Regardless of whether one thinks the cardinals who sent dubia to the Pope acted rightly or wrongly, one of the fruits of their action is a bad one: It’s become a rallying point for those Catholics who oppose the Pope and seek to undermine him by accusing him of error. That’s a dangerous position, one that encourages dissent and possibly de facto schism. It may even lead to the damnation of souls.
I want to make clear that I am not accusing the cardinals of bad will or seeking to promote schism. These are serious charges that must not be made without evidence. Their intentions and the state of their souls are for their confessors to assess, not a layman like myself. However, the Pope’s opponents on social media are making those serious charges against him, either directly or indirectly.
The point of contention, as I understand it, is these cardinals do not see how Amoris Lætitia can be reconciled with the teachings of St. John Paul II. The dubia asked if those teachings still hold true. The Pope declined to answer and the cardinals went public. The result of this is a number of Catholics made assumptions (none of them good) about that silence and what it might mean. The problem is, logically, we cannot draw a conclusion from silence. We can only point to it as a lack of evidence one way or another
Let’s look at it this way. If silence from Pope Francis implies a rejection of St. John Paul II, as his social media critics imply, then we could ask whether if Cardinal Burke and his compatriots are in favor of schism because they do not speak against those combox warriors who misuse their statements. There could be any number of reasons, for example, “Not wanting to draw attention to it by publicizing it.” A person could argue that not speaking about these rebels is encouraging them, but they can’t use the silence to “prove” the cardinals want to encourage them.
Fallacies of Ignorance and Silence
But once we recognize this, we have to apply it to Pope Francis as well. People might want him to offer clarifications to the dubia, and might be disappointed when he doesn’t, but we can’t claim his silence is in support of error. That brings us to the two fallacies that critics of the Pope—and even some of the faithful—have been using: The Argument from Ignorance and the Argument from Silence.
The Argument from Ignorance is a fallacy which confuses what a person knows with what is reality. For example, if someone says, “I can’t think of any reason why Pope Francis would not answer,” that does not mean there is no good reason not to answer. Not knowing an answer is not the same as there being no answer. So to argue that he does intend to change Church teaching on the basis of his not answering is fallacious.
The Argument from Silence fallacy happens where one assumes that silence is proof of a position. “He didn’t defend himself, he must be guilty,” or “He didn’t admit it, he must be innocent.” Silence is simply “no testimony.” In American law, no person can be compelled to give evidence against himself, and a prosecutor cannot use this refusal as “proof” of guilt. What the silent person intends and the motives for the silence are unknown. So to argue from the Pope’s declining to answer that he cannot defend his position without contradicting St. John Paul II is an argument from silence.
The point of this article is to encourage people to recognize there is a difference between wanting the Pope to respond and drawing a negative conclusion from his declining to do so. Because we Catholics are forbidden to make rash judgment, we certainly cannot rashly judge the Pope as being a heretic or incompetent on the grounds he did not answer.
The Real Problem That Fuels the So-Called “Scandals”
Let’s be frank. The most a papal critic can allege from this case is that the Pope used poor judgment (though I would probably challenge that). But that fact is not anything new in Church history. . .
Even St. John Paul the Great had his “not so great” days.
No matter how much one likes a Pope, there will always be something cringeworthy in their actions. That’s because we’re all humans in need of salvation. No matter how much one dislikes a Pope, cringeworthy actions do not detract from their office and our obligation to give assent when they teach as Pope. You can go all the way back to Pope Peter, and you’ll still have to deal with the “Denying three times” scandal and the “not eating with gentiles” scandal.
We have to realize that Pope Francis is not a Pope John XII or Alexander VI. Nor is he an Honorius or John XXII. The Church will not collapse because of Pope Francis any more than it collapsed under those members of the Papal “Hall of Shame.” God promised to protect His Church. If we don’t believe that, then our problem is much greater than a Pope.
We need to realize the Pope has been constantly attacked for almost four years by critics and every one of those attacks is based on a misinterpretation of what he said. There’s a third logical fallacy here—Begging the Question. People who assume the Pope is a heretic interpret everything he does under the suspicion of heresy. People who assume the Pope is incompetent interpret everything under the assumption he handled it incompetently. The problem is, these accusations have to be proven, but his accusers act as if they were true—and they have begun to instill doubt into weary Catholics who begin to think: “There must be something to these accusations, or people wouldn’t make them.”
There’s a real danger here. Certain Catholics hate the Pope and what they think is “corruption” of the Church since the Pontificate of St. John XXIII. They lead some members of the faithful astray, causing them to think they’re the only faithful Catholics left when, for almost 2000 years, the Church has been led by the successor of Peter without teaching heresy.
The point of this is, this latest attack on the Pope has its roots in an anti-Francis mindset and has no rational basis. A person is not wrong to wish a Pope might handle a situation differently at times. But we have to realize that what we wish and what the Pope determines as the best way to handle the situation can be two different things. To accuse him of bad will or incompetence because his decision is not what they want is not the obedience of the saints. It’s the same behavior that dissenters used to attack previous Popes.
We should reflect on this, and consider who benefits from this behavior: Not the Church, but the devil. We should think long and hard about divisive behavior before committing it.