"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Individualism and interpretation

In the context of ecclesiology, individualism is the notion (whether explicit or implicit) that the individual is his own highest ecclesial authority. The individualist does not submit or subordinate his interpretation to that of any other human on earth.

I have argued here repeatedly that there is no middle position between individualism and a recognition of sacramental magisterial authority. Now, one possible and somewhat common objection to my dilemma between individualism and sacramental magisterial authority is that my dilemma is a false dilemma, because those who submit to the magisterium of the Church are just as much individualists as are those who submit only to their own interpretations. The argumentation goes like this: Even those who submit to ecclesial authority must interpret the teaching of that ecclesial authority, and therefore those who submit to ecclesial authority are no less individualistic than are those who submit ultimately and only to their own interpretation of Scripture.

But that conclusion does not follow. The fact that each individual must interpret any form of communication does not entail that each individual is his own highest interpretive authority. Authority and interpretation are not the same thing. Therefore the fact that a person must interpret communication in order to understand it does not entail that such a person is his own highest authority, or is an individualist. What makes the individualist an individualist is not that he interprets Scripture, but that he treats himself as the highest interpretive authority for himself, as someone not under the interpretive authority of the Church. The person who submits his interpretation to the judgment of the magisterium of the Church must, of course, interpret the words in the magisterium's judgment, but being under the authority of the magisterium means that if necessary, he submits even his interpretation of the magisterium's judgment to the magisterium. He subordinates his interpretation of communication (whether in Scripture or in the teachings and judgments of the magisterium) to that of the magisterium. But the individualist does not subordinate his interpretations to that of the magisterium. So the necessity of interpretation in any communication does not entail that each person has equal interpretive authority or equal ecclesial authority. Nor does it entail that the individual is his own highest ecclesial or interpretive authority. Individualism should not be confused with the necessity of individual interpretation of communication. The latter does not imply or entail the former.

19 comments:

Jeff Cagle said...

Hi Bryan,

I'll try to tease out some of these issues over in our ongoing discussion. I think it's time for us to agree on some pictures. :) But for now, it's important to call attention to a moving target:

What makes the individualist an individualist is not that he interprets Scripture, but that he treats himself as the highest interpretive authority for himself, as someone not under the interpretive authority of the Church.

At this point, you've redefined individualism. Your earlier definition (in our discussion) was that an individualist was someone who I1: is the "final arbiter" in the sense of being the "highest interpretive authority".

Now, you've defined an individualist as I2: anyone who does not place himself "under the interpretive authority of the Church."

And of course, since you believe "The Church" is the RCC church, it therefore follows that anyone who does not submit himself to Rome is an individualist by definition.

This redefinition has two problems:

(1) someone could be I1 but not I2, and

(2) I2 is moving substantially in the direction of the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

After all, why bother making an argument about Protestants being individualists? Just define it and be done. But if that's your definition of individualist, I'm not particularly embarrassed to have that tag. It's just another synonym for non-Catholic.

Perhaps this wasn't your intent, so could you clarify exactly what an "individualist" is? Is it I1 or I2, or neither?

Thanks,
Jeff

Thos said...

Bryan,

This is a tricky area. In both cases of submission (one to the Bible alone, the other to the Church) one declares that a higher judgment (a decision about submission) has convinced one to accept teaching that might otherwise conflict with one's particular judgment (about how one wants to deal with a specific issue in life).

I have a hard time distinguighing them, even after reading your entry. Does it add something to say this: the 'communications' are of two different types (i.e., distinguishable)? The Bible, as a medium of communication, is very much one-way. One cannot enter the Bible and say to it, "please tell me if polygomy is a sin", or "please tell me if I may use a condom when having relations with my wife." The Church, on the other hand is not just a medium of a certain communication, but it is communicative. It is able to answer the questions I mentioned.

It is difficult for me to move back and forth between the terms communication and authority, and between authority and interpretation, but my mind is limited. Thank you for your continuing efforts to spell these matters out.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Principium unitatis said...

Jeff,

Thanks for your question. I haven't redefined 'individualism'. Being one's own "highest interpretive authority" is what it means to be an individualist. What you designated as "I2" is not the definition of 'individualist', but rather an entailment of it. Being one's own "highest interpretive authority" entails that one does not place oneself under the interpretive authority of some other human or group of humans, whether it be the papacy or some other person or group. So I'm not defining 'individualist' as someone not in submission to Rome. I'm explaining that being an individualist entails that one is not in submission to Rome or any other magisterial body.

I hope that answers your question.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Principium unitatis said...

Thos,

I agree with your point about the difference between direct person-to-person communication, and communication in which the speaker is in some way removed and unable to be interrogated.

