What’s most tiresome about the attacks against the Holy Father is that they essentially make an unsubstantiated accusation of the Pope seeking to change Church teaching to embrace error. What this boils down to, however, is that the critics are claiming that they have a proper understanding of the faith while that of the Pope or, in many cases, the whole Church is in error and must be opposed. In other words, if the Pope does not behave in the way his critics want him to behave he is considered to be heretical and working to destroy the Catholic faith—though whether he does so through incompetence or malice, the critics have not come to an agreement on.
When challenged on this by defenders, these critics then misrepresent any attempt to disprove their claims as “explaining away” what was said or “claiming infallibility” for every little thing the Pope says or does. I once, not too long ago, had critics accuse me of being blind because, I always defended him and disagreed with their interpretations of the Pope’s words and actions. I find that to be rather alarming: The anti-Francis mindset has reached the point where the accusations are assumed to be true by default, and these critics refuse to consider the possibility that they misinterpreted what the Pope actually said.
The Begging the Question Fallacy and Attacks on the Pope
It’s gotten to the point that the person who defends the Pope is assumed to be sympathetic to the things the Pope is falsely accused of. The claim that the Pope is a bad Catholic is considered to be true, even though the accuser has provided no evidence to justify the claim (just unsubstantiated accusations) based on their begging the question interpretation. And begging the question is the fallacy here. They have to prove that:
- Their understanding of the Pope’s words is correct.
- Their understanding of the Pope’s intentions are correct.
- Their understanding of prior Church teaching is correct when contrasting it with what the Pope says and does.
But these accusations are not proven. They are merely assumed. The Pope is assumed to be guilty and no matter what he may say or do that defends the faith, this will be ignored while whatever sounds strange to them is assumed to be proof that the Pope is a menace to the Church that must be opposed. The problem is, the so-called “evidence” is only evidence if the accusation is true—which has to be proven, not assumed. As Aristotle once put it:
This is what those persons do who suppose  that they are constructing parallel straight lines: for they fail to see that they are assuming facts which it is impossible to demonstrate unless the parallels exist. So it turns out that those who reason thus merely say a particular thing is, if it is: in this way everything will be self-evident. But that is impossible. (Pr. and Post. Anal. 65.1.1–9)
Aristotle, “ANALYTICA PRIORA,” in The Works of Aristotle, ed. W. D. Ross, trans. A. J. Jenkinson, vol. 1 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1928).
This is a real problem when it comes to Catholics on the Internet today It is simply assumed that the individual interpretation of the Pope’s words and the words of his predecessors are correct and it is simply assumed that differences perceived between these interpretations is proof that the Pope intends to change the teaching of the Church. These assumptions are held as true when the individual interprets the words and actions of Pope Francis are heretical—but if the assumption is false, these are not proofs.
That, in a nutshell, is the “Emperor has no clothes” moment of the accusation.
Who Are We to Believe? Ipse Dixit claims, not Facts, are the Source of the Accusations
Once we see these attacks are based on the perception of the critics, we can ask ourselves: What gives them the right to make this determination to judge the Pope a heretic and those who defend him of also being heretics or dupes? We can make this challenge because the attacks on the Pope are based on the personal interpretation of the Church documents—but the personal interpretation of these documents are not an authoritative interpretation. In challenging their citation of St. Pius V or the Council of Trent, we are not rejecting the authority of that Pope or that Council. We are rejecting the authority of the person who claims that their individual interpretation of these documents is more accurate than the interpretation by the current magisterium.
Such allegations that the Pope is heretical are ipse dixit (Latin: 'he himself said it’) allegations. That is to say, a “dogmatic and unproven statement” (COED) or “an assertion made but not proved” (Merriam-Webster) made by an individual. The critic of the Pope asserts that the Pope has taught contrary to one of his predecessors. The question is, “according to whose interpretation?” Who has the authority to determine whether the cited text means what the accuser says it means in determining whether heresy has been committed?
The answer is the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. They are the ones who determine the application of the teachings of the past and how they apply to the problems of the present. They are the ones who distinguish the doctrines which cannot be changed from the disciplines which can be changed, as well as how and when/if they can be changed. As canon law puts it:
can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.
can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.
can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.
can. 754† All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.
Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247–248.
Now it may be argued that I am not practicing what I preach, citing a Church document without the authority to do so. I would deny this charge. I cite the canon law to show who the Church decrees has authority to teach in her name, while recognizing that I do not have the authority to anathematize those who disagree with me or to demand that the Pope or bishops apply their authority in a specific way.
Ultimately, ipse dixit is a misapplication of who has authority to make a decree. One may have the authority in a limited sphere to decide questions relevant to the situation. For example, it is the judge, not the lawyer, who has the authority to rule whether a legal argument has the force of law. However, outside of the judge’s sphere of authority, any decree made by the judge lacks authority.
Misunderstanding and Misrepresentations: Attacking a Teaching That Was Never Made in the First Place
Of course, that brings us to another problem. Someone may try to poke a hole in my analogy of the judge by pointing to the terrible abuses of judicial authority taking place in America today. They may point out that infamous Supreme Court rulings like Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Obergefell and say that the Supreme Court had no authority to make such rulings (and in doing so, they would be correct) and then claim that the Pope is trying to make similar decrees.
