Saturday, September 24, 2016

Thoughts on Fallacies in "Magic Solutions"

Both in the secular world and in the Church, some people argue that “all we need to do is . . .” [favored solution here] "and we’ll stop the problem.” For a secular example, when there is a mass shooting, some people argue that if we just outlaw private ownership of guns, the mass killings will stop. Or, as a religious example, I’ve seen some argue that if we return to receiving the Eucharist on the tongue or celebrate Mass ad orientem, we’ll solve the problem of irreverence at Mass. People like to use this argument to promote a preferred policy in order to make things the way they think should be. There’s nothing wrong with preferring certain policies, and wanting changes when we think things have gone terribly wrong.

The problem is, too often we think our preferred policy is the “magic solution” where if only we get rid of something we dislike, we solve the problem as if the thing we disliked was some sort of “evil eye” we need defense from. But if the first does not cause the second, we won’t stop the second by stopping the first. The problem will still exist. 

Logically, we can put these “magic solution” claims into a syllogism:

  • If X happens then Y happens
  • Y Happened
  • Therefore X happened

In logic, that’s the affirming the consequent fallacy. It assumes a link between X and Y and X is always the cause of Y. We can show why it is false by replacing X and Y:

  • If I am in Los Angeles I am in California. [True]
  • I am in California. [True]
  • Therefore I am in Los Angeles. [Maybe not, and being in California isn’t proof of being in Los Angeles]

While most of the country tends to equate Los Angeles with California, the syllogism is false because I can be in California without being in Los Angeles.

In a similar way, when we want to stop an evil, we must be certain that we’ve identified the real problem. Just because we don’t like X does not mean X causes Y. That’s why I get annoyed when some Catholics argue that to stop irreverence at Mass, we must replace Communion in the hand with Communion on the tongue, Mass ad populum with Mass ad orientem, the vernacular with Latin, or the Ordinary Form of the Mass with the Extraordinary Form. Sure, if one can prove that these things cause irreverence, then yes, let’s eliminate them. But first you have to show that these things caused the irreverence, and not something else. Just because X happened and then Y happened does not mean that X caused Y. Again, that’s what we have to prove.

So it seems to me that the Catholics who say we need to “go back” to older practices and the Catholics who say we need to “move forward” with new ideas to make the Mass “relevant" are making the same mistake. As I see it, the first step is to educate the modern Catholic about the meaning of the Mass and the Eucharist, and what we believe about it. Once we do that, they might understand a call to recover the meaning of an earlier practice or to seek a better way to express the truth in a newer practice. But if we lose sense of the meaning of the Mass and the Eucharist, then the practices and stances in Mass will also lose meaning. In that case, going back to an older practice or going forward with a newer one will just seem like an arbitrary decision.

It is for the Pope and, in some cases, the bishops to determine what practices are fitting for the Mass. The rest of us can’t override them. As we were taught in Vatican II:

22. 1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.

2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops   legitimately established.

3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.


 Catholic Church, “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

But we can work in our parishes—with, and never opposed to, the Pope, bishops and priests—to promote a proper understanding of the Mass so the faithful might adopt a more reverent attitude in the celebration of the Mass and reception of the Eucharist. That can be done in catechesis, in bulletins, and in many other forms of parish programs.

I’m not saying this will be easy, or that one solution will fit all. We all have our preferences, and not all of them are compatible with what the Church says must be done. Certainly the infamous abuses must be curbed. The Mass is not something we can take a relativistic attitude towards. But I am saying we put the cart before the horse if we think that a “magical solution” (whether “going back to” or “moving forward with”) will solve the problem of a lack of reverence.

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