Moral Reasoning & the Catholic Church
ON APPEALS TO AUTHORITY
In his recent book The Critical Calling: Moral Dilemmas Since Vatican II, Richard McCormick, S.J., writes: “Authoritative assertions can never replace moral arguments. That is why moral positions asserted authoritatively against a prevailing consensus of moral analysis become simply incredible…. When ‘loyalty to the Holy See’ becomes the test of the legitimacy of a moral argument, then things are upside down.” Thomas Shannon and Lisa Sowle Cahill, in their Religion and Artificial Reproduction, proclaim, “Statements about what marriage and parenthood require [in the Vatican’s instruction Donum Vitae] do not constitute arguments.” Writing in America, Fr. Thomas Kopfensteiner applauds this apercu of Shannon and Cahill’s, adding that “the persuasiveness of the arguments advanced” in the instruction does “not depend solely on the authority of the one who proposes them, but on the reasons used to support them.”
Of course, what Shannon and Cahill say is correct if it means only that no mere statement that marriage or parenthood requires something can by itself constitute an argument that it does. Nor should any contend, against Kopfensteiner, that the persuasiveness of an argument can depend (let alone depend “solely”) on the authority of “the one who proposes” it, even if that “one” is the Holy See’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The trivial truisms of these latter statements are not unusual these days, however, and I am concerned lest they be thought to support McCormick’s depreciation of the place of authority in moral reasoning. What I say here is focused on the teaching authority Catholics believe is entrusted to the Church. I wish to show that in the most important ways appeals to authority can “replace” arguments, and that the moral statements affirmed by the Church’s teaching office can have a reasonable claim on our assent, regardless of whether the arguments she offers in their support are persuasive.
Although an authoritative assertion is not an argument, appealing to such an assertion can do the same work as offering an argument — i.e., can provide a reason for belief. Indeed, citing authorities who attest to the truth of a position is a way of arguing for it. Thus, the contrast, which our authors assume, between arguments (or reasons) and authority simply falls apart. A few decades ago, when many logicians were still under positivism’s spell, it was common for textbooks of informal logic indiscriminately to classify arguments from authority as fallacious. However, even the logicians eventually realized that nobody today could hope to hold educated opinions about a wide range of matters without relying heavily on better informed sources, and so the textbooks changed accordingly.
The root idea behind an appeal to authority is accepting something because of who says it — i.e., because of its authorship. There are two main types. When a person has directive authority he or she has authority over another, can give orders which the latter may be bound to obey. When a person has assertoric authority he or she speaks authoritatively in some sphere in which he or she may offer instruction and guidance that others may have reason to follow.
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