catholicism may include a variety of other considerations such as ecclesiology, liturgy, historical continuity, etc. that give Catholicism a clear edge in toto). Rather, it seems to me that one must show that the explanatory power is so much better than the Catholic account that to deny the Reformed view, after being fully informed of it, one would be irrational if one remained Catholic (in much the same way as one would be irrational for believing that the Earth is flat or that George Washington was not the first President of the United States after being fully informed of all the facts by reputable authorities that one has no reason to doubt).

My point is that what is often missing in these discussions is how our evidential sets or plausibility structures function in our interpretation and selection of evidence. For this reason, I have always thought it odd that Evangelical Protestants have greater tolerance for Young Earth Creationists (YECs) than for “Evangelical Catholics,” since it seems to me that the hermeneutical arguments to support the latter’s soteriology are much more plausible than the scientific arguments for believing the former. Then again, I am Catholic, after all. So, what would you expect?

  • michelangelo3


    For years I’ve been saying what is materially the same thing you’ve said above. There’s a negative and a positive side to it.

    The negative side looks something like this. The Reformed guys I’ve debated seem to assume that if you reject what I call their “hermeneutical paradigm,” there must be something wrong with you. It boils down to saying you’re either a fool, a knave, or both. Such an attitude is not limited to the Reformed by any means; I’ve encountered atheists and even Catholic trads with essentially the same attitude toward those who disagree with them. It’s a perennial temptation for those with strong convictions about religious or political matters. Many succumb to it.

    But the positive side is that such an attitude can and ought to be resisted. At a certain level of discussion, the most reasonable as well as the most charitable attitude is to allow that, although you have plausible reasons to believe your opponents wrong, you don’t have to see them as positively irrational for disagreeing with you. Intelligent people can actually disagree about religious or political matters without one side’s thereby convicting itself of foolishness or knavery. Of course there are fools and knaves aplenty out there, but one needn’t count any given opponent as one of them, unless they descend quickly into bitterness and name-calling.

    All that might seem to be just common sense, and it is. But as we know, common sense is not as common as it should be. For instance, I’ve had actually had Reformed apologists accuse me of not being Christian because I don’t believe that Nicene Christology can be logically demonstrated from Scripture alone. I’ve had atheists accuse me of tabloid-level credulity because I believe that miracles actually happen. I’ve had Catholic trads accuse me of outright intellectual dishonesty because I believe Vatican II’s ecclesiology to be a consistent development of traditional, irreformable doctrine. And so on.

    It gets old. But I think we should approach this sort of thing in the spirit of NATO’s approach to the Taliban. The Talibs’ worst enemy is not our soldiers, but themselves. By relying on drug money, using civilians as shields in battle, and seeking to establish governance by acts of terrorism against local officials, they make themselves pretty unpopular with most of the Afghan population. We gain just by default. I think something similar should happen in our religious and political debates with the fool-and-knave crowd. Their attitude alone should suffice to make us more popular than they.


  • catholicquestioning

    Yes, Catholicism is rational. Too often opponents of the Church do not see or admit the rationality of the Faith. One may not believe the Church to true, but to say that to believe it is, is not rational, is irrational.

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  • 520484491

    I remember – when I was a Protestant – trying to get help with a number of issues, including the canon idea, and, once when I was extremely low, the existence of God. My pastor told me there were no intellectual problems with (Calvinist) Christianity, only moral problems. I must be trying to cover up some secret sin. Regarding the (Protestant) canon, it had simply to be presupposed (we were good Van Tillians :-)).

    In becoming a Catholic, I was greatly helped by, amongst other books, Newman’s “Grammar of Assent.” Rationality – rather, rationcination – has something to do with faith – but not nearly so much as one might suppose.


  • 520484491

    that should be ‘ratiocination’ :-)