But the point in my post here is very limited; it is only to show that the necessity (for all people) of interpreting any kind of communication does not entail that everyone is an individualist.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Thos said...

You and Jeff are having a complex discussion. Sorry if I'm slowing you down.

It seems he wants to say that your defintion of individualism necessarily includes the Catholic's act of will (i.e., cognitive decision) in accepting and following various church teachings. I am sympathetic to this in that we all exercise will at times - I, as an individual, have submitted myself to sola scriptura after exercising a higher judgment, such that I will not let particular judgments override that submission. If I became a Catholic, it would be another individual exercise of a higher judgment. We all act as individuals, a point I've seen Protestants argue several times now.

It seems that for you to refute it, your use of individualism would have to be a reference only to the particular judgments we make daily (whether or not we can get a tattoo, how one can be saved) and not the higher judgment we used to become Christian (and become Catholic or Protestant). A Mormon could similarly be non-individualistic as you use the term after the point where he submitted himself to the Church's authority. Same for a Muslim submitted to his Imam - not an individualist under your scheme.

Am I missing anything? I don't mean to make more of your point that you intended to make; sorry if I have.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Jeff Cagle said...

Yes, it does. Thanks!

While we're in a definitional mood, what does "interpretive authority" mean, and how does one rank interpretive authorities in order from highest to lowest?

Jeff

Principium unitatis said...

Thos,

Individualism, as I am using the term, does not include (in its essence) any "act of will", even though individualism may be expressed in various acts of will. Individualism is "the notion that the individual is his own highest ecclesial authority". By 'notion' here I mean not an act of will, but an idea or proposition or set of propositions. So individualism, as I am using the term in this context of ecclesiology, has nothing to do with the fact that we must all exercise our personal judgment in whatever we choose to do. Individualism is a proposition about authority per se, not about cognition per se or judgment per se or choice per se or interpretation per se.

I have no intention of refuting the claim that we all make particular judgments. The reason I have no intention of refuting it is that I believe it is true. :-)

I also agree with you that "a Mormon could similarly be non-individualistic". Bill Reichert makes that point in passing in this article. And I suspect you are probably right about Muslims as well. I know that over the last one-hundred years, Islam has been deeply affected by individualism. Cardinal Ratzinger, (before becoming pope) pointed out a difficulty regarding ecumenical relations with Protestantism. Who speaks for Protestantism? No one. Protestantism is not a single thing, not a single entity; it is 'single' only in what it is *not* -- Catholic. In what it *is*, it is legion. Similarly, who speaks for Islam? Which imams are authoritative? When imams contradict each other, how do we determine which one speaks for Islam? Which interpretation of the Qu'ran is authoritative for Muslims? With the opening up of Islamic countries in this past century Islam has begun to fragment into individualism in the same way that Protestantism has (and is). See,
for example, Charles Kurzman (of UNC) article here. Because of this individualism, people like Bin Ladin are taking to themselves the prerogative to claim to provide the authoritative interpretation of the Qur'an.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Principium unitatis said...

Jeff,

By "interpretive authority" I only mean "authority with respect to interpretation". So "interpretive authority" is simply authority in the domain of interpretation.

As for how to rank them, that would follow the general hierarchical authority of the Church seen clearly in St. Ignatius of Antioch: Deacons are the lowest in authority of those with Holy Orders. Priests have greater authority. And bishops are the highest in authority. An ecumenical council of bishops is even more authoritative than an individual bishop. And among bishops, the successor of Peter has a primacy, because Peter has a primacy among the Apostles.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Thos said...

Bryan,

As always, I appreciate your time.

Individualism is, you say, "the notion that the individual is his own highest ecclesial authority". Individualistm seems contraposed to *submission* (to an ecclesial authority). But the conservative protestant can say that he is fully submitted to the Bible, that your definition of individualism should be "the notion that the individual is his own highest religious (or moral) authority", and that by placing the Bible over the individual's authority, he is not an individualist.

Your point hits home for me by resolving that criticism thusly: 1) the Bible is no authority without interpretation, and 2) the Protestant is submitted to NO ONE in how he interprets the Bible, (though we do give deferrence to the democratic consensus), therefore 3) the Protestant is his own highest religious (or moral) authority.

Am I restating your premise accurately?

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Principium unitatis said...

Thos,

I think that is quite accurate. I might take issue with your claim that Protestants give deference to democratic consensus. Luther is the paradigmatic case here. One man taking on the whole Church. All those in the Protestant tradition have that as their highest exemplar, because Luther is the father of Protestantism. (On "Reformation Sunday" at the end of this month conservative Protestants will most likely hear a sermon extolling Luther.) The difficulty for the claim of deference to democratic consensus is that only those who agree (or mostly agree) with one's own interpretation are counted as having a 'vote'. So the 'vote' is 'rigged'.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Thos said...

