Are Non-Catholics Blind?

Alvin Plantinga has argued that Christian beliefs such as the existence of God, incarnation, etc. can be warranted in a properly basic way. Those who do not believe in the existence of God have some kind of impairment in their cognitive faculties which is a result of original sin. In other words, there is something wrong with those who do not believe in God; they are blind. Can we apply them to the Catholic Church and other religions? Suppose that the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ. The Church proposes:

(P) Mary was assumed into heaven.

Yet, we know that (P) does not have a lot of support from the Scriptures. The first fathers did not believe in (P) either. The Church, however, still proposes (P). If non-Catholics reject (P) because they believe there is lack of evidence, what are we to say about them? One way is recognize that there is something wrong with them. They are blind. It’s a result of original sin.

Does it have to be this way? This is analogous to a husband who simply knows that his wife is angry. The husband tells his neighbor, “Oh no, my wife is angry.” The neighbor thinks he is nuts, “How do you know?” The husband says, “I just know.” Surely the husband isn’t unreasonable to say that. He has been living with her for many years and can tell from her looks when she is angry. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to attribute knowledge to him in this case either. The reason why the neighbor does not know what the husband knows is because he does not have the relationship with her the way the husband does. It could be that if he did, he would believe the same thing. What the husband possesses is incommunicable evidence.

If a person was engaged in the Church, she would accept (P). Because non-Catholics do not possess the life of the Church, the prayer, liturgical, traditions, etc. of the Church, she cannot see the truth of (P).

This seems insufficient. Take (Q):

(Q) If person S was in the Catholic Church, S would recognize the truth of (P).

(Q) seems unlikely because there may be persons in the Church that do not recognize (P). What, then, is the problem? Are those who cannot see (P) blind? Maybe. There may be some blindness in them. However, there is another way to understand why people do not recognize (P).

Peter van Inwagen, in debating David Lewis on the topic of free will, asked himself why Lewis does not accept his libertarian position. Lewis is as intelligent as him and they have shared each other’s arguments and evidences for each position. In other words, he is an epistemic peer. Inwagen concludes,

But how can I take these positions? I don’t know. That is itself a philosophical question, and I have no firm opinion about its correct answer. I suppose my best guess is that I enjoy some sort of philosophical insight…that, for all his merits, is somehow denied to Lewis. And this would have to be an insight that is incommunicable-at least I don’t know how to communicate it-for I have done all I can to communicate it to Lewis, and he has understood perfectly everything I have said, and he has not come to share my conclusions.” (“It is Wrong, Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone, to Believe Anything upon Insufficient Evidence”)

The notion of incommunicable evidence is very likely, at least I think so. But what does it mean to possess incommunicable evidence? The notion of incommunicable evidence, it seems to me, is a judgment about the character trait of a person; he is unable to produce an argument or explain his belief so that his epistemic peer can understand and be convinced. In other words, for a person to have incommunicable evidence is to lack virtue or competence. It means in a certain occasion, the person lacks the disposition that would ensure the success of a performance issued by it. In this case, it would be the disposition to articulate.

Ernie Sosa, in his recent book A Virtue Epistemology, argues that knowledge is true apt belief. In explaining what an apt belief is, he gives the analogy of an archer. The archer aims at a target and shoots. We can see whether the shot is accurate, that is, it hits the bull’s-eye and/or see whether the shot is apt, that is, the success of the shot is “sufficiently attributable to the performer’s competence” as opposed to, say, being attributable to the wind or other conditions that would have moved the arrow to the target. Aptness requires the manifestation of a competence. So Sally can form the belief that there is a red chair in front of her and we can attribute aptness to her if her perceptual faculties are disposed in that environment to seeing what is in front of her. We can attribute knowledge to her because her belief was formed virtuously, competently, that is, by a truth-conducive faculty in that environment.

