Establishing Certitude

From Will the Catholic Church Survive the Twentieth Century? Page 358: “We have also demonstrated this fact by way of syllogisms. Pierre Gury, S.J., writes in his Compendium of Moral Theology: “That opinion is regarded as certainly more probable … which is held absolutely as true by five or six theologians….” (pp. 22-23, IV.)”

From The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Probabilism: Probabilists holds that if five or six theologians, notable for prudence and learning, independently adhere to an opinion their view is solidly probable, if it has not been set aside by authoritative decisions or by intrinsic arguments which they have failed to solve. Even one theologian of very exceptional authority.

Will the Catholic Church Survive the Twentieth Century? Page 289: St. Vincent of Lerins asserted that, in order to discover the teaching of the Church, the Council of Ephesus felt it was sufficient “…to show the agreement of ten fathers or principal doctors of the Church.” (The Church of the Word Incarnate, p. 537) We shall quote further below from various saints, and at least one of the doctors of the Church on this matter. While St. Vincent of Lerins quires ten fathers of doctors, Reverend J.C. Fenton writes that, for the consent of the faiths to be unanimous, “…we need now..demand an explicit declaration on the point from every…one of the fathers of the Church. There is such consent when at least a moral unanimity of the fathers who have actually dealt with this subject, teach the same doctrine as having been revealed by God… the apposition of one, or even of an inconsiderable number, to the teaching which is common with the rest, does not prevent the common teaching from enjoying a certain unanimity. The united voice of the fathers constitutes a real rule of faith.” (The Concept of Sacred Theology, Reverend J.C. Fenton, p. 136)

From Father Coppens on Certainty:

153. Authority gives us certainty in a still more circuitous way; for it brings us into communication with truth by means of the statements of other persons. The truth thus reached is said to be believed, and authority is called an extrinsic motive of certainty. Belief, or faith, is Divine or human, according as the authority on which it rests is Divine or human. In Philosophy we are concerned with human faith; and the question to be now considered is, whether the authority of human witnesses can be relied upon to give perfect certainty.

154. Thesis XIII. The testimony of men, under proper conditions, can give perfect certainty.

The conditions required are: 1. That the facts testified to are sufficiently open or accessible to observation; 2. That they are of great moment; else they might not be noticed carefully, 3. That the witnesses are sensible men; 4. That they are either undoubtedly sincere, or, if not, that they are many, of sufficiently different characters, opinions, parties, interests, etc., to exclude all reasonable suspicion of collusion in the support of false statements. Proof. That testimony gives perfect certainty which convinces us beyond all reasonable doubt that the witnesses could not have been deceived themselves and did not wish to deceive us. But such is the testimony which fulfils the conditions just stated.

For: 1. The witnesses could not have been deceived, since: (a) The facts are supposed to be open, accessible to observation; (/>) They are of great moment, so as to invite careful examination , (c) The witnesses are sensible men, who do not act rashly and are not easily imposed upon; and, besides, they are of different opinions, characters, etc., so as not to make a mistake in common.

2. They do not wish to deceive us; since either they are known for certain to be sincere, and, of course, such men do not wish to deceive; or, if not certainly sincere, they are supposed to be many, of different characters, opinions, parties, interests, etc. Now, sensible men do not lie wantonly, especially on matters of importance; and, least of all, would they combine to propagate an important falsehood, unless some common grave interest led them into so disgraceful a crime. But they are supposed to have no such interest in common. There is, consequently, no reason to doubt their testimony.

155. Objections: 1. Each witness gives only probability, and no number of probabilities can make up certainty. Answer. Even one witness who is certainly intelligent, prudent, and sincere may give perfect certainty; but if the testimony of one or several still leaves special reasons to doubt, the testimony of others may show that the doubt is unfounded in the present case; certainty is thus attained, not by an accumulation of probabilities, but by the elimination of all motives for reasonable doubt.

2. Every witness is free to deceive. Answer. We can know from the conditions laid down that, in a given case, there was no actual attempt at deceit. Every man is free to commit suicide, and still it is certain that they will not all do so.

3. History contains many falsehoods. Answer. We do not defend all history.

4. At least, we cannot be certain of events long since past, because traditions are gradually changed. Answer. We can often be certain of such events, viz., when we know that, in a given instance, the tradition was not changed; e.g., we know for certain that Cnrist died on a cross; that He rose again; that His disciples preached His Resurrection; that they had no motive to do so if He had not risen; that they laid down their lives in testimony of their sincerity, etc. (See this argument more fully treated in Schouppe’s Course of Religious Instruction, p. 6.)

5. At least, no amount of testimony can make miracles certain; for it is physically certain that they never occurred, while it is at most only morally certain that they did. Answer. It is not physically certain that they never occurred; all that is physically certain is that nature has no power to produce them, but the Lord of nature has; and it is morally certain that they have occurred.

6. Still, plain men could not assure us that any particular miracle was performed; for they are not fit judges of what is miraculous. Answer. Sensible men, even though unlearned, can give reliable testimony about obvious facts, of which learned men will judge whether they were natural or beyond all natural power.