Friday, August 7, 2020

What Are You Here For?

When GK Chesterton once remarked, “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong,” he was certainly correct about what we need and should want from the Catholic Church. But what we are seeing more and more is Catholics demanding a Church that confirms that they are right and their enemies are wrong. When the Church points out that they themselves have missed the point of being a Catholic, they become outraged. They see it as “proof” that the Church is erring. 

That is a dangerous attitude to take because it means that we no longer want a Church to teach us. We want a Church to praise usand punish them. We think that our pointing out the sins of the world and wanting chastisement is good. But actually, when James and John wanted to do this (Luke 9:54), Jesus rebuked them (Luke 9:55). He came to save the sinners… and those sinners include us.

It’s not wrong, of course, to want the Church to remove corruption and scandal from her midst. But we also have to remember that Our Lord used a parable about the weeds and the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). In it, the Master forbids pulling up the weeds for fear of pulling up the wheat too. As I understand it, while they are ripening, the two were virtually identical. I imagine that imagery is apt. How many of us, if we had been targeted for wrath earlier on in our lives, would have been seen as weeds? If we’re honest with ourselves, each of us will have to admit to resembling one.

With this in mind, we may need to ask whether that hypocritical person near us in the pews might be in the same situation now that we were then. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us our trespasses… as we forgive those who trespass against us! Our Lord does warn:  If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:14–15)

Logically, if we come to God for forgiveness, we must forgive others and desire their salvation, not their punishment. No doubt, some will refuse to repent when the opportunity for Grace comes. But it’s not for us to judge when it comes and whether our foes received it. As members of the Church, we do need to make known what people are required to do in to be faithful to God, and that does not permit acting passively in the face of sins and scandal to be sure. Yes, we do need to sometimes admonish the sinners. But “admonish the sinners” is not synonymous with “act like an arrogant jerk towards sinners.” 

So, when we’re annoyed by the Church failing to act in a way we think best, we need to ask what we are expecting of the Church. If we’re expecting the Church to act like a stereotyped version of the Spanish Inquisition, we’re seeking the wrong thing. But if we’re seeking salvation for our own sins, then let us keep in mind that forgiveness is given to the merciful, not the self-righteous (cf. Luke 5:32). We should keep in mind that, while we might never be tempted to commit the abominable sins that others do, we do need the Grace of God to deliver us from other sins… because the deadliest sin for each of us is the one we make excuses for instead of repent over.

So, when we’re annoyed with the Church for failing to deal with others as we see fit, while focusing on things that tend to denounce our political favorites, let’s ask ourselves why we’re here being Catholics instead of “nones.” It seems to me that if we’re here to celebrate our own values and wanting others to be rebuked, we’re acting like Pharisees (cf. Luke 18:9-14) and are here for the wrong reasons. But if we’re here because we first know we are sinners in need of salvation, and approach the correction of sinners from the perspective of gratitude to God and wanting to share and help those in a similar situation, then we’re here for the right reasons. It’s something to think about.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Identifying With a Thing Doesn’t Make It Good per se. Opposing it Doesn’t Make it Bad

One thing I encounter among Catholics on social media is the assumption that: because I identify with a thing, it must be good or because I oppose it, it must be bad. The problem with this view is it confuses what makes an act good or evil objectively with one’s feelings about an act. Since people don’t like to think of themselves as being wrong, this assumption frequently results in accusing the Church of error for affirming a teaching in the face of popular sentiment.

These attacks—like so many others—are not limited to one region or faction. Conservative or liberal; Democrat or Republican; these and many other factions across the public square find fault with the Church where the Church cannot do anything else but teach this way.

To understand why the Church holds that a thing must be a certain way, we need to grasp that there are three things needed to make an act morally good. The action itself must be good (e.g. you can never say an act of rape or genocide is good), the results must be good (a do-gooder who sparks a riot through lack of prudence doesn’t perform a good act even if the action itself is good), and the intention must be good (If I donate money to charity in order to impress and seduce my neighbor’s wife, that is an evil intention). If even one of these three conditions are absent, you don’t have a good act. Let’s look at some illustrations.

Things like abortion are examples of an intrinsically bad act. It arbitrarily chooses to end an innocent human life for the perceived benefit of another human life. Even if the person who commits it thinks that the good outweighed the evil, or meant well in doing so, you can’t call it a good act. How one feels about it doesn’t change that fact. This is why the Church cannot do anything other than condemn it. Reducing the amount of abortion cannot be an end in itself. It can only be a step on the way to abolition.

Other acts can be neutral or good in themselves, but the consequence is bad. For example, the Church does teach that a nation can regulate immigration if doing so is necessary. This is something critics of the Pope and bishops love to point out. But there is a difference between “our country is in the midst of a disaster and we are having trouble dealing with it right now” and “Criminals among THOSE people are dangerous and we don’t want them here, so let’s keep everyone out!” The US bishops are pointing out that America is not in that first situation, and the second situation is a morally bad consequence—refusing to help those in need out of a fear of who might get in.

And, of course, a good or neutral act can be made bad if done for a bad intention. Being thrifty is a good thing. But, if one is frugal for a bad reason (like Judas dipping into the common purse [John 12:5-6]), it’s not a morally good act. If a government cuts expenses with the intent of targeting certain groups or raising taxes in the name of social services, but defines the term to fund immoral policies, then the bad intention corrupts the good or neutral base act.

In these cases, no matter how much one identifies with the cause, if it’s defective in one of these three parts, you can’t call it a good act.

On the other side, the fact that the Church as a whole, the Pope, or an individual bishop acts in a way we disagree with does notmake it a morally bad act. The Church needs to act with an eye towards saving souls. That might be a soft merciful approach, as when Our Lord dined with sinners. It might be a strong rebuke, as when Our Lord rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees. But the point of their action is supposed to be bringing the sinner back to reconciliation. Since the Church is made up of sinners with finite knowledge, we will invariably encounter situations handled badly. But we will also encounter situations we think are handled badly due to our own lack of knowledge… either about the situation or about the teaching behind the Church’s action. 

Every election year, for example, we hear from certain Catholics on how the bishops are failing by not excommunicating politicians for supporting abortion. This is based on a misunderstanding of canon law. Canon law points out that those directly taking part in a specific act of abortion (abortionist, their staff, woman having an abortion, etc.) are automatically excommunicated. But those working to protect abortion as a “right” are doing something gravely sinful and, under canon 916, should refrain from Communion. Canon 915 involves those publicly involved in grave sin. Some bishops have invoked it in refusing communion to politicians in their dioceses. Others don’t seem to have acted in this way. 