When it comes to being able to articulate, however, that is, explaining a proposition in such a way that it will produce the outcome of acceptance from the epistemic peer, we must broaden our analysis of competence a bit. An analogy will help here. A quarterback throws the football and the wide receiver catches the ball. We do not simply attribute competence to the quarterback but also the receiver. What skills or abilities did the quarterback have? What skills or abilities did the receiver have? A competent quarterback can throw a good long pass yet the wide receiver misses the ball because of his lack of competence (i.e. he is too slow). We will probably attribute incompetence to the wide receiver. Yet, it cannot be denied that the intention of the quarterback failed. What is required is the understanding of the incompetence of the wide receiver in such a way that he can throw the ball perfectly to him. This requires a strengthening of a certain competence of his as well. If a quarterback passes the ball too fast, the receiver may not catch it. The quarterback needs to pass the ball in a certain speed so that he can catch it. If the quarterback fails, then we need to attribute a lack of competence in him.

Getting back to the topic of the Church and non-Catholics, the Church needs to increase her competence, her disposition of explaining the truth of (P) so that non-Catholics can accept. At the same time, non-Catholics need to be able to increase their competence as well. Articulation is possessed when the speaker persuades the hearer. To attribute articulation, we need to attribution virtues to both speaker and hearer. What is required, it seems to me, is that the way to increase articulation is a constant engagement with the other. The more the husband engages his wife, the more he will understand her and vice versa. If the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ, it may mean that

(Q*) If person S was in the Catholic Church, S’s credence towards (P) would have increased.

What is required in (Q*) is for S to commune with the Church, to be engaged in her.

20 Responses

  1. At the same time, non-Catholics need to be able to increase their incompetence as well.


    I think you mean “competence” in the above. Though increasing the incompetence of non-Catholics would be convenient in some circumstances. 😉

    How is your argument NOT vulnerable to the criticism that it’s question-begging, inasmuch as the degree of “communing” with the Church required for greater epistemic competence would, practically speaking, mean becoming a Catholic?


  2. Ah, fixed it! Thanks!

    As for question-begging, I did say in the beginning, “Suppose that…” So, I am assuming the Church is true. In other words:

    If the Catholic Church is the true Church of Christ, then Q*

    Whether the Catholic Church is the true Church is another matter.

    Plus, I do not know of any person who has become Catholic that did not in any way engage with the Church.

  3. Fair enough, thanks!

  4. I find J. F. Ross’s concept of rational reliance very helpful in this area. I bring it up because I think Antonio’s (Q*) is pertinently reminiscent of Ross’s claims.

    I would not say non-Caths are blind so much as “differently sighted”, and this because they rely on crucially different authorities, counselors, models, rituals, etc. as the matrix for rational discourse. Put differently, if non-Caths are blind, they are only blind in the way a committed pianist is blind to the life/drives of a committed dancer, and vice versa. Or perhaps it’s just a blindness as between a cello player and a violinist. In either case, their respective “aesthetic rationalities” are mutually incommunicable insofar as they are formed by––or, rely upon––different canons, customs, standards, role models, etc. of what makes a good performance/performer. Non-Caths are, therefore, blind to the “canons” of the Church in so far as the rely rationally on different canons.

    It may seem I am just stating the problem of ecumenism without illuminating it, but the reason “rational reliance” is important (versus a more straightforward externalist “adjustment” of non-Cath thinking), is twofold:

    1) once we recognize how deeply and properly the will is involved in belief, we can encourage the willing of ecclesial unity as a good in addition to the good of truth (and this good can even compensate for “hard” intellectual satisfaction in the disputed matters), and

    2) we can, without rationalist qualms, draw much more heavily on the beauty and vitality of the Church (i.e., Her generally non-propositional apologetics) as the propaedeutic that enlightens the non-Cath conscience enough to, ideally, make propositional apologetics that much more solvent.

    Since it is a fundamental aspect of our RATIONAL nature to seek our own good, in a richly other-oriented way, mind you, it needs to be emphasized how RATIONAL it is to complement “pure reasoning” about ecumenical obstacles with the natural appetite for the good to be had by overcoming those obstacles.

