Saturday, December 5, 2009

On Hard Cases: Appeals to Pity, Appeals to Fear

One of the attacks against the teachings of the Church involve not the use of reason and logic, but of exploiting emotion.  Generally, the teaching of the Church is given, a sad case is presented as a counterpoint, and the conclusion is that the Church teaching must be bad because of this case.

The problem with these appeals is that they have no bearing on whether what the Church teaches is true and just.  There will always be cases where a person winds up on the wrong side of a law.  However a law can only be changed if two circumstances exist:

  1. The law is in itself unjust.
  2. The people asked to change the law have the authority to make such a change.

Is a Law Unjust?

Catholics believe God is infinitely just and merciful.  Therefore, if God reveals to us His will, this will is not to be considered unjust.  We may not understand some teachings which are revealed, but this reflects a personal failure, and not evil on the part of God.

Unlike Euthyphro, where Socrates asked whether a thing was good because gods loved it or whether things were loved by gods because they were good (making the gods either arbitrary or less than the good they were bound to), the Christian believes good reflects what is God's nature in itself: An unchanging God does not change morality over time (though under the idea of Divine Accommodation, over time, God may increase our understanding to turn away from some evils).

So for the Christian, if God reveals to us and we trust God is perfect goodness, it follows that we must hold that what God reveals is just and good.

Does the Church have the authority to make a change?

The understanding of the Catholic Church is that certain things, taught by Christ can never be overturned.  Yes we do believe that Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18 indicates the Church is given the authority by Christ to bind and to loose.  However, we also believe that this authority does not give the magisterium the authority to contradict what God has declared.

Thus, you will never see the Church declare fornication is allowed.  You will never see the Church permit remarriage after a divorce, unless the marriage was in fact invalid from the beginning. You will never see the Church permit homosexual "marriages" or female priests.

There are certain practices within the Church which are binding, but not doctrine.  We believe these fall under the authority to bind and to loose.  At times the Church may bind to prevent an abuse or to loose to prevent a misunderstanding.  These things are carried out for the good of the Church, and can be changed.

For example, the Church can tighten or loosen rules on fasting.  The Church can decree that the laity can receive from the chalice or deny the chalice to the laity.  (She has, at different times, ordered one or the other to clarify a point necessary for the people of the times).

The point to consider here is, when the Church does follow the teaching of Christ, she does not have the authority to loose, even if the values of society demand that she does so.

With this in mind, I would like to look at the fallacies of Appeal to Pity and Appeal to Fear, how they are applied against the Church in two issues (abortion and remarriage after divorce) and why we cannot accept it as a valid reasoning to overturn the Church teaching.

The Appeal to Pity

The extreme example of what is wrong with the appeal to pity is the apocryphal case of the person who murders his parents and then appeals to the court for clemency because he is an orphan.  The reason this appeal is fallacious is because the reason the person appeals for pity is on account of the fact he is suffering the consequences for the act of evil.

This often comes into play when the issue of legalized abortion is discussed.  The slogan invoked is the so-called back alley abortion and women dying from them.  The appeal to pity is made: If abortion was legal then, these women wouldn't have died.

There is a problem with this however.  It has no bearing on whether or not abortion should be legal.  If something is illegal for a good reason (like for example, the fetus being a living human person), then the person who makes use of the illegal abortion is suffering the consequences for breaking a just law. 

Now it could be considered just to say that a society which outlaws abortion has the obligation to help women who become pregnant (certainly I believe we need to practice what we preach here) so they did not feel the need to consider a need to perform an illegal act, but even if such a society did not, it does not change the fact that if abortion is killing a human life, it cannot be tolerated, and a person who dies from an illegal abortion is not an innocent victim, but a person who has died because they have sought to break a just law.

Does this seem harsh?  Perhaps it does.  However, given that we believe God has condemned sexuality outside of marriage, and that we believe that abortion is the killing of an innocent human life, it follows that the person who violates the requirement of chastity and then seeks to kill the resulting child has done a great wrong.

St. Jerome described this in the 4th century in his Letter XXII, To Eustochium:

You may see many women widows before wedded, who try to conceal their miserable fall by a lying garb. Unless they are betrayed by swelling wombs or by the crying of their infants, they walk abroad with tripping feet and heads in the air. Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder. Yet it is these who say: “‘Unto the pure all things are pure;’ my conscience is sufficient guide for me. A pure heart is what God looks for.

The example of cases such as rape and incest are also employed, and quite effectively.  The image of a woman forcibly violated and then forced to bear the rapist's child is one which is disturbing to most people.  We do need to remember something here.  The evil done was by the rapist.  Not the unborn child.  So, the principle remains here: Do we have the right to kill an innocent person?  We do not.  It is indeed a terrible trial for the woman to be sure, but we as Catholics must believe that the ends do not justify the means, and we cannot choose an evil means to reach a good end.