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  • joseph

    as a former, or lapsed Catholic, the faith journey for any believer is just that; based on faith, not rational thought. although faith is not dependent on checking one’s mind at the door, the prompting of the Holy Spirit is one of the mysteries of this pursuit of God no matter what the faith expression one chooses. this Catholic vs. Protestant posturing very tiresome for one brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition, recruited for the priesthood, and called out of the Roman Catholic worship tradition one Sunday during Mass. yes, it was God Himself that called me out of the religious tradition i was raised in with this simple Holy Spirit nudge, “You will not relate to Me through this worship expression from this time forward.” and no, this does not mean anything grander than the individual revelation it was intended to be. but if God can choose to call one out of the Roman Catholic faith tradition, & by simple logic, call others into it, then it is not the one true faith expression no matter who claims it is. now don’t get all defensive about the tone of this post. if you discern properly you will see it is not based on argumentation or theological/traditional prominence, but God’s election. it is His prerogrative to guide, direct, place/plant or transplant into whatever faith expression He deems proper for the believer, however it is understood by others not of that flock. there is One Head, One Lord, one faith, one baptism & no faith tradition, denomination, liturgical form, claim of apostolic continuity, etc. can make it soley theirs by rational argumentation. God bless the apologists, but they do not define my relationship with God. and really, their attempt to pigeon-hole or categorize my understanding or perspective based on my personal experiences is simply empty posturing. i know Him whom i place my trust & He will finish the work He began 36 years ago…

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  • julianx187

    If one analyzes religion purely on intellectual terms, searching for truth, and with all the information available, with logic and reason, you have to end up at Catholicism.

    To be an intellectually satisfied protestant as opposed to a catholic, I think it is possible if one reads only the bible from a protestant interpretation. But if one questions Christianity historically and philosophically, as well as study ecclesiology, I don’t think you can be intellectually honest and still remain protestant.

    The protestant intellectuals and pastors etc, I think take either a relativistic view (where denomination does not matter), or don’t look beyond the Bible and analyze Christianity as a whole, including its early stages and development.

    Many catholics leave Catholicism for Evangelical churches, but I am sure very few of them are deeply knowledgeable about the faith. The evangelicals becoming Catholic however, tend to be very educated and knowledgeable regarding church matters. Evangelicals have a sort of emotional and practical appeal as well as simplicity which is easier to defend, but intellectually the Church has the upper hand by far. Problem is, the masses are not intellectuals, but go by feelings and whatever is appealing at the time. Only truth matters, the fullness of faith is in Catholicism. You give up so much by becoming Evangelical, but few realize it. All heresies are simplifications.
    That being said, better a fervent evangelical then a lukewarm Catholic.

  • micky

    Is Half of The Story Sufficient For Salvation?

    How many sides are there to a story? If you say two, then you are wrong. If you had one side and I had one side that would make two sides. However, there is a third side, the side of truth.

    Rule # 1… One half of truth does not a truth make. Neither does one half of a story make the full story. No intelligent person can hear one side of a story and decide which side has the truth.

    Both sides have to be heard, then analysed, and then a decision has to be made as to which side (if either) has a valid story, and after that, the right side(s), or truth side, can be determined.

    This thinking holds true for discerning what Holy Scripture tells us.

    Throughout the Bible there are double standards, yet the fundamentalist thinking shows only one standard, or one side of the story, or only one half of the truth.

    Their thinking is in violation of rule # 1. With only one half of truth, you do not have truth. Anything less than the whole truth is error.

    In the following example, side ‘A’ is the first side, side ‘B’ is the second, and side ‘C’ is the right, or truth side.

    Example … Sola Scriptura…? Only the Bible. Fundamentalist thinking is that the Bible is sufficient and nothing else is needed for salvation.

    First of all, in order to believe in the ‘Bible Only’ philosophy, you have to show that Scripture says it. Is that not true? The doctrine of ‘Sola Scriptura’ is not to be found in Scripture.

    A. Tradition is condemned in many places in Scripture, such as Job 22:15, Matthew 15:6, Mark 7:3-13, Galatians 1:14, Colossians 2:8, 1Timothy 1:4, Titus 1:14, and 1Peter 1:18. Look at these verses and grasp their meaning.

    They all address ‘vain’ human traditions and are rightly condemned. This is one half of the truth.

    B. Tradition is supported in more places in Scripture than it is condemned. Study Isaiah 59:21, Luke 1:2, 2:19,51, Luke 10:16, 2Thessalonians 2:14-15 – “Stand firm and hold the traditions you have learned..”, 2Timothy 1:13,2:2, 1Peter 1:25, 1Jn 1:1,2:24, 2Jn 1:12, Revelation 12:17,19:10.

    These are different traditions than mentioned in ‘A’. These are the Traditions of GOD, or ‘Apostolic’ Tradition.’ Again, this is only half of the truth.

    C. The truth is, yes, we do condemn the vain tradition of men, as shown in ‘A’, and we must keep the Tradition of GOD, as shown in ‘B’.

    Thus we have half the truth in ‘A’, and the other half in ‘B’, and combined we have the full truth.

    The false doctrine of Sola Scriptura adds A and B together and puts the total in A, rejecting all of tradition. A+B=C.

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