But what we don’t know is why they have not acted publicly. It could be laxity or sympathy… the two common charges from those who demand public action. Are there situations we don’t know about? Are the bishops in personal dialogue with these Catholic politicians? Have they privately told these politicians not to receive? Do they want to avoid conflict? I don’t know… but neither do the critics. We should certainly pray for our bishops to shepherd rightly. But we should also keep in mind that—in connecting the dots—we may not have seen all the dots that we need to connect.

This should not be interpreted as a “be passive in the face of injustice.” What it means is, we should not be so confident in our interpretation of events that we think only the conclusion we draw is true. Church history is full of people who thought they knew better and caused all sorts of chaos, endangering their own souls and the souls of others. Because conditions change, the Church will have to decide how to best apply timeless truths to the current times. Sometimes, the attitudes of a society can lead Catholics to tolerate—or even commit—injustice. Sometimes those Catholics are higher up in the Church. But we must not assume that this is the case when the Church must teach in a way we do not like.

 

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(†) Of course, we must do more to help people than just end abortion. We need to help people in situations where they think it is the only choice. But only focusing on those parts while leaving it legal is not a Catholic position.

(‡) Provided, of course, the Bishop is acting in communion with the Pope and fellow bishops. The actions of a Lefebvre or a Milingo (for example) cannot be defended on these grounds.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

It’s Iimi! A Dialogue on Misconceptions

Another comic involving a misconceptions about Catholic beliefs. When Saul misunderstands Catholic teaching on free will, Iimi clarifies and asks why don’t people ask what we believe before assuming that accusations are true.





































Friday, July 24, 2020

The Dangerous Double Standards and Tu Quoque Fallacies

While it’s easy to lose sight of it in the midst of the coronavirus and BLM protest news, we do have an election coming up. This brings up the usual problems with American Catholics acting goofy. Following the news—frequently little more than editorials—I notice a bipartisan problem. That problem is the rush to condemn something only when it shows up in an administration run by the opposing political party, but staying silent on the issue when it’s prevalent in an administration one supports.

That doesn’t mean we need to be silent on both of course. Quite the opposite in fact. If something is an injustice, it needs to be solved regardless of who is in power. But if we only speak out on it when our enemies are in power, and make excuses for when our favored faction ruled, we are hypocrites who are looking for a stick to bash our opponents over, not effect lasting reform.

One of the problems seems to be that we treat politics as a zero-sum game and don’t want to endanger our party’s prospects when an election is on the line by criticism. I say zero-sum because everybody tends to think that if someone does anything to challenge their preferred party, that person is accused of acting to benefit the other side… and all the evils that the other side is associated with. 

So, we tend to kick our own scandals under the table and blame the problem on the other party. But, in pointing out the failures of the other side, we show we are aware that the problem is an evil, and that we were silent when our own party was in power. For example, I’ve seen Catholic Democrats take pleasure in pointing out the fact that—under Republican administrations—abortion hasn’t gone away, while Catholic Republicans point to the fact that we had incompetent handling of epidemics and unjust handling of illegal immigration under the Democrat administrations. Both are right in saying that the other side has a history of injustice and failure.

The problem is, because they overlook their own party’s fault, the hypocrisy is staggering. As Catholics, we have an obligation to do what is right in accordance with the teachings of the Church. Downplaying the evils or making it seem less important than the evils of the other side is an evasion at best. If we know X is morally wrong when our political opponents do it, we have an obligation not to tolerate it in our own party. Reform isn’t simply a matter of voting for the party you see as less of a disaster. It also means reforming your own party when it goes wrong… regardless of whether the other side does the same.

If we will not do that, we are hypocrites and will have to answer for the scandal we cause. I say scandal because, if we give a witness of setting aside those Church teachings that our own party is guilty of, we set an example of letting others do the same for their own party. Whether a Catholic is a Democrat, an independent, a Republican, or a supporter of a Third Party, we cannot turn our backs on evil or injustice while pointing out the problems of the other side. We cannot argue that another Catholic must violate his conscience in order to vote the way we like, just because we fear the consequences of our party losing.

We have to ask ourselves about how we will answer for our evasions and brush-offs at the final judgment. It will do no good to say, “I chose to violate teaching A to promote teaching B.” It will do no good to say “they did it too.” When we knowingly ignore what the Church teaches, we will have to give an account. When we choose not to learn the truth about why the Church speaks against the policy of a politician we support when we easily could have done the research, our ignorance will not be a defense. Invincible ignorance exists when we have no way of knowing we are in the wrong. But when we have a Church speaking against that wrong, we do not have that excuse.

 

__________

(†) As always, I choose to contrast Democrat-Republican, Left-Right, Conservative-Liberal in alphabetical order to avoid appearance of bias.

(‡) I am using “independent” in the sense of “not affiliated with a party,” not in the sense of the American Independent Party (a third party).

Friday, July 17, 2020

Are We Blind or Do We See? Thoughts on Dissent and Culpability

Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin. (Gaudium et Spes #16)

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They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged. (Lumen Gentium #14)

 

The bishops issued a condemnation regarding the resumption of the death penalty in the United States. Given that the Pope made use of his legitimate authority to teach in the ordinary magisterium (canon 752) when he made amendments to how the death penalty is applied (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2267), and the bishops are teaching in communion with him (canon 753), rejection of this teaching cannot be considered a “prudential judgment” or the act of a faithful Catholic.

But, when confronted with that fact, certain# Catholics among those who still support the death penalty instead say that the bishops should speak on other issues instead. They then usually cite the usual falsehoods spread against the Pope. But this argument is not only a tu quoque, but actually a sign of ignorance: The Pope and bishops do speak on these topics and have been vilified by the same political factions that the bishops are now accused of supporting.

During the pontificates of St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, these Catholics would have labeled those arguing for the right to dissent “heretics.” But now, under Pope Francis, they call the Pope “heretic” and use the same arguments they once condemned. That isn’t rhetoric. In the 1980 to 2013, defenders of the Church recognized that this was dissent. Now, they call it “being faithful.” †


So, here’s the question we need to consider. Given that the Church has consistently taught from the beginning that the Church teaches with Christ’s authority and is protected from error, can we call the Catholic who refuses to obey when the Pope or the bishops in communion with him teach—in the ordinary or extraordinary manner—faithful?

I believe the answer is no, though they think they are and the level of culpability might be different. One might only be materiallyin error, thinking he or she is doing the right thing while in reality is fuzzy on Church teaching. One might be formally in error, knowing the teaching and that he or she is in defiance, but thinking that as long as the Church “errs,” that dissent is justified. Assessing their guilt is for God to judge, not me. But they are in wrong nonetheless and we cannot let error have free rein*

And that is the problem. Since those of us who claim§ to be properly taught and faithful Catholics must look to the Church to discern whether we have properly formed our consciences or not, we cannot plead invincible ignorance in rejecting what we aretaught. 

Yes, a Pope can be willfully sinful like John XII. No, I don’t think that Pope Francis comes anywhere near that. But even if he did, that would not change his binding authority to teach or God’s protection from him teaching error.

Once one understands this truth, there can be no justification for disobedience. Whatever a religiously illiterate media reports, that does not change our responsibility to investigate whether these claims are true and whether we are committing the fallacies of equivocation or accent in our reading of what the Pope (or the documents we cite against him) actually said. Regardless of whether one thinks the Pope speaks clearly, the obligation to determine whether we understand him correctly remains. If we cannot find an answer, the Church teaching against rash judgment forbids us to assume that what we don’t understand is “error.” According to the Catechism that’s rash judgment:

2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

Of course, for those of us who encounter—especially if we try to correct—this attitude on the internet, we also have to keep the risk of rash judgment in mind. We can’t assume a deliberately schismatic attitude without proof, any more than they can assume heresy. Yes, I’ve encountered some who were diehard SSPXers. But I’ve also encountered those who were simply deceived by malicious sites, or did not realize that the news sites they used were inaccurate (there’s the whole religious illiteracy in the media thing again). We should try to be charitable in our exchanges. Even if those we debate behave badly, we still need to bear Christian witness to the people of good will who don’t understand… but want to and can’t see how to reconcile the difference between their understanding and the Church teaching. 

However, we view the state of the Church, we must remember that not only must we consider the blindness of others, we must also consider our own blindness and pray to be delivered from it.

_________

(#) I say “certain” because we always need to beware the fallacy of composition. The fact that some Catholics in a faction behave badly does not mean all Catholics in that faction do.

(†) Both then and now, these factions try to contrast obedience to Christ against obedience to His Church. Both cite documents—using their own interpretation—against how the Pope and bishops interpret it against the conditions of the times.

(*) That doesn’t mean—contra those who say “error has no rights” as an excuse—that we can mistreat those in error. God desires compassion and conversion, after all.

(§) As our Lord points out in John 9:41, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” If we claim to be faithful Catholics, we have less excuse than the unchurched for acting in a way the Church condemns.

(‡) Unfortunately, I don’t always succeed either. There’s always the temptation to “teach that jerk a lesson.” I’ve always regretted it when I respond that way. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

A Reflection on Justice and Collective Guilt

So, we had a third attack on a statue of St. Junipero Serra. This time in my own diocese. As these attacks continue, I see an emerging tendency which might seem entirely just from a human perspective, though not from a Catholic perspective. That tendency is to go from an entirely just anger and disgust, to a rejection of the original just causes through a guilt by association fallacy.

I say this seems entirely just if taken solely from a human perspective because it is natural to think that if Group A suffers evil at the hands of Group B, we ought to cut ties with and oppose Group B. I say it is not just from a Catholic perspective because we believe that justice means giving to each their due, and punishing the whole for the sins of the fringe is not just.

Our Catholic bishops (contra the claims of some of my fellow Catholics) have given a balanced approach to this modern iconoclasm. They condemn the evil from the fringes, while acknowledging the justified grievances that the main groups have. Unfortunately, some Catholics—based on their personal views of Church and politics—either assume the guilt of all those protesting for racial justice or all in the Church for the acts or views that the Church actually condemned.

Context is always key. People from the past can be blind to bad practices of their times on one hand, doing evil but not intending it. But things can also be misrepresented by people from the present as well. We need to investigate, not assume. As an example, I’ve seen a quote going around the internet purported to be from St. Junipero Serra as “proof” that the saint was in favor of the mistreatment of native Americans. I have two problems with that quote. First, we have no source material for the statement as translated. That doesn’t mean the quote is a fabrication of course. He might have said it. It might be verifiable under a different translation. But without knowing where we might independently verify this quote outside of the say-so of those hostile to him, how can we investigate? Second, because we have no source: if he did say it, we have no way to determine the context. Was he saying it to support it, or saying it to condemn a vicious practice that people had grown blind to§?

So, whether one thinks he was following a practice in a time when discipline was more physical than verbal, whether he was in favor of mistreatment of natives alone (something I doubt), or whether he was opposing the practice, such a person needs evidence for their claims.

Of course, one outside of a group with grievances must not be too quick to dismiss the grievance. Otherwise we risk looking like we don’t care about the grievance. But we can’t just capitulate to an unjust demand either, whether out of fear or out of misplaced#empathy. 

Yes, the Church is filled with sinners. You the reader and I the writer are two of them. We might not be guilty of the worst sins committed by Catholics or in the name of the Church. But we can’t think of those evils within the Church as “somebody else’s problem.” At the same time, we can’t assume that the individual sinners in the Church are proof that those in charge are guilty of willfully supporting those evils. The sacrament of penance exists to bring us back into right relationship with God and each other, and people do repent. Imagine if we ignored the good St. Paul did on the grounds of the evils he did before his conversion.

But once we recognize that, we must do unto others (Matthew 7:12) despite how others outside the Church treat us. Do we think the Church is being unjustly accused and attacked as a whole for the sins of some? I believe so. But if we do recognize that this unjust, that is a warning sign that we must not do it to others.

 

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(†) Remember, we praise Bartolomé de la Casas as a saint, not Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda.

(‡) The quote in question is: “That spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of the Americas; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule.”

(§) Taken as translated, and having no knowledge of context, my instinct is to give it the second interpretation. But without context, neither I nor the Saint’s critics can know that to be a fact.

