Saturday, May 2, 2020

Subalterns and Church Teaching

In logic, there is a term called subaltern. The concept behind it is, if a universal is true, then the partial is also true by default. So, if the premise, “All dogs are white” is true, then the subaltern premise “some dogs are white” must also be true. However, the reverse is not always true. So, we cannot draw from the fact that “some dogs are white” the conclusion that “all dogs are white.” In other words, if the universal is true, the specific must also be true. But just because the specific is true, doesn’t mean the universal is true.

Unfortunately, some in the Church confuse universal and specific premises. Some think that a universal teaching is merely a localized one. Others think that a localized evil is proof of a universal corruption. For example, some Catholics seem perfectly willing to treat the universal obligation to oppose abortion as a merely limited one and justify voting for pro-abortion politicians as a result. Or we could look at the Catholics who deny the authority of Amoris Laetitia and Laudato Si while claiming to follow the binding authority of the truth: They’re ignoring the fact that if the universal (the Church must be obeyed when she teaches) is true, then the subaltern (a specific teaching of the Church) must also be obeyed.

Other Catholics assume that the fact of some corruption in the Church is proof of a universal corruption. The latter case is the fallacy of composition. The fallacy of composition errs in assuming that what is true in a part is true of the whole. An obvious and ridiculous illustration would be: Each brick in this wall weighs 2 lbs. Therefore, the wall weighs 2 lbs. But a less obvious error might be: Every element of this software works. Therefore, the software works. Maybe, but just because the parts work, doesn’t mean the combined product will work as an integrated whole. So, in terms of the Church, the fact that some Churchmen embrace corruption does not mean the Church—as a whole—embraces corruption.

What the concept of subalterns means is we need to be clear on what level the truth is on, and drawing the conclusion based on that level, neither denying the conclusions nor exaggerating them. If the truth is a universal the specific applications of the truth are also true. If the truth is a specific, then the conclusions drawn are also on the specific level.

Or, to give an example, if we are bound to obey the Pope when he teaches (and we are: canon 752) then we are bound to obey his specific teaching. But just because there is a problem at a local level cannot be used to indict the whole of actively participating in and supporting the problem.


(†) The counterpart, the fallacy of division, is a misapplication of the subaltern. It assumes that a universal proposition also follows in the parts (as a subaltern premise does do). But it confuses concrete objects with concepts. So, for example, it might argue that because a sports team is the best in the league, each individual member must also be the best in the league. But it might mean that some members are permanently on the bench, or that the team is better coordinated than other teams who might have better scorers but think “There may be no I in team, but there is a ME.”

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