Introduction: On Truth
There are two motives to hold to a belief. Either it is because the belief is true or because the belief is comfortable (either comfortable in the sense of “It makes me feel good,” or in the sense of “other choices seem worse to me”). Of these two motives, there is only one legitimate reason to hold to a belief, and that it is because it is true. Otherwise, you’re clinging to a delusion.
Long time readers of this blog will recall my favorite axiom of Aristotle: To say of what is that it is, or to say of what is not that it is not is to speak the truth. I find it to be an axiom that everyone should remember. When a person says, “X is good,” we have to actually assess whether or not X is good. X being good doesn’t mean X is giving warm fuzzy feelings or giving you an emotional high. We have to look at the nature of X, and see if it is to the ultimate objective benefit of the recipient or not. If X harms the recipient or others, then saying, “X is good” is not speaking the truth.
The problem is that such a view focuses on the physical. The world equates the idea of what is to be done is that which satisfies base emotions (food, safety, sex, etc.) and harms the least number of people—by their own personal standards. (If the victim doesn’t meet the standards of the individual, the individual’s need is considered “not important.”) Because the standard is the physical, it is necessarily short term (the time pleasure lasts and the time we have to enjoy it), and we often tend to think of things as “Get while the getting is good."
This is why the Catholic Church seems to receive a lot of hostility. She doesn’t define good as what is pleasurable for the body at the time. She considers the whole person, not just as a body, but with an immortal soul as well. Jesus Christ said, "What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (Mk 8:36). If the greatest acquisition of wealth, power, fame and pleasure costs your immortal soul, it is not worth the price. That is why the Church takes a stand and says that certain things, made popular by the world are actually harmful—even if the individual cannot see it from the short view of things. (A good book on this topic is Peter Kreeft’s The Best Things in Life, which gives us a modern Socratic dialogue on seeking the ultimate good).
Now, I freely acknowledge that not everybody recognizes the authority of the Church and not everybody automatically accepts her teachings. But when it comes to claims and counterclaims, the question is to determine:
- What the claim actually is (as opposed to what we think it means).
- What are the justifications for the claim?
- What are the justifications against the claim?
Falsely Misrepresenting the Claim (Straw Man)
Unfortunately, when it comes to the teachings of the Catholic Church, most people never get beyond step one. People stop with what they think words mean, and then assume they know what the argument is. But too many times people deride the Church teaching as being hateful, or ignorant, or against something people consider themselves in favor of. They confuse the accidents (in the philosophical sense of a property of a thing that is not essential to its nature) of history, such as the history and culture of another time, with the essential parts of the teaching.
So, when the Church teaches on abortion and “same sex marriage” (popular bugbears with the political liberal) or on torture and social justice (popular bugbears with the political conservative), the result is to shut down the mind and respond based on the assumption that the Church is anti-woman and homophobic or pro-terrorist and Marxist—even though the Church teaching is none of these things. From what I have seen, the justifications against the claims of the Catholic Church have nothing whatsoever to do with what the Catholic Church actually teaches. They are based on false assumptions—creating defenses against claims that are counterfeit, having nothing to do with our beliefs.
(When’s the last time you ever saw someone accurately portray our beliefs when trying to dispute them?)
Another counterfeit is the idea of the false compromise. Yes, everyone wants to just get along, but sometimes there are situations where the claims cannot be reconciled with a division down the middle. For example, if I claim you owe me $50,000 and you claim you owe me nothing, the compromise of you owing me $25,000 is not a legitimate compromise if you truly owe me nothing. Truth determines whether a compromise is in order. Likewise, if the truth is a debt does exist, then a compromise does not satisfy justice.
But all too often, the Church is told that she needs to compromise on an issue where there can be no compromise. When the choices are between "X is a sin” and “X is not a sin,” there is no middle ground to compromise on. If X is a sin, then it cannot be permitted. If X is not a sin, there’s no reason to forbid it. Usually, compromise is a code word for capitulation. The Church is expected to change her position. When she does not, because she knows the truth, she’s condemned for refusing to compromise.
(But how many times have you ever seen those accusing the Catholic Church of not compromising actually offering a sacrifice of their own to make a compromise?)
The other side of the coin to the false compromise is the false dilemma. It tries to create a situation where either you accept one position or you endorse some hideous evil. The problem is, not all problems are either-or. They are when we say “Either X is Red or not Red.” There’s no other choice in such a case. But if you say “Either X is Red or Blue,” there are many colors of the spectrum that are not Red or Blue. So, when someone tries to hem you in, it is important to look at the argument of “either X or Y,” and ask: Is it possible that I can support both X or Y? That I must reject both X and Y? That there is an option Z I can choose instead? If one or more of these is the case, the either-or argument is false.
The Church tends to get hit with this attack when someone tries to create an either-or situation by creating a scenario of either abandoning a teaching of the Church or experiencing suffering. For example, during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, there were many attacks on the Church accusing them of being responsible for the AIDS epidemic in Africa because she teaches contraception is a sin. The popular example was the wife infected with AIDS from her husband. But are there other options? Like what about teaching self-control from an infected person to avoid passing on an STD to a healthy person?
(When’s the last time you heard someone ask why a person infected with AIDS who ignored Church teaching on adultery or fornication would listen to the Church on wearing a condom?)
There are other fallacies which try to portray something as reasonable when it is not. But these are three common ones used to portray the Church teaching in a bad light. They falsely portray the teaching of the truth in a caricature to make it look hateful. They suggest a compromise which is not a compromise, trying to appear reasonable when in fact they are making no concessions. They create an either-or situation which tells us that either we have to bend or it’s all our fault when bad things happen.
When you get all these counterfeits masquerading as truth, many people get deceived. But the defense is to look to the truth. What is the actual teaching of the Church? Why does she teach what she does?
Once you learn that, you will see many attacks on the Catholic Church collapse from the lack of truth.