(#) “Misplaced” is the key word. For example, legitimate empathy calls us to consider the plight of a woman considering abortion. But it doesn’t allow us to support her abortion.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Two Complementary Views of the Church—Often Held in Opposition to Each Other

There are two different views of the Church that people often place in opposition to each other, assuming that the existence of one denies the truth of the other. The first view is that Jesus Christ has established the Catholic Church, given it the authority to teach in His name, and having His protection from error. The second view is that the Catholic Church is an institution filled with sinful people, some of whom are higher up members who have committed sins or even crimes.

These two views are—unfortunately—often seen as an either-or situation. Some Catholics take the first view in a way that either denies or downplays that problems exist in the Church. It gets shrugged off as “there will always be Judases in the Church.” Very true, but not what those who suffered unjustly at the hands of one of those Judases need to hear. Other Catholics will take the second view in a way that denies or downplays the first. They argue that the sinful or criminal members of the Church negate or even disprove the authority of the Church. 

Both of these Either-Or interpretations are wrong. The fact that the Church is established and protected by Christ does not mean that sins within are non-existent or minor. But the fact that some very bad people have risen in the ranks of the Church does not mean that the authority and protection no longer exist, or never existed in the first place.

I suspect that both of these errors are excessively optimistic and pessimistic views over the recognition that the Church should beholy in both teaching and practice. But when some people encounter the evils within the Church, they tend to suppress or downplay the view that runs counter to their own outlook.

Both of these excessive views are a problem because it leads people to think any legitimate defense of the authority of the Church is “denial” of the problems, while any legitimate criticism of the problems within the Church is seen as refusal to accept the authority of the Church.

In the first case, the Catholics who defend the authority of the Church need to grasp that the anger against the wrongdoing members—especially if there seems to be no apparent consequence they can see—has reasons behind it that needs to be understood. Note I said “understood.” That doesn’t necessarily mean “accepted without question.”

I make this distinction because even if—as sometimes happens—the person who is upset or angry with the Church is wrong about the accusations made against the Church, it is a real pain that needs to be addressed. That might be done by solving the problem transparently (if it is a legitimate grievance and their request is just), or explaining (compassionately) why the Church can’t do what they want. In either response, we need to show concern for their issues and help them in a just way without looking upon them as a bother. Yes, some critics have wrongly put themselves in to literal or virtual schism. But we need to respond in compassion, whether the just response is reforming an evil or correcting one’s misconception about what is evil.

In the second case, critics need to recognize that just because they think that Priest A or Bishop B are behaving wrongly, this does not negate the authority of the Church to teach, nor of our own obligation to give assent to Church teachings. Yes, John XII (who is consistently mentioned) was a morally bad Pope (yes, that is an understatement) but that doesn’t remove the authority of Popes to teach in the ordinary or extraordinary magisterium (cf. canon 752). It doesn’t remove the authority the bishops have to govern their dioceses in communion with the Pope.

Catholics need to be aware of both views and accept them both without assuming the existence of one denies the reality of the other. The Church has Our Lord’s authority/protection, and the Church has sinners within. When we find ourselves denying one of the two as threatening our preferred view, it’s a sign that we need to reevaluate our own views of the Church.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Obligation to Understand is a Two-Way Street

When the seven days were nearly completed, the Jews from the province of Asia noticed him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd, and laid hands on him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us. This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place, and what is more, he has even brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this sacred place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him and supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. The whole city was in turmoil with people rushing together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the gates were closed. (Acts 21:27–30)

In our factionalized nation, the question of “how do we change something?” too often overlooks the question of are the demands unjust? If the demand is unjust, then it is wrong to make the demand and wrong to give into it. However, just because a demand is unjust does not mean the underlying need behind it is unjust. For example, the demand for abortion as a “right” is unjust, and we cannot compromise over opposition. But there is a legitimate need behind the demand—proper health care and support for pregnant women and families—that must be met.

We can approach it the other way too. In these times, there is a legitimate need to correct racial injustices have existed for far too long. But not every demand that comes from this need is just. For example, the demands to remove or destroy religious imagery on the grounds that they symbolize some sort of injustice in the eyes of the mob is an unjust demand. Unlike many Confederate monuments and symbols, Catholics don’t have religious monuments erected as a way of saying “@#$% you!” to certain groups of people. Statues to St. Junipero Serra and St. Louis IX (both targeted by mobs) exist to honor saints for their examples of holiness.

Similar to the passage from Acts, cited above, people react to what they think they know and the result is often injustice.

Of course, we as Catholics, can’t say “I neither understand nor care to understand your concern.” But in this crisis, I don’t think that our Catholic leaders are doing this. I believe our bishops have issued a strong witness against racial injustice not only after the George Floyd case, but actually before. Do individual Catholics sometimes say shocking things? Yes, tragically. But when they do so, they are not acting with the approval of the Church.

I think this is an important distinction to make. We are (rightly) reminded that the extremists in a group does not automatically mean the group as a whole is extremist. To assume otherwise is the fallacy of composition. But that’s a two-way street. The Catholic Church has sometimes been slow to get the news of injustice, especially in the days before modern technology, but she has never sided with those who defend what is morally wrong. For example, we recognize St. Bartolomé de las Casas as a saint for his work defending the moral treatment of slaves and Native Americans, but we don’t praise those who defended the wrongdoing. We recognize that the Church condemned racial slavery from the first appearance—before Europeans first encountered the Americas to be precise—when Eugene IV condemned the Portuguese enslaving the natives of the Canary Islands in 1435, saying:

And no less do We order and command all and each of the faithful of each sex, within the space of fifteen days of the publication of these letters in the place where they live, that they restore to their earlier liberty all and each person of either sex who were once residents of said Canary Islands, and made captives since the time of their capture, and who have been made subject to slavery. These people are to be totally and perpetually free, and are to be let go without the exaction or reception of money. If this is not done when the fifteen days have passed, they incur the sentence of excommunication by the act itself, from which they cannot be absolved, except at the point of death, even by the Holy See, or by any Spanish bishop, or by the aforementioned Ferdinand, unless they have first given freedom to these captive persons and restored their goods. We will that like sentence of excommunication be incurred by one and all who attempt to capture, sell, or subject to slavery, baptized residents of the Canary Islands, or those who are freely seeking Baptism, from which excommunication cannot be absolved except as was stated above.

This is not the language of supporting slavery. It is language showing that since the onset of the racial slave trade, the Church has condemned it… but lacked the ability to make godless men care about their evils§. They could only try to convert those men.

I suspect the demagogues and their mobs know nothing about the true history of the Church in facing certain evils. If that ignorance was invincible (having no way of being corrected), they could be without blame for wrongly thinking that what they did was right. But if they could have known if they took the trouble to look (cf. Gaudium et Spes #16), then acting out of ignorance is not excused.

For our part, we as Catholics in the pews do need to help in spreading the truth about what we believe to correct those who have a false belief about us. So, yes, we do need to look at ourselves and see if we have failed. That can be individually or as a whole—including ourselves. But let’s not use “we” in the sense of “everybody else” when we say “We Catholics have failed to do X.” It may turn out that we are allowing our own preferences about what we would prefer the Church to do to become an indictment of the Church for something she is not guilty of.

But often, we have been denied the chance to demonstrate what we do believe. Falsehoods dating back to the Protestant Reformation are still believed. Our moral beliefs are treated as bigotry, and our attempts to engage the world are sometimes treated as “explaining away” what they think is fact. In that case, we no longer have the two-way street of dialogue. We have “shut up and listen,” where we are given an ultimatum to concede whatever is demanded or be labeled “bigoted” or “anti-woman” or any other false accusation they care to throw at us.

As human beings, every person who is a member of the Church is a sinner who continually has a need to repent and turn back to God. So of course, anybody looking for dirt on a member of the Church will find it (I’m certainly glad my “young and stupid” days preceded the internet, for example). But we can’t assume that the behavior of some is the behavior of all; we can’t assume that a past attitude is carried on today; we can’t assume that what we think words mean is what is actually intended.

And if we in the Church can’t, neither can those who attack us. That’s the two-way street that’s being ignored.

 

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(†) I make this qualification because, if I understand it correctly, at least one statue exists (or perhaps existed) that honored a former Confederate officer for his charitable work done after the Civil War. This is different from the defiant erection of certain statues because of their actions supporting succession.

(‡) The arguments used by Catholic slave owners in the Pre-Civil War United States used arguments that are remarkably similar to those used by pro-abortion Catholics today… a dishonest legalism that attempted to twist the meaning of words.

(§) This wasn’t a one-time thing either. Saints like Bartolomé de las Casas and others would refuse absolution to the inhumane slave owners. But like the abortion issue today, when people don’t care about the consequences of automatic excommunication, The Church can’t really do anything to physically impose their will.


Tuesday, June 30, 2020

“Are We Forgetting George Floyd?” Thoughts on Moral Obligation During These Times


As I watch the protests unfold, I find myself noticing a few things. First, the death of George Floyd seems to be increasingly forgotten in the protests… or at least the media coverage of the protests. Second, as they move forward, they seem to be focusing less about the treatment of African-Americans in this country and more about whatever the demagogues leading the movement want to cancel next in our “cancel culture.”
I don’t say this out of any political bias. Regardless of whether the people who called the Police had a valid reason to do so, Mr. Floyd’s killing was entirely in opposition to the Catholic teaching on the reasonable use of force. We should demand a just reform of those things that made it possible.
The problem is, the current protests don’t seem to have anything to do with these things. Now they appear to be largely about “canceling” statues and the people they represent. As I wrote in a previous article, some of those objections are valid… but some are not.
Unfortunately, we are an easily distracted people. So I suspect—and I pray that I am wrong—that if anybody remembers the protests at all five years from now, they will remember it for the stupid things some extremists among the protestors are doing, while remaining utterly convinced that whatever the full (non-extremist) movement does in the future can be written off as more of the same extremism.
This can’t be the Catholic attitude. No, we can’t condone it when certain demagogues try to attack our saints and their statues. We can’t condone it when some turn to rioting and risk the lives of others. But we can and must stand up for true justice. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes justice as:
1807 Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.” Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor. “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”
It means that, since each human being is created in the image and likeness of God, we must treat them as such, not in a way that we would be unwilling experience (cf. Matthew 7:12). Justice cannot have benefits for one group in a way that harms others. Unfortunately, people sometimes confuse which is which, and deny one’s person’s rights in the name of an injustice they call “rights.” For example, the “right” to abortion absolutely negates the right to life for some, and in recent Court rulings, “Gay rights” are infringing on the freedom of religion recognized in the US Constitution.
So, White Supremacy is unjust because it benefits one ethnic group at the expense of other ethnic groups. Any semblance of it must be stamped out. But Abortion is not a right, but unjust because it benefits one group at the expense of those who are not yet born. “Gay marriage” is unjust because it dictates to a religious group what moral beliefs they can and cannot practice§ to the benefit of those who want to make the religious group accept different morals.
Recognizing that distinction, we would work for justice for ethnic minorities. Racial discrimination is against our Catholic beliefs. But, while we cannot support abortion or same sex “marriage,” we can work to make sure women have support and real health care when they are in a crisis pregnancy—this is justice to the woman and the unborn child. We cannot support attempts to redefine marriage, but we can work to protect people with same sex attraction from being attacked or otherwise maltreated on the grounds of their sexual inclination. The promotion of wrongdoing as a “right” by others never excuses us from doing what is actually right and just.
Bringing this back to my introduction to this article, what we have is certain set of demagogues and extremists who are hijacking a legitimate and urgent need for social justice in favor of their own antipathies. But their own injustice does not excuse us from working for real social justice. The George Floyd case reminds us that real injustice does exist and must be addressed. We cannot lose sight of that just because certain individuals in that call for justice are behaving unjustly towards us.
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(†) This may be the fault of media coverage. For example (to pick two extremes), CNN seems to focus on what Trump does, while Fox seems primarily focused on the CHAZ/CHOP zone. If any of this has anything to do with reforming the very real problems going on right now, the media isn’t showing it.
(‡) As St. John Paul II pointed out: 
The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination. (St. John Paul II, Christifideles Laici #38)
(§) To expand without bogging down or diverting the article: If a religion believes that Same Sex “marriage” is a sin and those members of the religion who openly practice that sin are causing scandal, the state is violating the rights of freedom of religion in favor of the benefit of a small group by forcing the religion and individual practitioners to do what they think is morally wrong.

Monday, June 29, 2020

“Good For Me but Not for Thee.” Thoughts on the New Iconoclasm

It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.(G.K. Chesterton)

The protests that began as protesting the killing of George Floyd have evolved into a new iconoclasm. This current mob-driven activity assumes that the existence of a monument or symbol exists solely to champion an evil as perceived through the eyes of the demagogue leading them.