Is that hard?  Of course.  Is it a trauma for the woman in question?  Undeniably.  But is it just to kill an innocent life?  Never.  It would be responding to evil with evil.

Finally, there is the case of "what if the child is mentally or physically deformed?"  No person wants their child to be unhealthy.  However, the Church believes that human life is sacred in itself, and not based on the functionality of the person.  So because the child is not in perfect health does not give one leave to take his or her life.

Another appeal to pity is the attack on the Church teaching on divorce and remarriage.  The popular case is to present a woman mistreated by her spouse, claiming that if she remarries she is cast out of a "cold and heartless" Church for the crime of finding love again.  Or, the Church is condemned for keeping such a woman alone for the rest of her life.  This too is an appeal to pity.

The argument often presented takes this form:

  1. God is not cruel
  2. The Church teaching on divorce is cruel because if forces a wronged spouse to remain alone for the rest of his or her life
  3. Therefore the teaching on divorce is not from God.

However, If we understand Christ's teaching on divorce properly, we see He did not sanction divorce and remarriage while both partners remain alive.  Even the so-called Matthew Exception in 5:32 does not sanction remarriage for a spouse whose partner has been sexually unfaithful.

St. John Chrysostom for example has taught (Sermon XVII on Mathew):

And observe Him everywhere addressing His discourse to the man. Thus, “He that putteth away his wife,” saith He, “causeth her to commit adultery, and he that marrieth a woman put away, committeth adultery.” That is, the former, though he take not another wife, by that act alone hath made himself liable to blame, having made the first an adulteress; the latter again is become an adulterer by taking her who is another’s. For tell me not this, “the other hath cast her out;” nay, for when cast out she continues to be the wife of him that expelled her.

The 2nd century text, The Shepherd of Hermas also shows how the early Church understood the teaching of Christ (The Fourth Commandment, Chapter I)  [the "vicious practices" referred to in the text here is speaking of a faithful man with an adulterous wife.  "vicious" is to be understood as "performing vice," and not "brutality"]:

And I said to him, “What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices? ”And he said, “The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery.” And I said to him, “What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband? ”And he said to me, “Assuredly. If the husband do not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented.

From these examples (and there are many more), we can see that the teaching of the Catholic Church was not arbitrarily decided on, but rather from the beginning this was seen as the faithful application of Christ's teaching.

So the appeal to pity in the case of the person who marries a person in good faith but that person turns out to harm her does not change the fact that the Catholic Church feels bound to the teaching of Christ.  Where the marriage is valid, there can be no remarriage while both partners live.  [This is why the Catholic practice of annulment is an investigation into whether the marriage was invalid.  If it is invalid, there is no marriage.  If it is valid, no authority can break what God has joined.]

In both of these examples, the appeal to pity is seeking to use an example for the overturning of a just teaching.  For those who appeal to mercy, we need to remember that while mercy does indeed require the seeking to help others as much as possible (in opposition to a cold bureaucratic legalism), mercy cannot overturn justice… or it is no longer mercy, but merely false compassion.

The Appeal to Fear

The appeal to Fear often is similar to the scenarios presented in the appeal to pity mentioned above.  However, instead of presenting a hypothetical situation, it appeals to the fear of "what if it happens to you?"  Let's face it.  No woman wants to be sexually assaulted and become pregnant.  No man would want his spouse, or relatives or friends to suffer this either.  Nobody wants their child to be born deformed.  No person wants to have a spouse be unfaithful in a binding marriage.

However, we need to realize that such a (valid) horror of such a thing happening does not make it permissible to set the just law aside.  That would be arbitrariness.  If the unborn child is indeed a human life, then we are not permitted to kill it out of expedience.  If the marriage is valid and binding in the eyes of God, we cannot call "Mulligan" if it turns sour.  If we promise to marry for better or for worse, and it turns out "worse," the marriage still exists even if we must "put our spouse away" to protect ourselves from evil, and so we would not be free to remarry.

Justice, Mercy and the Requirements of Catholic Faith

Such things may seem cruel to those outside the Church who do not accept what we believe, or to those within the Church who either do not understand or else reject the teachings of the Church.  However, if one believes that God has required certain things of us, then we must obey these things and not clamor for the Church to change that which she cannot change.  If we believe that Christ has given the Church the authority to bind and to loose, and protects her from error, then we must accept that when the Church teaches, it acts with an interest in our salvation and not from "insensitivity" or "power" or "control."

If God is perfectly Just and Merciful, it stands to reason that His Justice will not be merciless, yes.  But it also stands to reason that His Mercy will not set aside justice either.

We who are sinners may at times fail to see things as God wills them.  This does not make God, nor the Church who seeks to follow Him, unjust or merciless when hard cases arise.  It does mean at times we are called to unite our sufferings to His, offering up he pain in our lives to Him, trusting He will sustain us, even when life seems impossible.

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