But when dealing with this argument, one has to compare what the Pope has said with what was alleged. If what is alleged does not equal what was said, then we have a misrepresentation. But since the misrepresentation does not equal what was said, attacking the misrepresentation does not refute the argument. This is the Straw Man argument: “a weak or imaginary opposition (as an argument or adversary) set up only to be easily confuted.” In other words, a misrepresentation of what was really said.
The pontificate of Pope Francis has constantly been beset by straw man arguments. The most infamous of these misrepresentations is the quote of “Who am I to judge.” Both liberal promoters of “same sex marriage” and conservative critics of the Pope interpreted that statement as if he was sympathetic to treating homosexuality as being no different than heterosexuality. Liberals were encouraged by this “change.” Conservatives were outraged. But there was no “change.” The Pope was not making a moral statement about a sinful act. He was making a statement about a priest who was rumored to have a notorious past (but had since repented) and answering a question over whether he was to be fired over these reports.
In other words, a truly Catholic view of sin and repentance was misrepresented as a change of Church teaching. To attempt to attack the Pope on the grounds of his saying “Who am I to judge,” is to attack a straw man. His words did not mean what they were portrayed to mean. Yet, that did not prevent his foes from spending his entire pontificate so far in accusing him of wanting to change Church teaching.
Do We Really Know a Man By the Company He Keeps? Not Always: The Guilt by Association Fallacy
The opponents of the Pope insist they have not misinterpreted him. They point to the scandalous statements made by Cardinal emeritus Kasper and Cardinal Daneels on divorce/remarriage and on “same sex marriage” and how they invoke mercy. They then point out that the Pope, too, has emphasized mercy in how to deal with people in a situation of divorce/remarriage or with same sex attraction. Therefore, it is assumed that the Pope shares the scandalous views of Kasper and Daneels and wants to change Church teaching.
However, the fact that the Pope speaks of mercy and Cardinals Kasper and Daneels invoke mercy does not mean they invoke mercy with the same end in mind. This is the Guilt by Association fallacy. This fallacy judges an idea by the bad character of an individual supporting it. For example, Jozef Stalin supporting a strong police does not mean all who support a strong police want to do so in order to enable a police state. Even the most vile people in history have happened to agree with ideas that happen to be true, and to recognize that truth does not mean endorsing abuses one attempts to justify in its name.
So to try to link Pope Francis to the ideas of Kasper and Daneels because of the invocation of mercy does not prove the point that they are linked. The attempts to do so are actually an attempt to smear the Pope because Kasper and Daneels hold problematic ideas that uses similar rhetoric.
When We Do Not Know if a Thing is Happening, That is not Proof of the Opposite: The Arguments from Silence and Ignorance
Another attack involves the idea that if I am unaware of something, the opposite is true. This one can be illustrated by a Facebook debate I once had. When the Pope issued a statement on social justice, a critic replied, “Well, why doesn’t he say something about the suffering Christians in the Middle East?” I replied that he had and I provided a link to the statement. This woman was startled, having no idea that he had spoken out. She had assumed that because she had heard no reports of the Pope’s pleas for assisting the suffering Christians, that the Pope did not say anything about it.
That is the Argument from Ignorance fallacy. Assuming that one’s lack of knowledge about an event means that the event did not happen. It is false because we are not omniscient beings. There can be things we do not know.
Another fallacy is similar: The argument from silence. This argument assumes that because there was no refutation to what was alleged or no known evidence to refute the allegation, the allegation must be true. This often happens when people assume that the lack of public action against a public sinner means that there was no action taken at all against the sinner or even that this is proof of the Pope’s sympathy for the sinner’s views. But that does not follow. The Pope can interact with a person behind the scenes, and we might never hear of it. So the lack of a public action ≠ no action taken. Nor does it mean “sympathy for the malefactor."
In other words, a lack of evidence is simply that—a lack of evidence. Not evidence in favor of the opposite. Only evidence in favor of the opposite is evidence in favor of the of opposite.
I could have come up with many more examples of logical fallacies present in the attacks on the Pope. Indeed, I keep wanting to squeeze in more like No True Scotsman and Non Sequitur. As well as the formal fallacies like Affirming the Consequent and Denying the Antecedent. When it comes down to it, the Appeal to Antiquity is very common in radical traditionalist circles. But eventually that leads to having a book length treatise instead of a blog article.
But regardless of how many fallacies I discuss, the point boils down to this. The attacks challenging the orthodoxy of the Pope have no basis in fact and they have no basis in reason. The reasoning they use cannot support the allegations made. The result of this fact means that the allegation against the Pope cannot be proven and therefore must cease to be repeated as if it were proven.
Proof of an accusation requires a clear demonstration that a fact is true and that it is relevant to the charge at hand. When we cannot make these demonstrations, we cannot claim they are proven. But when it comes to the Pope and his detractors, those who dislike him cannot demonstrate that the charges of heresy are true and they cannot demonstrate that the facts they cite are relevant to the accusations they make.
Catholics need to be aware of the fact that these attacks have no basis of truth to them, because when a point is claimed over and over, some people begin to believe that they must be true, because they hear it “everywhere.” Others become demoralized because they are tired of hearing the same claims over and over and wonder whether it is worth fighting anymore. We need to remember that logically fallacious arguments cannot demonstrate the proof of their claims, and that the attacks against the orthodoxy of the Pope, without exception, are logically fallacious.