Sunday, May 26, 2019

False Accusations revisited

Parvus error in principiis, magnus error in conclusionibus (Small error in the beginning leads to great error in the conclusion). It’s a maxim that means that if you start with errors in your assumptions, your conclusion will build on those false assumptions and wind up with an even greater one [§]. So, when we set out to prove something, it’s vital to make sure that our assumptions and research are correct.

This is especially true if you’re planning to accuse a person or group. We might think something is an error. But before we argue that it is in error, we need to investigate whether our understanding about the thing is true. If it isn’t, our opposition might be what’s really in error.

I think of this when I come across anti-Catholic attacks. In attempting to show why they are right in their beliefs, they start by attacking our “errors.” The problem is, Catholics don’t believe what they accuse us of. So, if they justify breaking with the Catholic Church on grounds of the Church teaching error [#], but the errors they allege we teach are things we don’t we actually reject then their break remains unjustified. So when Calvin alleges we worship idols, when some Orthodox allege Catholics think we “earn” our way out of Purgatory by our suffering (The Orthodox Confession of the Catholic and Apostolic Eastern Church, Question 66) [*], when Luther alleges (Commentary On Galatians, Chapter 5 v. 15) [+] that we believe we can earn salvation, these things are simply false. The Catholic Church does not and never had believed these things.

Whether Calvin, Peter Mogila (the author of the Orthodox Confession) and Luther were badly taught on these matters, whether they badly misunderstood the correct teachings, or whether they were barefaced liars (I leave it to God to judge), they used false statements to justify rejection of the Catholic Church and encourage others to do the same. Not only at the time of writing, but in the present time where modern anti-Catholics assume they had accurate knowledge of Church teaching. [%].

Of course, we must follow Our Lord’s teaching in Luke 6:31. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” If we would have others speak truthfully about us, we must speak truthfully about others. That means if we want to speak about another’s errors, we must be sure we have properly understood their statements as they intended it to be understood. Whether we speak or write about others, inside or outside of the Church, we have the obligation to make sure we speak accurately about what they really said and did.

Sadly, that isn’t the case. There is a (probably informal) movement that is aimed at opposing what they think is error in the Church. They take “Who am I to judge” to be approval of homosexuality. They take “rabbit Catholics” to mean opposition to large families. They take his words on the permissive will of God to be something approved of by God. From here they use their false interpretation (whatever the culpability might be) to attack the Pope, some having gone so far as to formally accuse him of heresy and urge the bishops to take action.

But these are false accusations, even if the anti-Francis Catholics believe them. We have an obligation to understand a person correctly before accusing him if we are to avoid rash judgment (you’ll notice that, while I pointed out that reformers, anti-Catholics, and anti-Francis Catholics spoke falsely—which can be established by comparing what they wrote with what the Church wrote—I never accused them of lying. That would require knowledge of their heart and mind that only God knows).

Whoever you are, whatever you do (I’m looking at our politicians and media here), whatever you profess to believe, you have an obligation to speak accurately when making an accusation, not assuming that what we hear or what we think it means is what our opponent holds.


[§] In logic, if one or both premises are false and/or the logical form is invalid, the conclusion is unproven. It might be correct by sheer coincidence, but the person didn’t prove his point.

[#] We need to distinguish between what the Church teaches and what an individual Catholic might believe—contrary to the teachings of the Church. If one assumes that the error of one is the error of the whole Church, that’s the fallacy of composition.

[*] This catechism reads in part: “Our Church doth not admit or approve of such Fables as some Men have fancied concerning the State of Souls after Death; as that they are tormented in Pits and Waters, and with sharp Prongs, when they are snatched away by Death before they can have done sufficient Penance for their Faults.” To which Catholics can say, “we don’t believe that either.

[+] “This we see also in the Papacy, where the doctrine of faith being cast aside, it was impossible that concord of spirit should remain, and in the stead thereof there arose through the doctrine of works innumerable sects of monks, which being at variance with one another, did measure their holiness by the straitness of their orders and the difficulty of their superstitious works which they had themselves devised.” To which Catholics can say “Luther knew less than he thought about the Catholic Faith.”

[%] That doesn’t mean that the Catholic Church teaches the Protestant position of course. Rejecting A does not mean accepting B.


  1. On the 'up' side, wacky claims about the Catholic Church, Catholicism (and other 'anti-American plots') indirectly led me to become a Catholic. I don't miss my 'good old days,' and that's another topic.

    Well-said, although in my darker moments I wonder whether discussing facts and reason make a difference in 'religious' discussions.And that's yet more topics. ;)

    1. I’m certainly glad you joined us

      As to whether it makes a difference, I suppose it might not with a person being debated if he or she is obstinate. But even then, somebody else reading the exchange might find it helpful.