Monday, August 31, 2015

Filling In the Blanks—Wrongly

There is a story that a priest told in a homily once when I attended Franciscan University of Steubenville. Since I cannot find the exact text (though I understand the priest has published a book of his stories), I will try to retell it from memory:

It was the Championship game and the home team was down by six points. It was the Fourth Quarter, Second and Ten, and there was a minute on the clock. The coach told the quarterback, “Get the ball to Jones! He’ll get the touchdown.” The team went into the huddle, then lined up to play. To the horror of the coach, the quarterback didn’t throw the ball to Jones, but did a handoff to another player. The player was stopped for a loss of yardage. Angry, the coach signaled again telling the quarterback to get the ball to Jones. The quarterback started to say something, but the coach waved him back on the field.

Again, the team went into a huddle and then lined up. But the quarterback did not throw the ball to Jones, but to another player. He made up a little of the lost yardage, but not enough. It was now Fourth and Eight and the coach had to decide what to do. Once more he told the quarterback, “Give the ball to Jones!” The quarterback started to speak, but the Coach ordered him back on the field again, telling him not to argue.

Once more the team went into the huddle and lined up on the field. Once more the quarterback did not give the ball to Jones, but to yet another player. The opposing team stopped him cold and the game was over.

Furious, the coach stormed out to the field and confronted the quarterback. “I told you to get the ball to Jones! Why did you ignore me?"

The quarterback looked at the coach and said, “I did tell Jones to take the ball, every time. But he refused to take it."

If the coach had bothered to let the quarterback explain himself, he might have found a new strategy. But in assuming he knew all the facts, he jumped to the wrong conclusion and blamed the wrong man for what happened. One might say that the moral is to investigate thoroughly and don’t merely assume you know all the facts based on what you see.


It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum. From what I see, it also seems true to say that people abhor a vacuum. When relies solely on what they see, and don’t consider the possibility that they have insufficient facts from which to judge, there is a tendency to try to connect those facts based on what one thinks. The problem is, if our knowledge is incomplete, the odds are we will fill in those blanks wrongly, drawing a connection which should not be drawn. This can happen in all areas of life, but in some areas it can lead to some serious errors.

Here’s a secular example. The Obama administration is going to change the name of Mt. McKinley to Mt. Denali, which is the native name for that mountain. Now, I dislike Obama’s politics and how he tends to do things in a heavy-handed arbitrary manner, that seems to be imposing a political agenda that often attacks the Catholic Church.

So, it is easier for me to assume this was yet another one of these actions. But reading the accounts, I learned that this stemmed from a request which began 40 years ago and is supported by the Alaskans themselves, apparently across party lines. In other words, it is easy filling in the blanks to assume this was some sort of politically motivated stunt, when it actually seems to be somebody finally getting around to taking care of a long standing request. But the easy way is the wrong way. One is still free to disagree if they choose, but the facts require the person to stop repeating accusations of political motivations and political correctness. 

Assuming We Know Things About the Church When We Do Not

That seems to be the problem today when it comes to writing about the Church. Whether it is the secular media which is effectively religiously illiterate, the uninformed anti-Catholic, or whether it is the Catholic blogger railing against what they see as wrong in the Church, the fact remains: If you don’t know all the facts, the odds are you’re going to come to a wrong conclusion. Basically, it works this way:

  • Some claim is made concerning the Church, that the observer dislikes.
  • The observer fills in the blanks based on their own biases.
  • The observer draws a conclusion that interprets the fact by their bias.

So, we see the religiously illiterate media hear the Pope say something that sounds different, apply their biases about what they think they know about the Church, and conclude (wrongly) that the Church is changing her teaching. We see the anti-Catholic observe a Catholic behavior without understanding it, apply their biases (that the Catholic Church is evil) and ascribe bad will to the behavior. We see it when the Church teaches on an area the observer is unfamiliar with, the observer applies his biases about the Church being filled with “modernists,” and interprets the teaching as “proof” of the infiltration of modernists.

In all of these cases, the observer has assumed his or her biases are true, and never investigates them. Then when they encounter something unfamiliar, they create a perverted interpretation of the event and treat that interpretation as if it were the truth. Thus we see things like “The Church will change her teaching on marriage,” (whether said in hope or fear) despite the fact that Pope Francis has been just as solid as his predecessors on the subject. We see Pope Francis labelled as Marxist, when he said nothing that was not already said by St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We see Laudato Si labelled as a “global warming document.”

None of those allegations are true: They come about by using one’s bias to interpret the facts and confusing the interpretation for fact. Atheists and anti-Catholics make the same mistake as traditionalist and modernist Catholics, and we see the Church simultaneously being accused of being too spiritual, being too worldly, being too liberal or being too conservative. When American Catholics are simultaneously calling American bishops as being Pro-Democrat and Pro-Republican, that’s a good sign that the problem is with the one interpreting the Church teachings, not the Church which is teaching.

Avoiding the Error

Since all people are called to seek out the truth, and live according to it, we cannot be satisfied with what we think we know about something. Ultimately we need to root out our assumptions, not use them to fill in the blanks. Otherwise, we run afoul of the proper understanding of the warning of Matthew 7:1 and risk committing rash judgment. So how do we remedy this?

It seems to me that when we come to an unfamiliar situation, we have to ask ourselves whether we really understand something, or whether we just think we do. We have to look for an answer and not assume that because we don’t know an answer, it means there isn’t one. When the behavior of a bishop or a priest seems problematic, the first question is, do we have all the facts? If we do not, we do wrong in assuming bad will.

Second, we have to assess who are the main players. Remember the story I tried to retell above: The twist at the end was that the quarterback wasn’t to blame. Jones was, and the coach shared part of the blame for not finding out what was really going on. How many times does the Pope or a bishop or a priest get blamed for something that he did not say or do, but someone thought he said or did (“Who am I to judge,” taken out of context was one of the most shameful of these).

Finally, we must not speak before we know the truth. A blogger who hits the “Post” button before assessing whether perhaps there is a side he or she didn’t consider is doing wrong, taking part in misleading others. If we cannot establish that the motivation is bad will (as opposed to thinking it is bad will on account of our biases being used to interpret actions), we must not say that the motivation is bad will.

God forbade us to bear false witness. But false witness is not only a deliberate lie. We can also bear false witness by spreading falsehood without verifying if it is true. We risk doing this when we fill in these blanks. Now, each individual must look into their own heart and see if they are guilty of this, knowing God is their judge. All I would ask is, if an individual should find this mindset present, that he or she reconsider their approach. 

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