    1) plays out this way: If non-Caths can learn to “rely” in imaginative, aesthetic, ethical, personal, etc. ways, this will enrich their normal matrix of belief in a way that can allow the rational appetite to, ideally, desire the supernatural good of Christian unity more than it desires the natural desire for intellectual perspicuity and “winning the debate”. (This is the same kind of dynamic, mutatis mutandis, that operates in a Catholic’s life: the good of obedient faith outweighs the worries over this or that doctrine or scandal.) We might even dare call it freely pursued brainwashing for the good of ecclesial harmony! (How’s that for scaring off the ecumenists!)

    As for 2): Once greater respect is given to the reliance we place on others, and to the ways we rely on others (e.g., meals together, shared stories, proximity, suffering losses together, etc.), we can extend that “reliant rationality” to ecumenical issues, so that non-Caths will take more seriously the non-propositional evidences they might want to accept (if only it weren’t for the propositional hang-ups they have with specific doctrine). In other words, because we naturally rely on people and communities for the bulk of our rationality, perhaps non-Caths can learn to put the “soft” evidences (of the heart and intuition) on par with the “hard” evidences (of the head).

    I have not spoken as clearly as I would like, but I am very tired. Also keep in mind I am freely extending Ross’s insights in a way I don’t believe he has, so you can’t blame him for the views I’ve poorly expressed.

  5. Elliot:

    I like that. I hope Ross would.


    I forgot to mention that you’re the only person I know who could, in an essay with the title this post bears, manage to cite only Protestant thinkers.

    Best to you both,

  6. There’s absolutely no hope for conversion of a person who isn’t in some serious sense willing to “try Catholicsim on for size,” in order, as it were, to feel how it must be to walk around and see the world as a Catholic sees it. You have to be willing to read a religion (including that religion in it’s concrete cultural aspects as well as it’s intellectual) the way it wants to be read, just the way you do a book. The non-Catholic has to be sympathetic with the faith, at least as an exercise in literary imagination. It’s the same sort of skill that one needs when reading the literature of another time period, or studying history with the aim of forming a critical judgment. If you expect to be able to understand Catholicism purely on Protestant (or what have you) terms, you’re just going to fail miserably, just like you’ll fail when insisting on judging every age and culture solely by the standards of your own. The whole thing will be an exercise in futility, even though you may not be aware of it. You may have a very nice reconstruction before you but it won’t be a true construction. You might feel like you’re being properly critical, but without that empathy, the chasm is unbridgeable. Someone once asked me if I was saying that they had to believe in Catholicism before they could understand it. I replied, “no, but you have to imagine that you do.”

    I like Elliot’s expansion of the idea of blindness as being “differently sighted.” This is not the sort of thing that is impossible to overcome, provided you have a person who can “read” with empathy, charity, and imagination. But then again, this sort is really the only sort of Protestant that one ought to bother proselytizing. The intransigent, unsympathetic type might present an opportunity to hone the dialectical faculty, but you won’t get more than that, and you just as often present even more obstacles for faith by giving your opponent more opportunities for misinterpretation.

    Apolonio closes well with a real insight, and a nice turn of phrase: both Catholics (and the Church as a whole) and non-Catholics (and Protestant communities as a whole) need to “increase competence.” Ignorance may not be a fault per se but its no virtue per se either. Otherwise, I think it often best if we try to remain modest in our goals. To help remove some small obstacle, some prejudice, or even to aid the non-Catholic to have a deeper understanding of the Christian faith while retaining their own particular allegiance is always a victory.

  7. Eliot,

    I haven’t read Ross’s work so I really cannot comment. Maybe the best term is “blind spot.”

    thebyronicman and eliot,

    Here’s something that I didn’t mention: the situation. A quarterback throws a perfect pass to the competent wide receiver and in certain conditions, he would catch it. However, because it is raining, it slips out of his hand. Do we simply explain the unsuccessful pass because of incompetence?

    This is a difficult topic because now we are getting into the situationist’s argument against virtue theory. I was gonna write something on this later on, but we’ll see. What explains the behavioral differences in people? Why did Kathy help her neighbor and why didn’t Sally help her neighbor? The situationist: the situation explains the behavior better than character trait. Maybe Sally was in a hurry.

