Because I Said So
“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” – Socrates, The Euthyphro
The weakness of the argument from authority
Few of us grow up without several confrontations with our parents during which we demand to know why we should or should not do a particular thing. And few of us will have escaped hearing the frustrating reply, “Because I said so.”
Now, whether our questioning of our parents was done respectfully or rebelliously, the authoritarian response was likely received with resentment, for what we wanted was reason and what we were given was a decree. No one likes to be silenced by threats of punishment, and although we may comply under such threats, our sense of injustice rankles. We also begin to suspect that reason is not on the side of authority. Obedience may be given under duress, but confidence in the rightness of the compelled action is undermined.
We have the intuitive certainty that truth does not require raw power to make its case. This does not mean that power is unnecessary in a world of wayward human beings, but that the reason for a course of action should be plain and defensible, not imposed without explanation. The “Because I said so” argument may be suitable for small children deemed incapable of full understanding, although this is open to dispute, for even the smallest child should be given an explanation equal to his capacity; but it is never appropriate for mature human beings.
In St. John’s Gospel, we have Our Lord’s words in the Last Supper discourse: “I will not now call you servants: for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends: because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father, I have made known to you.” (John, 15:15) Jesus does not command His disciples as servants, incapable of understanding, but as friends to whom He has opened His mind and heart.
When we love someone, we want to share our thinking with them. Blind obedience is never a good thing, for God gave us reason and expects us to use it. And if our reasoning is sound, we have confidence in its ability to convince, for we all share the same nature and have available to us the same concepts. All honest men are capable of finding common ground when they talk to one another with good will. This is not to say that all disagreements are attributable to the perverse attitude of one of the disputants, but rather that truth is accessible when the road that leads to it is followed faithfully and without ego. If such were not the case, then communication would have no purpose other than to divide us and further the war of all against all. But we should always speak with patience and without vanity.
There is among our current Church leaders and politicians a terrible lack of patience and a good deal of vanity. Positions are taken up and defended, not with forbearance, but with a desire to defame all who might dissent. All argument is becoming the argument ad hominem, in which an attack upon the integrity and competence of one who disagrees takes the place of reasoned discourse. Calumny has replaced logic, and the argument that prevails is that which resonates the loudest in the echo chamber of the mass media. Reputations and careers can be destroyed almost instantaneously.
The “Because I said so” argument is often used by parents who regard questioning of a command as the rejection of lawful obedience. And they may in many cases be right in their assessment. But relationships that become nothing more than a contest of raw power cannot endure, for they are not relationships in the true sense. They are not based on love, but on self-assertion. At the root of such contests is the demonic “Non serviam.” To put it in the vernacular, the “my way or the highway” approach always leads to the highway eventually.
Among the many alarming aspects of the present papacy is its growing resort to the “Because I said so” argument. Pope Francis ignored the “dubia” (doubts about orthodoxy) that four cardinals submitted about his perceived permission for divorced and “remarried” Catholics to receive Holy Communion while living in adultery. The Pope’s refusal to respond was an affront to the cardinals and an evasion of the issues they raised. But the questioning of Amoris Laetitia continued.
So, the Pope sent a letter to the Argentine bishops in September 2016 to commend them for their guideline, based on Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, that allowed priests to give Communion to adulterous couples who, after “discernment,” thought themselves fit to receive it. The Pope said there was “no other interpretation” of the encyclical. But he went further in 2017 and had the guidelines and his response to it included in the “Acts of the Apostolic See,” declaring them now part of the official magisterium – the teaching authority of the Church that binds all Catholics.
Since then, the Pope has declared other things part of the magisterium. Around the time he included the admission of adulterers to Holy Communion, he declared in a talk that the liturgical changes following Vatican II – the New Mass in the vernacular – were also part of the ordinary magisterium and, therefore, “irreversible.”
In 2018, the ever-expanding magisterium was said by the Pope to include the authority of the synods of bishops, which he has used to introduce his more heterodox opinions. He established the synod as a permanent structure in an apostolic constitution. The Pope, of course, decides which bishops are invited to a synod and gives final approval to its documents. So, when the Pope wants to quash debate on any of his unorthodox teachings, he need only summon a synod of selected bishops and stamp the document produced by it. Voila! Instant magisterial teaching pulled by the Pope out of the magical synodal hat, or miter.
The Pope has also changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church to conform to his opinion that capital punishment is now immoral and condemned by Church teaching, which previously allowed it. Is this, too, magisterial? If not, what authority does an official catechism possess? On what is it based? How can it change in so fundamental a matter?
As the Francis papacy continues, the use of raw power to suppress all questioning of the Pope’s authority to change or contradict immemorial doctrine appears to be accelerating. We cannot predict, at this point, what magisterial teaching may be upended in the name of a new magisterial teaching. In a way, the path for this introduction of contradictions and novelties was laid by John Paul II, who sought to discredit Archbishop Lefevre in 1988 by saying that he and the Society of St. Pius X, in their zeal to be faithful to Tradition, failed to recognize the “living magisterium.”
Many then wondered how the “living magisterium” differed from the constant magisterium. No clarification was forthcoming and we had instead a foreshadowing of the “Because I said so” school of theology that has come into its own under Pope Francis.
The Pope is using the “living” magisterium to impose his opinions and desires and to end all dissent concerning them. But he is also cutting the ground from beneath himself, for if one magisterial teaching can oppose another magisterial teaching, what authority can any teaching claim, other than a purely provisional one? It would seem that magisterial teachings will now require a time stamp, so that we know which is the latest and, therefore, part of the “living magisterium” as opposed to the “dead” magisterium that has now been superseded. And personal authority, masquerading as papal authority, will become the warrant of truth, replacing Scripture and Tradition.
Socrates wondered whether piety had an intrinsic character or whether it was doing what the gods commanded. In other words, he asked whether truth is what authority declares it to be or whether it exists independently of any authority. He pressed the matter to the point of questioning the need for the gods if piety existed in its own right and was not dependent upon them. Can we be good without the gods (or God)?
The answer is that God is goodness. And God never changes. So, goodness has an eternal character which is impressed upon us. Christ is the light that enlightens every man coming into the world. It is the office of His Vicar on Earth to help it shine more clearly in human hearts and, thus, in the world. To pretend that darkness is light, if only we apply the necessary “discernment,” can only eclipse Christ in our hearts.
The Pope appears to think it desirable for charity, as he conceives it, to replace clarity; for everyone to be welcome in the Church even if they deliberately refuse to follow Our Lord’s teaching. For this to happen, that teaching must be changed or obscured. And so, the Pope is leading us from the daylight of doctrine into a moral twilight, where the shape of goodness is less easily discerned and all things might be considered good, so long as they remain indefinite. To this end, he is using traditional authority to destroy traditional teaching.
By including heterodox documents in the Acts of the Apostolic See or by declaring something, such as the New Mass, to be “irreversible magisterium,” the Pope cannot resolve the contradictions and moral dangers they represent; nor will he, by an exercise of raw power, end the disputes they engender. He can only foment confusion and undermine the very authority on which the Pope relies to shield himself from question or criticism.