Sentences, Propositions, and Developments (Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church Episode 2)

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“Yes, indeed, our feeble human words fail to convey the almighty Word of God. But, given how we Christians believe that God created us with a similarity, or likeness, to Him, we can use our feeble human words to analogously speak about God, relative to our experiences.”

By Will Deatherage, Executive Director


“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, proposers and posers welcome to another episode of Clarifying Catholicism! You’re watching part two of a series on the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Most of this information is from Francis Sullivan’s Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church. So, if you’d like an in-depth dive into these topics, make sure to pick up a copy of his book. To see the rest of the videos in this series, click the playlist in the description. Without further ado, onto the show!”

Last episode, we talked about the indefectibility, or the lack of corruptibility, of the Church. Specifically, we studied how Christ promised that He would always be with His Church, even if only a handful of His people remained. We then talked about the importance of the Church’s indefectibility in Apostolicity, since the Apostles passed down their teachings to the next generation of bishops, who cited their Apostolicity as a justification for their authority. We ended with an important question, though. How can the Apostles and their successors claim to say anything about God if He and His truth are infinitely beyond our comprehension?

Yes, indeed, our feeble human words fail to convey the almighty Word of God. But, given how we Christians believe that God created us with a similarity, or likeness, to Him, we can use our feeble human words to analogously speak about God, relative to our experiences. Think of it like this. If I say to my girlfriend that my love for her is greater than the size of the sun, I am analogizing the size of the sun, a perceivable object we all experience, to my love, which is an intangible thing. Likewise, God, being infinitely beyond our comprehension, can only be spoken of with reference to the concepts we do know. Saying “God is great” can only be analogous, though, because my human experience of “greatness” does not even come close to the greatness of God.

Now, let’s talk about an important distinction. There is a difference between a proposition and a sentence. A proposition is an attempt to assert an idea, more or less. A sentence is composed of the words used to convey a proposition. Basically, a proposition is what is meant, whereas a sentence is how it is said. So, sentences aren’t true or false; only the proposition a sentence is trying to convey is true or false.

Let’s look at an example. Think of your typical comedic mistranslation. At the end of a long, successful first date, an English man turns to his Hispanic date and means to say, or propose, “I am tired” in Spanish, which is “Estoy cansado.” However, instead, he accidentally says the sentence “Soy Casado,” which actually translates to “I am married,” to which she promptly slaps him in the face and leaves. So, whereas the man’s proposition is “I am tired,” his sentence is “I am married.” What he proposes is true, but his sentence is woefully inadequate.

Furthermore, as Sullivan observes, all propositions are dependent on their cultural contexts. Let’s return to my love for my girlfriend being larger than the sun. That proposition relies on my assumption, as a modern Western dude, that the sun is quite large. But what if I lived in a culture that believed the sun was very small? My proposition would still be true, since my meaning is that I love my girlfriend a whole lot!

Let’s look at another example. If I lived on an island inhabited only by chipmunks and someone asked me how powerful God is, I could say that God is more powerful than a chipmunk. To those who grew up with an awareness of lions, tigers, and bears, saying “God is more powerful than a chipmunk” sounds kinda pathetic, but it’s still true, since my only frame of reference is a chipmunk.

Furthermore, remember that language changes over time. Saying “Jason is gay” two hundred years ago means something vastly different than it does today. The truth is always in what the person is trying to express, not the expression itself. Basically, long story short, it is important to look beyond the culturally conditioned verbiage we use to talk about things, especially God, and instead try to understand what the speaker or writer is trying to say.

Okay, but what makes a proposition true? We already covered how it doesn’t need to be perfectly expressed. We don’t have time to get into precisely what the nature of truth is; that’s the subject for a future series I’m planning on Bernard Lonergan. But in short, the Church believes that given how God communicated to His people through His prophets and Son, it has something to do with an alignment between His laws and a corresponding human understanding of them. But just because a proposition is true doesn’t mean it exhausts everything about the topic, especially one as incomprehensible as God. Think of it like seeing the red side of a rubix cube and saying “this cube is red!” only to be shown the blue side moments later. Just because you now see the blue side doesn’t make the previous statement false.

The idea goes something like this: Christ would not have assured His Church of His continued presence among Her members if the Holy Spirit was going to lead Her leaders, the Apostles into error. So, when the Church proposes something, it must be true. Otherwise, Christ’s promise that He would always be with us, as well as His delegation of authority to bind and loosen to the Apostles would be false. We will get to precisely how the Church proposes things later, since by now you’re probably coming up with a list of tons of ideas the Church has changed Her mind on.

But, if you get anything out of this portion of the video, it is that when the Church teaches something, it is crucial we not obsess over its literal words; we must instead decode what those bishops were trying to say.

So far, we’ve kept things pretty biblical. The Bible chronicles how Jesus promised His permanent presence in His Church, the Bible tells us that He gave the authority to bind and loose to His Apostles, and the Bible informs us that the Apostles designated successors in a formal ritual to ensure the authentic preservation of Christ’s already existing teachings. This is a crucial fact that will come up again and again. The Catholic Church, though it has been accused of doing otherwise, does not invent teachings; it merely restates, clarifies, and applies teachings that are clearly connected to revelation, which is chronicled in the Bible.

But what about the Immaculate Conception and Assumption? They weren’t mentioned in the Bible. That is correct. However, as with any field of study, reflection on the subject matter yields a greater understanding of the topic. As a scientist encounters new historical situations and learns from other disciplines, reflects on, applies, and effectively builds on, or develops, his or her already existing principles. This is what we mean when we say the Church develops its doctrine.

Let’s take the field of mathematics as an example. All of mathematics is based on very basic algebra. One plus one equals two, two plus two equals four, and one plus one plus one equals one if you’re talking about the Holy Trinity, of course! From algebra, the Greeks derived the rules of geometry, such as the Pythagorean theorem. Millennia later, Isaac Newton took these already existing laws of mathematics and derived the basic rules of calculus. It is remarkable how thousands of years after the derivation of geometry, new methods of mathematics were still being derived. And today, you don’t hear people accusing Mr. Newton of being a mathematical rule breaker or innovator just because his rules came millennia after the dawn of algebra and geometry. And while I can’t spend time today discussing the relationship between revealed scripture and the Immaculate Conception or Assumption, which are admittedly complex topics, the Church does justify its beliefs in these two doctrines via revelation. Ok. Let’s review. The Church is indefectible as a community of believers, led by the successors of the Apostles, who teach in the name of Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit. But who among the bishops exactly decides what the Church believes? Can it be just any ol’ bishop or Father Dave from down the street? Can it be Mark Wahlberg? Next episode we will start talking about what Sullivan has to say about the Magisterium. Until then, have a great day and God bless You.

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