Thursday, April 30, 2020

Confusing Contraries and Contradictories: How It Leads to Error

Let a people then, Catholic or not, be in ignorance of doctrine—let them be a practical busy people, full of their secular matters—let them have no keen analytical view of the principles which govern them, yet they will be spontaneously attracted by those principles, and irritated by their contraries so, as they can be attracted or irritated by no other. Their own principles or their contraries, when once sounded in their ears, thrill through them with a vibration, pleasant or painful, with sweet harmony or with grating discord; under which they cannot rest quiet; but relieve their feelings by gestures and cries, and startings to and fro, and expressions of sympathy or antipathy towards others, and at length by combination, and party, and vigorous action.

—John Henry Newman, Lectures on Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Submitting to the Catholic Church (London: Burns & Lambert, 1850), 49–50.

When one encounters Church teaching or discipline that goes against what an individual thinks should be so, it is easy for them to conclude that the thing they dislike is wrong, treating it as endorsing the polar opposite of their own position, asking “How can the Church support that?”. 

For example, it’s commonly believed that, in the 1832 encyclical Mirari Vos, Pope Gregory XVI condemned “freedom of conscience” and the freedom to publish. From that, he—and the Catholic Church—was portrayed as being an enemy of freedom

This is to confuse contraries and contradictories. A contrary would be the direct opposite of a statement. So, if you were to say “No men are named Johnson,” and I disagreed, you would be wrong to allege that I said “all men are named Johnson.” My disagreement would be a contradictory: Not all men are named Johnson. Contraries are “All vs. None.” Contradictories are “All vs. Not all.”

Understanding this, we can see what Gregory XVI was actually condemning was not all applications of freedom of conscience. He was speaking against an indifferentism that held that there can be no moral absolutes and the state should not insist on any absolutes. He was actually right, as the de-evolution of America shows us and our nation embraces things that would have seemed bizarre only 20 years ago. 

A similar error is made today. If someone dares to speak out and say that morals and values were better years ago, somebody will invariably bring up our nation’s shameful legacy of racism and segregation, claiming that the concern over morals is a rejection of all progress… which is why the non sequitur of “racism” gets thrown around when that was never the topic to begin with.

Unfortunately, the current critics of the Church and the Pope have fallen into this error. They have a certain conception of the Church. But, when the Pope tells them that their misunderstanding of the teaching is wrong, they assume that the Pope is saying that the teaching itself is wrong and he endorses the contrary. So, the Pope speaking out against the abuses in unfettered capitalism (as his predecessors had done since the time of Leo XIII) is transformed into support of the polar opposite of capitalism. Thus, we see risible claims that the Pope is a socialist.

Likewise, the Pope speaking out against the abuse of the Earth in Laudato Si, is transformed into a paganistic eco-extremism. His pointing out in Amoris Laetitia that confessors should make certain that all the conditions of mortal sin are present before denying communion to the divorced and remarried is transformed into “anybody can go and receive communion.”

But claiming that the Pope supports the contrary to their position is rash judgment at best, calumny at worst. His statements are contradictories to error. Against the claim that unfettered capitalism is good, he says that not everything about capitalism is good, and we must change that which is morally wrong. When speaking on the environment, he does not call the neo-pagan environmentalism good. He calls certain attitudes as incompatible with how we must treat the Earth. He doesn’t say that anybody who feels called should receive communion. He says that confessors should work to getting the divorced and remarried reconciled to the Church… which may include the sacraments if all the conditions of mortal sin are not present.

Once we understand this, we can see the web of falsehoods that ensnare the anti-Francis Catholics. They wrongly assume their interpretation is true, and the Pope’s correction means he supports the view they see as the antithesis of their own ideas. 

Until they recognize this error, they are liable to remain blind and persist in the false belief that he is teaching error and causing confusion. The danger is, they are—I assume unwittingly—reaching the same false conclusions that others did when they rejected and broke with the Church. If they do not change their attitude of rejection, they could very easily wind up separated from the Church while thinking it is the Church that fell into “error.”



(†) It’s commonly claimed he called freedom of conscience an “insanity,” but that seems to be a translation issue as no text I’ve ever seen uses it (or “madness”). 

(‡) We should be aware of the fact, however, that some of the values of the past were held more out of a sense of “we’ve always done that,” than out of a moral understanding why we should live that way. So, as societies rejected the past abuses, it also eliminated the past truths because they didn’t understand why X was wrong or Y was right. Any attempt to restore past values would have to understand and change that failing.

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