In some cases, the perception is right. Some symbols, like the Confederate flag, took on meanings like resistance to the Civil Rights rulings of 1954 and beyond. Some statues were erected as defiance against the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War. In those cases, I have no problem with the legal removal from a place of public honor to a museum (where it can be displayed with proper historical context). 

The problem is, often the demagogues assume that their assumptions on why a monument exists is the only possible reason it could exist. This is an argument from ignorance fallacy, and too often a straw man. If the perceived reason is not the same as the actual reason—especially when the perceived reason comes from historical ignorance—then the attempts to remove the monument or symbol come from bigotry in the sense of the G.K. Chesterton quote at the beginning of this article.

For example, the demonstrations around religious monuments (or monuments perceived to be religious) involve either assumptions about the motives, or ignorance about the historical events about the person or events. St. Junipero Serra was vandalized for “crimes” he wasn’t guilty of. St. Louis IX is being targeted for “Islamophobia.” The assumption is that even the smallest deviation from the perceived 21st Century sensibility is deliberate and malicious. But 21st century perceptions of history are no less biased than the perceptions of previous centuries. They just have different biases. As an example, 19th century American historical biases tended to be “Protestantism = Good.” They focused on the worst abuses that existed in any part of pre-Protestant Christendom and treated as if it was doctrine that had to be destroyed. The 21st century bias tends to be “anybody who doesn’t conform to our thinking is a bigot.” Both are wrong to apply as a general principle, even when there are legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.

The problem is, these biases cannot accept the idea that conditions were different in different times and not all differences were the result of malice. For example, opposition to Islam in the Crusades was not rooted in xenophobia or a lust for conquest. It was based on the belief that aggressive Muslim nations had unjustly seized the Holy Land and were intent on conquering Europe as well. Yes, some Crusaders committed injustices, things that cannot be condoned under the more fully matured teaching of the Church today. But it would be factually wrong to assume that the injustices that existed were the intention of the Crusades in general.

We need to remember that unjust accusations by some members of a group often have the side effect of alienating people from accepting just accusations from the group as a whole. Yes, it’s a fallacy of composition, but it’s easy for people to think “these accusations are false, therefore all accusations from these people are false.” The story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf illustrates this danger. I have unfortunately seen some Catholics (falsely) reason that because the attacks on certain Catholic saints are so obviously false, the legitimate objections to certain Civil War monuments must also be false.

What we need to do is to be certain that our facts are correct and we understand the context of a time. We must also be careful that we don’t fall into a double standard, condemning them for something we turn a blind eye to when our standard harms us. Yes, slavery is something shameful in America’s past. No, we can’t try to explain it (or any other evil) away with special pleading. If “X is wrong” is universally true, then we must also oppose X when our own side does it (for example, if we condemn the violence of a mob that acts in a cause we oppose, we must not make excuses when mob violence is done by our side). But if X is not universally wrong, then we need to clearly demonstrate why this incident which we condemn is different from that incident which we condone. Otherwise, we come across as ignorant or hypocrites, and we are part of the problem.

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(†) For example, the sack of Constantinople. But remember, the Pope at the time condemned it when news reached Rome.


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Injustice, Protests and the Mobs: What’s a Catholic To Do?

Watching the United States today, we’re seeing an alarming transition from a Republic that is—in theory anyway—based on the rule of law to an ochlocracy (A political system in which a mob is the source of control) where anger at a real or perceived injustice is used to extrajudicially target people that demagogues dislike. 

Yes, it’s indisputable that we’re here in the first place because the rule of law was unevenly applied to certain groups of people… many of whom have lost faith in the system we have. The question is what are we to do when legitimate grievances with illegitimate tactics. After all, as Catholics we cannot accept an evil means to achieve a good end.

We need to be clear on this before acting against injustice. Yes, if an institution is corrupt, it must be reformed. But not all methods used to demand reform are morally acceptable. Unfortunately, a certain subset of those seeking redress are choosing an evil means—demagogues using mob rule—to intimidate or even attack those they dislike. 

Let’s not just blame the other side here. The tactic of mobs is not limited to specific ethnic, political, or other groups. Nor is it limited to the United States alone. The tactics of the Nazi Brown Shirts in the 1920s and 30s might serve as an example of how bad a mob directed by an ideology and demagogues might become. So, we cannot say, “it’s their fault” while ignoring the wrongs we might tolerate on our own side. Conservatives need to be aware of the groups (like nationalist and white separatist/supremacist mobs) claiming to associate with their causes. Liberals need to be aware of the groups (like the antifa and others) claiming to associate with their causes. No faction is free of extremists.

Unfortunately, too many demagogues find the extremists on the other side to be a useful tool to discredit legitimate concerns. If one faction raises a concern and that faction has extremists who march with them, it becomes too easy for an opposing faction to treat anyone sharing a concern as agreeing with the extremists. (This is a guilt by association fallacy, by the way). It is quite possible to have something in common with an extremist group without accepting their extremist positions. For example, Antifa might have things in common with the Democratic Party, while white separatists might have some similarities with the Republican party, but that doesn’t mean that the Democrats and the Republicans openly support their worst barbarisms. So, even if we wish that one party would be more forceful in rejecting the extremists, we can’t automatically assume that the failure to do so is a blanket endorsement of evil.

Unfortunately, the mobs are making these associations. If a Catholic says “black lives matter,” other Catholics assume that he or she has capitalized each word and supports the extremist movement that has appropriated the slogan for themselves. If a Catholic says that they think that he or she has to support Trump because the other choices seem worse, other Catholics assume that he or she has openly championed the worst parts of his policies§

But we can’t do this. The Church expressly calls Rash Judgment a sin. We are not to accuse a person of a moral fault that we simply assume he or she must believe. We need to be certain that there are facts to base such an accusation on. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out (#2478):

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

Unfortunately, when we fall into mob rule, we don’t give a favorable interpretation to another (often falling into a fallacy of equivocation or accent), we don’t ask how the other intends it (often falling into a straw man or hasty generalization fallacy), and in our rush to correct, we don’t correct in love.

Once a mob falls into rash judgment, we often find that people who were not to blame for an injustice gets harmed in the violence and the demagogues claim that, while regrettable, it’s perfectly “understandable” that they act this way. But this is where we need to consider the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). If we do not want to suffer injustice, we must not personally cause or take part in injustice to others. If we want others to consider the harm that they indirectly they cause us, we must consider the harm we indirectly cause others.

So, the past injustices a group suffers does not justify members of this group from inflicting injustice on others, regardless of what unjust members of the “others” have done. However, this cuts both ways. If it’s wrong for the mob to unjustly target groups based on the acts of some, we must not target entire groups with accusations based on the wrongdoing of some. So, if we see protestors carrying signs saying “black lives matter,” we cannot automatically assume they mean to support the radical group Black Lives Matter.

Another thing to remember is that laws that are just in themselves cannot be disobeyed just because the government is behaving unjustly. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to Prov. 8:15: By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things. Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good,—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver,—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws. (STh., I-II q.96 a.4 resp.)

To use an extreme example, we’re not free to rape and murder just because the regime that passed laws against them is morally evil#. One who argued that laws against such things in Nazi Germany weren’t binding because the Nazis did not have legitimacy would still be culpable« if they refused to obey those laws. It’s when a law is intrinsically unjust in itself (for example, a law in Nazi Germany that required you to turn in Jews you knew were hiding) that we are obligated to oppose it.

Applying it to our present crisis, laws against rioting and vandalism remain just and binding, even when protestors are rightfully angry about a flagrant injustice in the legal system and frustrated by the fact that nothing seems to change. An unjust law might be giving permission to group X to do something that is illegal for group Y. If the permitted act is unjust, Group X must not do it. If it is just, it is wrong to deny it to Group Y.

If we think the legal system is unjust in some way, we may legitimately work to legally overturn it. If we find a monument honoring somebody offensive cannot be borne, we may legitimately work to have it legally removed. But rioting, behaving like vigilantes, putting other people at risk or destroying cannot be done… whether the government turns a blind eye to it or not.

What is a Catholic to do in these times? Behave justly, show compassion, and love our foes. That means we don’t turn a blind eye to the evils done by groups we favor while condemning the evils done in groups we oppose. If we would be angry if something was done against us, that is a huge clue we ought not to be doing it ourselves, whether by commission or omission.

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(†) While the United States votes on who is elected to represent us, it is not a democracy in the literal sense of the term. 

(‡) As always, I try to alphabetize my dichotomies to avoid the appearance of siding with one.

(§) Before anybody falls into Whataboutism, and accuse me of overlooking something, we can usually reverse these examples. For example, the Catholic who morally believes they can’t vote for Trump is often accused of supporting all of the evils of the Democratic Party.

(#) This is where those extremists go wrong when they think that saving unborn children justifies murdering abortionists. The laws against murder and the laws against vigilantism are just in themselves.

[«] No doubt in such a regime, those laws would be enforced unjustly, never enforced against the regime, but evil by them does not justify behaving unjustly ourselves.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

On “Pride” and Prejudice: a (Semi) Socratic Dialogue Through Manga

Those of you who don’t follow my blog’s Facebook page, might be unaware that on occasion I’ll use manga publishing software# to do apologetics comics. The following started out as a blog piece, before I decided to transform it into a manga dialogue. Of course, the Catholic cannot call evil acts “good,” and unfortunately, people aren’t as likely to respond to Iimi* in the way Paula does. But if we remain respectful of others, we might get into dialogue with others.























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(#) ComiPo.
(*) Iimi (Irene Inez Mary Iscra—the mascot of the blog. Her initials were chosen as the initials of “If I Might Interject.”)

Sunday, June 7, 2020

On Whataboutism—Its Form and Fallacies

Preliminary Note

I’d like to start by framing a (logically valid) syllogism for an argument that goes around the internet:

  • If [X] Then [Y]
  • Not [Y]
  • Therefore [Not X]

Standing alone with X and Y, it’s a valid form known as modus tollens, and it’s true as long as the premises are free of fallacies. So, when it’s used, it sounds credible. But if the premises are fallacious, then the argument is invalid and the point argued is not proven. So, every time you see an “If you really cared about X, you’d care about Y” argument, be careful that the premises in the argument are true.

Introduction

One of the tiresome things I see on the internet is one of the slogans used in objecting to a high-ranking member of the Church speaking about the issue of injustice, or a company making a symbolic protest (not to morally equate the two): “But what about…? Why didn’t you do anything about…?” The term for this tactic is Whataboutism, and both sides in a faction war are guilty of using it. Whataboutism involves several linked fallacies—which we need to look at—to assert that the person who is concerned with one issue is not really sincere because he or she is not giving other concerns the same weight. Sometimes that accusation might be just, but often it’s used to change the issue in a way that benefits the person who uses it.

Before I begin, let me say that this is not an exhaustive list of fallacies. As I write this, each fallacy I discuss reminds me of two more. So, either I have to limit myself to the most pressing ones, or this becomes a huge tome of an article. I’ve opted for the first option.

Also, remember, we are talking about human beings here, not programmed machines. We all have blind spots. The people who are angry over an issue and those who question the sincerity of that anger might be quite sincere about their concern even if one of them should happen to be wrong. We do need to show compassion to the real concerns people have, even if we end up having to charitably correct some of them.

The Red Herring Fallacy

First, we have the Red Herring fallacy. This fallacy involves a diversion from the topic at hand. If we’re talking about Topic X, invoking Topic Y is irrelevant, and intended to divert the argument. If we talk about X, the relevance of Y needs to be established. We often see this tactic employed when the New Pro-Life Movement (NPLM) and the Original Pro-Life Movement (OPLM) brawl on social media. When the topic is abortion, members of the NPLM cite other moral issues. When the topic is on another moral issue, members of the OPLM invoke abortion. But, when the issue is intended to be abortion, the invocation of another topic is a distraction. Meanwhile, if the issue is another moral issue, invoking abortion is a distraction. It’s only relevant to invoke these topics if the issue is a broader discussion. This is probably why both sides spill ink or bytes over who is “really pro-life” when neither side has reached an agreement on the definition of pro-life, and both sides are probably defining it with the intention to exclude their opponents.

In recent times, we’re seeing some critics of the protests invoke this fallacy. We see some ask, “Why didn’t you object when somebody was killed?” or “Why didn’t you get angry when a police officer was killed protecting people from looters?” When introduced with the intention to divert the issue of George Floyd, it is a red herring.

The Either-Or Fallacy

The second fallacy is the Either-Or fallacy. The assumption is that Either people always respond the same way to a type of thing, Or they’re insincere or hypocrites. Those people using the slogan then argue, they are not always responding in the same way, and from draw the conclusion they are insincere or hypocrites… and the internet brawls erupt. This dualistic thinking assumes there are two—and only two—options to choose from. But, if there are more than two options, like the possibility of “Neither A nor B” or “Option C” being intended by the person being challenged, the dichotomy is false. 

We see this from those who disagree with the George Floyd protests… especially when the Pope and Bishops speak out on it. They mention the lack of protests over previous incidents of police killings of African-Americans, or a lack of similar outrage over the deaths of police officers or non-black individuals, and argue that since they don’t show it, they’re not focused on justice. 

The False Analogy Fallacy

That ties into our third fallacy—the False Analogy. This one focuses on the perceived similarities between two events and claim that they should be treated identically. While sometimes it is a valid objection, it becomes a fallacy when the differences between the two events are greater than the similarities. So, in our current case if civil unrest, the argument assumes that to be trulyoutraged over an injustice requires holding an equal level of outrage for each similar incident.

But while the similarity invoked through whataboutism involve people being killed. The differences involve the identity of the killers, the motives for the killings, and the circumstances of the current level of anger. The similarity that the Whataboutismforgets is forgets that we are dealing with people, not machines that respond the same way to the same output. People get angrier over time. They might hope that this time the courts would respond in a way they think just, but eventually they get angry and become convinced there is no justice to be had. The fallacy forgets this and forgets that the protests in all these cases reached a critical mass after those involved assumed that they would get no justice for their grievances. 

So, when citing a police officer killed by rioters as a refutation, it overlooks the different levels of hope for justice or past history of injustice. Will the killers of police officers during the riots face justice? Probably, if they can identify and find those responsible.

The Straw Man Fallacy

The strawman is a fallacy that misrepresents the argument into a caricature that is easier to refute. Refuting the caricature gives the impression of refuting the actual argument. But the strawman is not the actual argument. One has to answer the actual concerns.

An example of this is to respond to the slogan “black lives matter” with the slogan “all lives matter” or “cops lives matter.” Now these counter slogans are true, but they are addressing something not argued in the first place. The “black lives matter” argument is not saying “ONLY black lives matter.” So, while saying in response, “all lives matter” or “cops lives matter,” is technically true (all human lives do matter), that’s not the intention of the slogan. The purpose is to say “black lives also matter” to people suspected of thinking some lives matter less than others. That’s the issue to respond to.

Equivocation and Amphiboly

The interpretation of that slogan can go wrong through the fallacies of equivocation and amphiboly. Equivocation occurs when we give a term with more than one meaning a meaning not intended by the author. Amphiboly occurs when we emphasize a term in a way that gives it a different meaning§ than the author intends. These can be deliberate or unintentional. 

So, in the slogan “black lives matter,” some critics of the bishops have committed the fallacy of equivocation to think that they were referring to the radical movement which coopted the term. When the bishops were emphasizing that African-Americans deserve the same treatment as others, some have accused them of promoting the values of the radical group.

As for the fallacy of amphiboly, some have taken the term “black lives matter” and turned it into “black lives matter,” implying that other lives don’t. Thus, outraged, they respond with “all lives matter,” thinking they are standing up for all human life, saying “but what about X?” But they put the emphasis on the wrong word. The original accent seems to have been “black lives matter,” meaning that we can’t treat them as unimportant. 

I confess I fell into these fallacies once upon a time. Out of a Catholic pro-life conviction, I thought that everybody should hold that “all lives matter” (and they should!), but I missed the point of the slogan, not realizing that it was calling to be treated as equal, not separate. It’s a reminder that we should never assume that our casual interpretation is correct without checking to make sure that is what was meant by the one who is making a statement.

Other Considerations

We can’t automatically assume bad will on the person we disagree with, of course. A misunderstanding can easily be sincere. There are all sorts of baggage attached to words, and if we’re unaware of our limitations, we can go wrong while thinking we’re doing the right thing. The person we disagree with might not be a racist or an antifa… even if it turns out the person is wrong. As Catholics, to avoid calumny and rash judgment, we have to avoid making assumptions or spreading negative reports about someone without verifying that our assumption is true. Under the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:2), we are required to do this regardless of whether or not the other reciprocates. So, even if others misinterpret or misrepresent us, we are not excused from treating them as we want to be treated.

And this obligation cuts both ways. If it’s wrong to misjudge the motives of the people speaking out for social justice, it’s wrong to misjudge of people who disagree with the tactics used. While individuals or groups involved in the disagreements might be wrong#, we can’t 

Conclusion

As I said in the beginning, I could have easily added many more examples of fallacies that are packed into the assumption of “whataboutism.” But these are included so the person who encounters (or uses) the arguments might see why they are flawed and should not use them. Since we who profess to be Christian must seek out the truth and live (charitably) in accordance with it. This means we can’t accuse people of things they’re not guilty of and we mustn’t repeat false accusations.

While it’s possible that a logically bad argument coincidentally winds up with a true conclusion@, it can’t prove the conclusion is true. So, being aware of the logical flaws with the whataboutism arguments helps us from assuming that bad arguments must be true and irrefutable.

 

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(†) In logic, the fact that an argument is invalid or unsound doesn’t mean the conclusion is false. It means that the argument cannot prove the conclusion. So, debunking the argument of Person A doesn’t automatically prove that the conclusion is false. To do that, you need to respond with a valid argument with true premises that cannot be refuted. To use an analogy, in a criminal trial, the Prosecutor has to prove his case of guilt is sound. The Defense lawyer who refutes the Prosecutor’s argument hasn’t proven his client innocent. He’s just demonstrated that the Prosecutor’s argument isn’t proven.

(‡) Whether or not you, the reader, personally agrees with the justness of the anger or not, we all need to recognize that the anger is real and needs to be addressed justly.

(§) To understand this, take the following sentence: “I never said you took the money.” Read it aloud seven times, each time emphasizing a different word. See how every change of emphasis changes the meaning of the sentence? This is why, when I think there’s a danger of amphiboly, I try to italicize the word I think should be accented. Of course, I don’t always catch it.

(#) I am speaking in theory here. I am not pointing fingers at any specific person. The focus is to determine right and wrong so the reader might ponder how it might apply in their experience, not to score points against my political “foes.”

(@) For example, if a person believes that “all red things are poisonous” and, as a result, escapes eating a red object that happens to be poisonous, the conclusion was true in this case, even though the reasoning behind it was false.