    So, just as the rain can explain the unsuccessful pass, we may say that because a non-Catholic is in a certain situation, I don’t know, maybe he was brought up in a very bad family, he cannot see some certain truths. The question is, do we fix the situation or our dispositions?

    Ernie Sosa gave this example in class. You are driving and the road is very bad. People become bad drivers. The situationist would probably say: fix the situation. Virtue people: practice driving.

  8. How come the post doesn’t take into account the issue of grace?

  9. Here’s another idea. The reason why (P) is not accepted is because of practical interests. J. Stanley’s book on practical interests is a good one on this. The more there is at stake, the less we know. The more there is at stake, the more evidence that we need. For example, someone said, “The bank is open tomorrow.That may be enough if there is not much at stake. But suppose someone said, “The bank is open tomorrow” but then you realized that there is a deadline you have to meet tomorrow, you’re gonna say, “Are you sure it’s open tomorrow?”

    So, because there is a lot at stake (salvation), many just need more evidence for (P). But if (Q*) is true, then the more there is at stake, the more one needs to engage with the Church.

  10. Due to the claims of the Catholic church to be the embodiment of Ecclessia Una Sancta, once someone has become aware of that claim, a responsibility to take it under serious investigation objectively rests on that person. One wants to be as charitable as possible when evaluating the responsibility in any individual case. But clearly, once you know what the Catholic Church claims, there is suddenly a great deal “at stake.” One demands a great deal more evidence for absolute claims of this type, but practical interests come immediately into play as well. The non-Catholic begins to ask the following questions: “what if it’s true? What will it mean for me to become a Catholic? What will I have to sacrifice? What do I stand to gain?” In some cases the idea of converting will suddenly appear as a relief, as a possibility one would eagerly accept once one knows that it exists and is objectively demanded. One may be joyful at the opportunity to obey a new command of which one was previously ignorant. The Catholic claim on her children is thus unique–we must be a part of THIS Church. But often the feeling will be one of dread. “I will risk separation from my family and friends, perhaps my whole culture and way of life as I know it. Is this absolutely necessary?” Herein lies the “slippery ground.” If one decides that conversion is impossible, there will be a vested interest in denying the Catholic arguments, no matter how otherwise persuasive they may be. “The arguments cannot be right because the Catholic Church cannot be the True Church, since it is impossible that I become a Catholic for other reasons.” Such a person can’t really open the door, then.

    And we, as the proselytizers, have no way of knowing what inner forces are at play in the lives of those who we may seek to win over, and to be honest, we shouldn’t just assume that there is some “hidden motivation” that prevents us from making headway. The fault may be in me. We have to be sensitive, most sensitive to all these possibilities, and allow the Holy Spirit to work without hindrance as we seek to avoid building some additional stumbling block into the hearts of those with whom we speak. All should be done in prayer and utmost charity. The charity part can be largely covered by simply obeying the time-honored conventions of civilized discourse. I think this is all part and parcel of the “competency” that has been spoken of.

  11. Of course, in light of the football analogy being passed around (yuk yuk), I think we also need to keep in mind the problem of different “senses” of the game, of how it’s actually played.

    Since football is pretty clear for everyone, here, I presume, let me use cricket, instead.

    When I and some rowing mates went to England years ago for a competition, we tried our hands at cricket… sort of.

    Since we each had fragmentary knowledge of the rules, things we had seen in movies, a vague sense of the properly “English” way to play the game, etc., we compiled our insights until we had formed a mutant form cricket.

    We enjoyed it, but eventually our hostess came to watch us and laughed and tried to save the sport from us ‘Mericans. But since we already had enjoyed our own little cricket “tradition”, we not only mildly resented, and rather ignored, her correction, but also couldn’t even grasp what she might mean, since we already had our own sense of the game.

    Her competence was not insufficient for actual cricket, though ours was, nor was our competence insufficient for our cricket, but the trick was trying to get them to line up. And of course that would ultimately mean us aligning our sense to hers and England’s. Yes, this means non-Caths do ultimately need to align with the Church’s faith, and, at the same time, the Church must keep seeking ways to express her competence, which is exactly what Apolonio is getting at.

    I say all this, with perhaps the characteristic triumphalism of a committed Catholic, in order to say that as long as non-Caths have a significantly different sense of the game (i.e, the Christian faith), the problem may be even more basic than bad or good passes, going right down to the matter of whether non-Caths even recognize passing and moving on the field as legitimate parts of the game.

    Meaning: if we take sola scriptura as handing the ball off (i.e., not letting the faith rise above the actual text of the Good Book), and Tradition as passing, and the Saints as other players, and the analogia entis and the analogia fidei as patterns we can throw, etc etc, ––however you work out the analogy, it seems that until non-Caths see and in some way hypothetically respect the fullness of how the Church “plays” (believes, worships, preserves the ball handed down once for all, strives toward the eternal touchdown, etc.), then they will not even be prepared to learn to be competent in grasping what the Church throws. They will simply stand there and call off sides or yell for a foul from the ref.

    And in a way this ties in with what I like about rational reliance and “cognitive finality” (James Ross): only by seeing Catholics regularly practicing, expertly improving their play skills, inviting others to join in, and genuinely loving the game––only then will there be a rational and moral motive to rely on the Church in a way that allows competence to generate faith.

    I hope my conceit is not too overwrought.

  12. Eliot,

    Ah, James Ross! I think I remember a little bit now. Thanks for your insights. I’ll think over some things.


    Thanks for your implementation!


    Grace does not work apart from us so the strengthening of our dispositions, of our virtues, is grace.

  13. James Ross is good stuff. Just ask Dr. Liccione, heh!

    Also, only cuz I intend to frequent this blog for the foreseeable future, and don’t want to be confused with a Nobel laureate poet (…?), could I ask you, Apolonio, to spell it two-ells-one-tee, “Elliot”? Thanks! Or I suppose I can just go by the moniker among some of my Pinoy friends, “Mang Ellyót” heheh.

  14. I don’t know if I should ever comment on this blog, since I am probably more in tune with studies of history or anthropology than I am with philosophy (though I still study philosophy on occasion), but I always have approached such questions from historical and cultural angles rather than from epistemological ones. Such questions were burning on the minds only in such key spots of Counter -Reformation Catholicism such as parts of France, Switzerland, and northern Europe, while other people’s perception of the Church, in Latin America, Spain, most of Italy, etc., was totally different. I always like to tell the story of my mother who, after coming to this country from Mexico as a girl, used to sign herself everytime she passed a building with a cross on it. In other words, she had no idea anything but the Catholic Church existed.

    It seems that Catholicism then is tied in many places to national and cultural identity. The flip side is probably the case. What we encounter as Catholics living in 21st century America, however, is a whole new ballgame. While for the majority of the Church’s history, “cuius regio eius religio” was the order of the day, now we live in a society where the decision of religious belief is completely detached from the political and cultural sphere; it is an individual decision. While we can create in the abstract the problem of religious assent and can demonize and apotheosize people accordingly for their decisions, the vast majority of cases will be less than clear when corresponding to the ideal. Would my mother have been a good Lutheran if raised in nineteenth century Prussia? Who can say?

    One must in any event acknowledge that the idea that being part of the true Church came part and parcel throughout history with being loyal to the Fatherland, a decent human being, and “one of us”. The heretic, the Protestant, the Papist, etc., are not just religious epithets, but also cultural, political, and historical labels for those who are enemies of the common good. Now that we have separated these issues from the body politic (something that I don’t necessarily agree as being a posititve development), I think all of these issues become less and less clear.

  15. This is such a valuable discussion for me. I’ve been trying to think my way into the Church for years, and this issue illustrates why it is so difficult.

    The logical premise that a non-Catholic would deduce from, “no scriptural support for (P), no historical support from the first fathers of the Church for (P)” is not that “I am blind”, but that “(P) is false”.

    Of course, a Catholic, some Catholics, anyway, are disposed to accept (P) because they have already received spiritual riches from their membership (not quite an adequate term for BEING Catholic), so they are inclined to extend trust to dubious propositions.