Right, I think I only mean by 'deferrence' to group-think that we don't fight things that don't really matter to us (like, oddly, trinitarian formulations), but rather just shrug our shoulders and go with consensus.

Your last comment on the vote being rigged brought to my mind a notion in our criminal justice system - the death qualification for juries. Your peers have to profess a willingness to sentence you to death (if guilty, etc.) before being eligible to sit on your jury. So your 'peers' are only 'some' of your peers.

Likewise, any democratic view on the meaning of communion in my church will only derive from the thoughts of a voting pool limited to those who will not literally apply John 6.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Jeff Cagle said...

I'm sorry, my question was insufficiently clear:

By "interpretive authority" I only mean "authority with respect to interpretation". So "interpretive authority" is simply authority in the domain of interpretation.

Interpretation of what? And is having authority the same or different from "having the power to be right"?

I need a concise definition of 'authority', an understanding of the scope of interpretation that we're talking about, and preferrably a clear picture of how this authority is exercised and submitted to.

I'm not trying to nitpick; it's just that as our discussion has gone on, it has sometimes seemed like the Pope is assumed to have the authority to interpret Scripture; at other times, to interpret the church fathers; at other times, to interpret the events of history.

Sometimes, it has seemed that "authority" has meant that you *should* agree with the Pope; at other times, it has seemed that "authority" means "is right."

So since we've gotten to this point in the conversation with the possibility on the table of severe misunderstanding, I would like to be clear.

As for how to rank them, that would follow the general hierarchical authority of the Church seen clearly in St. Ignatius of Antioch: Deacons are the lowest in authority of those with Holy Orders...

I was asking a different question: how does one rank interpretive authorities in the sense of your claim that "a Protestant is his own highest interpretive authority"? That is, for any individual, how would he know his own relative priority of interpretive authorities? Can they be ranked?

Thanks,
Jeff

Principium unitatis said...

Jeff,

Interpretation of what?

All communication coming from the Church. That would include Scripture and Tradition, all the teachings of councils, popes, etc.

And is having authority the same or different from "having the power to be right"?

Having authority is not the same as having the power to be right. Everyone has the power to be right (a power that we have even when we are wrong). Otherwise, some people would be wrong about everything. But nobody is wrong about *everything*. So therefore everyone has the power to be right.

If by "the power to be right" you mean something like infallibility of some sort, then again, having authority is not the same as being infallible. Leaders who have no charism of infallibility are still rightful authorities. My parish priest is not infallible, but he is still my immediate ecclesial authority.

I need a concise definition of 'authority', an understanding of the scope of interpretation that we're talking about, and preferrably a clear picture of how this authority is exercised and submitted to.

By 'authority' I mean power. The sacramental magisterial authorities in the Church have the power to administer or withhold the sacraments, the power to teach in the name of Christ (as His official representatives and spokesmen), the power to make laws in the Church, the power to make judgments concerning those laws, and the power to punish those who violate those laws.

Sometimes, it has seemed that "authority" has meant that you *should* agree with the Pope; at other times, it has seemed that "authority" means "is right."

The reason for this confusion is that the Pope has authority and a particular (though limited) charism protecting him from error when promulgating ex cathedra a teaching on faith or morals to be believed by the whole Church. But his authority is not identical to that charism.

how does one rank interpretive authorities in the sense of your claim that "a Protestant is his own highest interpretive authority"? That is, for any individual, how would he know his own relative priority of interpretive authorities? Can they be ranked?

I am not sure I understand your question. Wherever each individual is his own "highest interpretive authority", there is no hierarchy of human authorities. Individualism 'flattens out' the hierarchy.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Cagle said...

Well, I'm not sure I understand what "highest interpretive authority" means.

Perhaps it's my inner mathematician, but when I read that phrase I immediately think of authorities as a well-ordered set, with one of them ("myself") being the highest.

And of course, a well-ordered set requires an ordering relation:

A > B

So on what metric do authorities get ranked so that one is higher than another?

I mean, in my life, the WCoF functions as an authority. My pastor functions as an authority. The Scripture functions as an authority. How am I to compare the "highness" of these authorities so as to understand and evaluate the claim that I am my own "highest" authority? I need to understand how you are comparing authorities.

By 'authority' I mean power.

So an 'interpretive authority' is one who has the power to interpret? But everyone has the ability to interpret. So what kind of interpretive power do you have in mind? Put another way, what makes an "interpretive authority" different from any old person who exercises his interpretive ability in the course of reading or listening?

I'm sorry for the persistent questions ... but I think nailing down definitions might help us get to some clarity.

Thanks,
Jeff

Principium unitatis said...

Jeff,

By 'highest' here I mean not "highest alone" but rather "without any higher". There can be only one that is "highest alone", but there can be multiple equals that are "without any higher".

I understand that the WCoF and Scripture function as authorities in many peoples' lives. The Scripture functions as an authority in my life as well. If you wish to know how those three authorities rank for you, you would have to determine which takes precedence, and rank them according to the authority you believe they have. But the relevant question is this: Whose interpretation is authoritative?

If the answer is "No one's", that's pure individualism. Each individual is then his own highest authority regarding which texts are authoritative and what those texts mean. But if the answer is "the magisterium of the Church", then that leads us into a deeper question regarding what it is that makes the persons identified as the magisterium to be identified as the magisterium. If the definitive identification of "the magisterium of the Church" is their agreement with my interpretation of Scripture, then I am still my own highest interpretive authority. Such a person simply finds the denomination or congregation that believes what he believes. And if he comes to disagree with them, he moves down the street to another congregation that agrees with what he has now come to believe. The fact that he is in a congregation with a pastor masks the fact that he is his own highest interpretive authority. That fact is manifested, however, when we examine how he enters and leaves the congregation. He enters this particular congregation by figuring out that it mostly closely shares his interpretation. He leaves the congregation by figuring out that they do not sufficiently share his interpretation. So even if the person answers the "Whose interpretation is authoritative?" question by saying, "the magisterium of the Church", if the definitive identification of "the magisterium of the Church" is the agreement [of these persons treated as the magisterium] with the individual's interpretation of Scripture, that's still individualism. We can call it masked individualism, because it is hidden under the appearance of a hierarchical ecclesiology. The third and only remaining option, so far as I can tell, is sacramental magisterial authority. It is the only other option besides either "pure individualism" or "masked individualism".

So an 'interpretive authority' is one who has the power to interpret? But everyone has the ability to interpret. So what kind of interpretive power do you have in mind? Put another way, what makes an "interpretive authority" different from any old person who exercises his interpretive ability in the course of reading or listening?

Interpretive authority is not the power to interpret, but rather is the power to provide the authoritative (i.e. binding) interpretation to which others should submit.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Cagle said...

By 'highest' here I mean not "highest alone" but rather "without any higher". There can be only one that is "highest alone", but there can be multiple equals that are "without any higher".

Yes, I would agree with this. That's the usual mathematical sense of the word "highest" or "maximum" also. The ranking problem is one that we will need to resolve carefully. It's entirely possible to have sets that are not ordered; likewise, it may be that it turns out that interpretive authorities are "lesser" or "greater" wrt different texts that are being interpreted.

Interpretive authority is not the power to interpret, but rather is the power to provide the authoritative (i.e. binding) interpretation to which others should submit.

Is this the working definition, then?

If the answer is "No one's", that's pure individualism. Each individual is then his own highest authority regarding which texts are authoritative and what those texts mean.

This is the argument that is going to require further examination. Obviously, at face value, "No one's" and "Mine" are contradictory claims. Both cannot be true in the same sense at the same time. So I think part of clarifying your position will have to include an clear picture of a situation in which "No one's" is not only in harmony with "Mine", but also an account of how "No one's" logically entails "Mine."

I know that you've argued this in several places; at this point, I have to be persuaded that your argument for entailment does not simply collapse to the Interpretive Problem. For if it does, then a necessary result of your account is (as I've indicated) that we're all "crypto-individualists." This would make your third option (SMA) a non-option.

I think at this point, assuming our definitions are clear, I'll move back over to the other discussion.

Thanks,
Jeff

Principium unitatis said...

Jeff,

Is this the working definition, then?

It is a working description at least.

Obviously, at face value, "No one's" and "Mine" are contradictory claims. Both cannot be true in the same sense at the same time. So I think part of clarifying your position will have to include an clear picture of a situation in which "No one's" is not only in harmony with "Mine", but also an account of how "No one's" logically entails "Mine."

Right. "No one's" and "mine" are functionally equivalent, though semantically distinct. A situation in which every individual has equal authority is equivalent to a situation in which no one has authority. That is because in both situations, for every person, there is no person with higher interpretive authority.

I have to be persuaded that your argument for entailment does not simply collapse to the Interpretive Problem.

I'd be glad to be shown how my argument collapses to the "Interpretive Problem".

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Cagle said...

We wrote:

Interpretive authority is not the power to interpret, but rather is the power to provide the authoritative (i.e. binding) interpretation to which others should submit.

Is this the working definition, then?

It is a working description at least.


Can I assume it to be your definition? If we are going to be discussing "interpretive authority", I need to know what you mean by the word. :)

Jeff

Principium unitatis said...

Jeff,

You may assume it to be the working definition.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan