Recently I came across this rather insightful philosophical article explaining a rhetoric trick called a “motte and bailey doctrine”. While philosophers have used this concept to provide many insightful analysis into various argumentative strategies, I for one have found it particularly useful in breaking down certain argumentative patterns of high church apologists. Because I find myself constantly referring to this, I think it might be good to record it down more concretely. But first we will need an explanation of a motte and bailey doctrine, to quote at some length from the article:

Motte-BaileyA Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of pleasantly habitable land (the Bailey), which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier, such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible, and so neither is the Bailey. Rather, one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.

For my original purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents philosophical propositions with similar properties: desirable to their proponents but only lightly defensible. The Motte represents the defensible but undesired propositions to which one retreats when hard pressed.

Diagnosis of a philosophical doctrine as being a Motte and Bailey Doctrine is invariably fatal. Once made it is relatively obvious to those familiar with the doctrine that the doctrine’s survival required a systematic vacillation between exploiting the desired territory and retreating to the Motte when pressed. Clearly, the diagnosis is not confined to philosophical doctrines: others may suffer the same malady.

To reiterate, the “motte” represents propositions within a system which are not really desirable, significant, or exciting, but yet are strongly defensible, whereas the “bailey” represents those claims or propositions which are highly desirable, significant or exciting, but very difficult to defend. Thus people will first put up the “bailey” arguments because it is what is desirable or significant, but when serious objections are mounted they would retreat to “motte” arguments and claims to defend themselves, but eviscerating the value of their case.

How does all this apply to Church Infallibility? The point of church infallibility is to ground a substantive form of church and moral life. What is desirable, or significant, about Church Infallibility is that it provides binding and authoritative teachings about substantive issues of faith and morals from soteriology, to the sacraments, to politics, to the confessional states to sexuality, etc, etc. From this position the advocate of church infallibility will normally cite a very wide variety of ecclesiastical documents to back up some teaching as authoritative and infallible, and thereby binding.

However when the objection is strongly pressed, when teachings and ecclesiastical documents, both in the present and from the past, which seems to contradict one’s system are presented, the adherent of infallibility would automatically “retreat” back into the “motte” and claim that infallibility has only been invoked very few of times, for Roman Catholics in particular, Vatican I and the Marian dogmas, and doesn’t apply to [insert teachings which one doesn’t like from Unam Sanctam to Humani Generis]. But of course this retreat eviscerates the very purpose of church infallibility, to provide clear and undoubted guidance on substantive issues of Church and Moral Life. Thus when the advocate of church infallibility wants to persuade people of the robust certainty and guidance which the church provides to every area of life, they will expand the scope of authoritative teachings to a wide variety of documents. But when a number of those documents seems to contradict one’s position, the scope would automatically be narrowed to a very tiny set. This is simply a strong example of a motte and bailey argument.


I am of course not the first person to have noticed this rhetorical strategy. Credit must be given to the Anglican theologian William Whitt who observed this argumentative pattern before.  To quote him at some length:

In addition, as modern debates about papal authority make clear, the appeal to infallibility does not provide the kind of epistemic certainty that is needed here. There are both maximalist and minimalist interpretations of papal infallibility. Despite Newman’s claim that one is required to believe “whatever an Apostle said,” the official teaching about the magisterium is that the pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra. Popes can and do make moral and theological errors. A doctrine of infallibility is helpful only in those instances when we can be sure the pope or magisterium is not making such an error.

Minimalist defenders of papal infallibility emphasize that there are only a handful of times when the magisterium has spoken infallibly, namely, the definition of papal infallibility itself, and the Marian dogmas of the immaculate conception and the assumption. Maximalist defenders engage in what has been called“creeping infallibility,” the tendency to presume that any statements of the magisterium must be presumed at face value to be infallible until subsequent statements to the contrary indicate the lack of infallibility. Roman Catholic apologists often take either one stance or the other, depending on whether they are trying to persuade their audience that infallibility is not really a burden (minimalist), or, to the contrary, emphasizing infallibility’s epistemic value in providing certainty (maximalist).

That infallibility proves to be of little epistemic help can be seen in the conflict over artificial contraception that has been raging in the Roman church ever since Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae on artificial contraception. Dissidents from the doctrine frequently claim that it has not been defined infallibly. Defenders claim that while it has not been so defined, it nonetheless meets all the criteria of infallibility, and must be accepted as such.

However, until it is so defined, whether one decides that it does or does not meet the criteria means that one must exercise one’s private judgment in determining whether it has been so defined. An interesting case in point is the correspondence between former Catholic University of America Professor Charles Curran and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) during the process through which Curran was eventually deprived of his status of being a Catholic theologian on the grounds of his challenging Humanae Vitae. (The documentation can be found in Curran’s Faithful Dissent, (Sheed & Ward, 1986).) Throughout the correspondence, Curran repeatedly raised a single issue, whether or not it was permissible for faithful Catholics to dissent from non-infallible statements of the magisterium. Repeatedly, Curran insisted that he adhered to the doctrine of infallibility, but that Humanae Vitae was not infallible. He repeatedly asked clarification from his prosecutors as to whether Humanae Vitae was infallible, and said that such a clarification would lead him to submit. Curran’s opponents simply refused to answer his question. Certainly if the maximalists are correct, it would have been easy to do so, since, as maximalists argue, it meets the criteria of infallibility. Instead, Curran was repeatedly asked simply to renounce his teachings because he had disagreed with the magisterium. In the end, Curran had to be left wondering whether he was disciplined because he disagreed with an infallible teaching of the magisterium, or, instead, whether he was disciplined simply because he challenged a statement of the magisterium, which might have been infallible, but might not have been. A doctrine of infallibility which might or might not apply in specific instances provides no more epistemic assurance than what Newman calls “private judgment.” (For an argument along the same lines, see Mark E. Powell, “Canonical Theism and the Challenge of Epistemic Certainty: Papal Infallibility as a Case Study,” Canonical Theism, 195-209.)

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