    But how can those who have not received those riches arrive at a place where they can affirm such a dubious proposition as (P)?

    Christian apologetics WORK precisely because the fundamentals of the faith are TRUE, and can be received by any honest and open-hearted person.

    But getting to (P), so that one can make a proper profession of faith, seems to involve a lot of heavy lifting. I’ve “failed” RCIA twice, caught between the Scylla of certitude (Roma locuta, cause finita) and the Charybdis of relativism (None of us believe that anyway. Just say it, it’s just words).

    Non-Catholics aren’t blind. We just can’t see the same things you do.

    Congrats, Mike L, on the new blog and some forward vocational progress!

  16. Jim:


    Given that familiarity with your dilemma which I acquired at Sacramentum Vitae and the old Pontifications, I deeply empathize with you. I think you’ve “failed” RCIA twice for two reasons: the people instructing you were logically inconsistent in how they presented the Church’s teaching authority, and you’re too intellectually honest to buy into logical inconsistency about matters of such great importance.

    That said, I grant you that “the Catholic thing” is what the philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer called a “hermeneutical circle.” From outside the circle, there’s no way to think oneself into it by means of a logically compelling argument. But one can, and in many cases should, come up with more-or-less good reasons to make the act of faith that is necessary and sufficient for stepping inside the circle. Thus faith, as Catholicism understands it, is not contrary to reason; it just goes beyond reason alone and, as such, is a divine gift that redeems one’s reason. Accordingly, once one accepts that gift, what can seem unreasonable from outside the circle can then become reasonable, even though not strictly demonstrable. There certainly is no logical inconsistency.


  17. Jim,

    I think this post should be read in the context of the previous post, Criticizing the Church.

    I actually think that two people who roughly have the same intelligence and virtues can disagree reasonably (with regards to whether P or ~P) even when they are looking at the same evidence. Of course one has a false belief, but it may be a case of reasonable disagreement.

    I would say this though. My post is not about apologetics but much broader. Unless a person can see the exceptionality of the Church, which is realized in the witness, then it’s very hard to be a Catholic. It becomes individualistic and a utopia.

    I would also add that friendship, following a witness, gives a person the ability to accept a truth. Sometimes denying a truth is a matter of the will rather than the intellect.

  18. Apolonio, thanks for the reference, I read “Criticizing the Church” with interest.

    When evaluating (for oneself) the claims of the Church, it seems to me that when you stand outside the Church, you MUST formulate and then resolve certain criticisms.

    After all, if those criticisms did not arise in your mind, you would already be Catholic, no?

  19. Jim,

    I agree with you that criticisms are formulated. Of course it’s not something we just make up in the mind, but something that affects the way we think. In other words, the way we would criticize the Church is having an understanding of our fundamental needs, of our hearts. So, the Church may say or do something and doesn’t correspond to the desires of our hearts. That’s when a crisis occurs. Again, criticism is the way we get deeper into the Church. Even if a person rejects the Church she must reject her because she has understood the depth of the Church. That’s why people rejected Christ. They understood his depth, that this is someone that they cannot accept because he is too good; he is God.

  20. I can sympathize with Jim. I, too, have been not only trying by thinking, arguing, reading, but also, attending (sans Eucharist) to get myself to a state where I can convert with my mind and heart. I’m fully aware I might be blind; that’s why I’ll continue.

    But, I cannot in the integrity of my heart ever convert unless I think that Catholicism is true. I don’t think it’s false, of course, either. I have every pragmatic reason to be Catholic. I need EPISTEMIC reasons, not just pragmatic reasons. But, until I think it is true, I could not convert. Thus, the idea that we can step into the hermenuetical circle is misleading. We can’t, at will, choose to believe it’s true. If we stepped forward and professed it’s truth, we’d lie; and, besides, we’d be acting according to fideism (a position the Church denies!).

    One a no less personal, but philosophical level, I would recommend to you the concept of ‘purposively available evidence’ from Paul Moser’s new book, “The Elusive God.” It seems that with good willed non-Catholic Christians, who want Catholicism to be true, we have a special case of divine hiding.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: