Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Breaking the Golden Rule

In my time, I have been accused of cynicism, of false equivalence, or of making excuses for immoral factions. The reason people seem to think I am guilty of these things is because I see a serious problem with both major factions in the United States. That problem is, in a dualistic political system, we are seeing each faction condone in themselves what they condemn in the other side… often to the point of arguing differences which are not differences but similarities.

This kind of behavior—used by both major political parties—is less concerned with correcting wrongdoing wherever it occurs and more concerned with using what the other side does to attack and discredit their enemies for political gain.

From the Catholic perspective, this cannot be justified. Whatever is morally wrong cannot be justified. Whatever one tries to condemn in “the other side” while ignoring or explaining away in their own party without carefully explaining why the differences matter is hypocrisy. As The Lord taught us:

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).


Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.  (Matthew 7:3-5)

If we want “the other side” to reform, we need to reform ourselves. If we want “the other side” to treat us justly, we must treat them justly. These rules of course apply to us regardless of whether they do it themselves.

Of course, people try to justify this double standard. They say X is worse than Y for example. That may be true (abortion comes to mind here). But what people forget is the fact that, even when X is worse than Y, this does not permit us to do or justify Y ourselves. People are much better at seeing hypocrisy in others than in themselves. So, if we do evil—no matter how we justify it—those we disagree with will notice it and dismiss what we validly say. No, they are not justified in doing so. But we are causing scandal by our own behavior all the same.

If the reader is tempted to say but what about…? at this point, then please stop. Do we think that Catholics who supported Trump or Biden are guilty of worse than what our own party has done? That may be. But that does not excuse us from looking at ourselves and turning away from the evils we have been silent over or even supporting.

Do we look at the words issued by bishops or the Pope as “intruding” into the political domain when it goes against us? That is a clear sign of a double standard, because we can be sure we would not object if the other side’s policies were so targeted. The Catholic teaching is not “Left” or “Right.” It is about the Greatest Commandment: 

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)

When the Church speaks out on an issue that goes against a political platform, we can be sure that said political platform is violating the Greatest Commandment. We should want to change it. Obviously, Democrats are the ones who can change Democrat platforms and Republicans are the ones who can change Republican platforms. So, if we are looking at Catholics in the other major party and asking, “Why aren’t they doing anything to change their party?” we should first look at our own behavior. Are we striving to change our own party’s faults when it goes against Catholic teaching?

Yes, there is a risk of encountering hypocrites who have no intention of changing and only want to use the charge of hypocrisy to bash their opponents. But, given Jesus spoke harshly against hypocrisy, we certainly should strive to eliminate it from ourselves regardless of what others may do. As the angel told John in the book of Revelation: Let the wicked still act wickedly, and the filthy still be filthy. The righteous must still do right, and the holy still be holy (Revelation 22:11).

That verse does not mean “don’t try to convert others away from their evil.” It means, “the fact that others do wrong does not excuse us from doing right ourselves.”

We should keep that in mind the next time we are tempted to explain away our own inaction while condemning others for not acting.



(†) Yes, minor parties exist. But their effect on our system is normally negligible unless they play spoiler and split the vote for one of the major parties.

(‡) I list it as us and them because as soon as I name one party, someone is going to stop there and think that only the XX Party is guilty (or innocent) when this is really a “bipartisan” problem.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

It’s Iimi! “Moral Monsters”

In this episode, Paula asks Iimi why the bishops are “harassing” “pro-choice” Catholic politicians. Iimi points out what abortion means to Catholics, as well as what the ramifications are for four possibilities based on whether the fetus is human or not and whether we know that fact or not. In one of those positions, it’s unprovable. In the other three, it’s immoral.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous: Reflecting on the Argument from Ignorance/Silence, False Analogy, and Either-Or Fallacies

The adage goes, A little knowledge is dangerous. That is because if we have a little knowledge about something and do not know that our knowledge is lacking, we can think that we have all the facts and draw conclusions that run counter to the truth. To paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, if you begin with small errors (in your assumptions) you end up with great errors in your conclusions.


To avoid this pitfall—especially due to the risk of committing rash judgment—we need to be on guard against assuming that what we know is all we need to know. Even if we know 90% of the information. It is possible that the 10% we do not know is crucial and ties the rest together.


As an example of this error of assumption, the novel Jurassic Park. The engineers assure everyone that it is impossible that any of the dinosaurs can escape the island because it is constantly monitored, and they boast that 92% of the island is covered by cameras and sensors. Then they discover a serious error in their assumption, and it is quite possible that they could escape:


“I think it’s quite simple,” Malcolm said. “The motion sensors cover an inadequate area.”


“Inadequate?” Arnold bristled. “They cover ninety-two—”


“Ninety-two percent of the land area, I remember,” Malcolm said. “But if you put the remaining areas up on the board, I think you’ll find that the eight percent is topologically unified, meaning that those areas are contiguous. In essence, an animal can move freely anywhere in the park and escape detection, by following a maintenance road or the jungle river or the beaches or whatever.”


Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park: A Novel (p. 310). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


The moral is, while the percentage that we do not know might be (or appear to be) small, it could contain something crucial that—had we been aware of them—could have entirely changed our perspective and our decisions. 


There can be moral responsibility for our ignorance depending on what it was possible for us to know. There are two types of ignorance. First, we have Invincible Ignorance. This involves things it would be impossible for us to know. For example, if a person lived in a time or place where it would be impossible to know about and accept Jesus Christ, he would not be guilty of rejecting Christ, because how could he know what had never been revealed to him?


However, there is also Vincible Ignorance. This involves things we could learn if we bothered to investigate the matter, but we never tried. For example, if I am a hunter who fires at movement in the brush without checking what is causing the movement and kill another hunter, I am guilty of killing that person (even though I did not intend it) because I could have verified my target before shooting and I was morally obligated not to act until I did.


Lately, I see people frequently commit three errors that lead them to draw conclusions that facts do not support. This leads them to justify sins or accuse others of evils they are innocent of.


The first of these is the argument from ignorance/silence. They are slightly different but lead to the same result. Arguments from ignorance assume that because a person does not know a thing means that thing does not exist. If we find ourselves saying “I can’t see any reason why this can be justified,” then beware. Our not knowing a reason does not mean there is no reason. There may be a reason to justify something that we are ignorant of, or a reason why we must not do what we think is acceptable.

In a similar way, the argument from silence claims that because no evidence has been presented to support one case, the opposite case must be true. For example, if nobody presents evidence of a person’s innocence, and we say it must mean the person is guilty is an example of argument from silence. Therefore, our legal system operates under the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” to avoid using the argument from silence to convict an innocent person.


The second danger is the False Analogy, where we assume that two cases that seem superficially similar are identical when the differences outweigh the similarities. If I were to compare Trump to Hitler or Biden to King Herod, I would be using the superficial similarities of demagoguery and dead children respectively while ignoring the differences that separated these two presidents from their evil namesakes. To avoid this, we need to avoid slogans and look at the facts of the case and not try to equate the current situations in government with reprehensible figures of the past. 


The third danger is the Either-Or fallacy where either you support my way, or you support the worst evils of the other side. This one has been particularly prevalent among people attacking the bishops for “supporting” Trump or Biden in the elections. The basis of the fallacy here is assuming that either the bishops flat out denounce the candidate we detest, or it is “proof” that they support the other side… including all the evils that side committed. The problem is it overlooks the possibility that there is a third possibility or only partial agreement with one or both options.


These fallacies lead people to false conclusions that could be avoided if we had bothered to ask if our assumptions were correct; if we had asked if we had all the facts; if we had asked if there were more possibilities for the reason things are as they are. That is vincible ignorance.


That does not mean we just accept evil that is done. It does mean we need to make sure that a person’s actions are what we think they are and are done for the motives we think they are. Too many assume that whenever another person acts differently than we think they should, it is “proof” of deliberate, malicious evil on their part, and never consider whether there is more to consider than we realize.


If we behave this way, we become living examples of the adage, “A Little Knowledge is Dangerous.”






(†) This is part of the reason Feeneyism was condemned.


(‡) N.B. This does not include intrinsic evils which are always wrong regardless of intentions or circumstances. It might include reasons why the Church does not exact a penalty we think it should.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

It’s Iimi! The Corpse in the Lab

In this episode, Iimi debates another Catholic about the tu quoque and special pleading that some use to condemn the other side for ignoring some pro-life issues... while doing the exact same things themselves. She points out that both sides are guilty and we need to fight to change our side, regardless of what others do or fail to do.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021


As we settle into a new year and a new presidential administration, one thing does not change: Attempting to deflect a legitimate concern by raising an irrelevant issue or attacking the person making a legitimate concern. Some of these attempts are clearly dishonest, aimed at twisting the issue to promote their own agenda and embarrass opponents. Others are good intentioned, sincerely thinking the objection raised is valid, but show a lack of understanding about the issue.

The intention determines whether any guilt is present in the person. But either way we have a problem: a distraction from the issue at hand. When that issue is the teaching of the Church, the deflection from what is right and wrong causes harm.

When the bishops speak out against an evil present in our nation, attempts to portray them as political or attempts to focus on other issues instead as “more important” deflect from the main point: That the bishops are warning us of an evil we must not turn our backs on. Do we think that another issue is equally urgent or even more important? That is not automatically wrong. But attacking the bishops for speaking out on that issue, or not speaking out on another issue—and they do cover all the issues—is a deflection from the points the bishops wish to teach on now.

Another deflection is to argue that when a bishop acts in a way contrary to our expectations, he is acting in opposition to the Catholic faith. We need to remember we are all human with human limitations. We cannot know everything. So, when a bishop does not act as we expect, we are tempted get agitated over it. But we must not assume that we have all the facts nor assume that any actions that go differently than ours must be done with malicious intent or negligence.

For example: while I do not like the fact that Biden can receive the Eucharist in the face of his actions (if canon 915 does not apply here, when does it apply?), I recognize that Cardinal Gregory is the one with the final say over whether to apply canon 915. While I hope he and the USCCB will offer a statement explaining why things are as they are so we can understand it, I recognize that the Cardinal is not obligated to do so, and I try to avoid rash judgment.

A third kind of deflection is a convenient silence on an issue. When the action is undeniably wrong, a common tactic is for certain Catholic publications tend to stay silent on that potentially inconvenient topic until they can present something that allows them to deflect away from the fact that their preferred ideology was called out. Both sides do this. With conservative publications, this happened during the Trump years. With liberal publications, this is happening with the Biden administration. Both sides consistently point out the failures of coverage in the other side and equally consistently fail to cover what they dislike until the spin is ready. 

Finally, we have the tu quoque responses. When the bishops speak out on something being morally wrong, some joker will inevitably trot out the Inquisition or the Sexual Abuse scandal. It is true that the abuses in the former and the existence of the latter are black marks. But these things do not negate the truth of the Catholic teachings that the bishops warn about. The fact that abortion is a sin—for example—is not negated by the fact that a priest sexually abused children any more than the fact that “2 + 2 = 4” is negated by the fact that a math teacher sexually abused children. In both cases, what is true is independent of the associated sinner in the group that asserts the truth.

If we genuinely want to work for truth and righteousness, we need to stop using deflection against the teachings of the Church that go against our preferred worldview. Nobody is free of sin, but that does not excuse the sins we commit. Nor does it negate the teaching of the Church. Whatever we do to deflect our own wrongs onto somebody else and undermine those given the authority and responsibility of binding and loosing (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) are working against Christ (Luke 10:16).


(†) If I understand it rightly, the Vatican could overrule him. But, under the principle of subsidiarity, they try not to micromanage the decisions of the bishops in these matters. So, there would probably have to be a flagrant mismanagement on his part before they would overrule him… and I am not sure we can make such a case. 

(‡) Remember, “certain” does not mean “all.” And some smaller staffed organizations do not provide instantaneous commentary.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Digging Ourselves a Hole: Misunderstanding Catholic Moral Obligation

That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. (Luke 12:47-48)

The “Seamless Garment” is viewed with suspicion by some Catholics. The reason for this bad reputation is because it is twisted by other Catholics who misuse by arguing that we can overlook failures on certain teachings if your preferred ideology ticks enough boxes in other categories. For example, the Church teaches that the right to life is the primary right on which all others depend. Yet those who misuse the “Seamless Garment” treat it as if a candidate can get a failing grade on abortion and still be morally acceptable so long as they are all right on other (lesser) issues.

However, before the suspicious faction gets smug, we need to remember that they commit similar evasions. In their case, they think that if they are right on the primary issue, they can freely ignore lesser evils. The result is both sides present a perverted view of the Church where people see and comment on the behavior of both sides as being hypocritical. That would not be so bad if those witnesses realized that the fault was only with those hypocrites. But that is not how it works. They see these antics as part of the whole and think the entire Church is hypocritical.

To step back from that, all of us need to recognize this: If we are finding excuses to set aside or pay lip service to a Catholic teaching, we are also bad Catholics regardless of what others do wrong. This is not my own assertion. Our Lord spoke to the Pharisees about this:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. [But] these you should have done, without neglecting the others. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

I do not say that any of the moral teachings of the Church are insignificant like the tithes Jesus mentioned. But doing right before God means we cannot excuse ourselves from doing right. Yes, we are all sinners. But our attitude to sin should be one of repentance, not excusing ourselves for our failures. Repentance includes a firm purpose of amendment. To go and sin no more (cf. John 8:11). Yes, we may fail over and over, atoning over and over. But when we start making excuses for why we do not have to be sorry for our failures in an area, we have become corrupted.

Do you think that abortion is worse than the other sins currently being justified by secular law? You are right. The Church has made clear it is the primary right. But it is not the only right. If you decide that you do not have to worry about other evils if you oppose abortion, you are no longer in the right. It cuts both ways. If you think that if your campaign against a string of injustices means you can tacitly turn your back on the sin of abortion, your work on that string of injustices does not avail you.

Yes, all of us need God’s grace to be saved. But God has included us in His saving of us. We are to work with Him to do good and make known to others how to live (cf. Matthew 28:20). We have a Church which we profess has been established by Christ and teaches with His authority. So, we are without excuse if we fail to live according to how the Church teaches. As the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium #14 teaches:

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.

I am not advocating any sort of “works based salvation” that anti-Catholics falsely try to tar us with. This is not a matter of “if I do X number of deeds, I am owed salvation.” This is a matter of relationship. If we are looking to avoid doing right in one area with the excuse of doing right in another are, we are not living the Great Commandment (cf. Matthew 22:38-39). And if we are not living the Great Commandment, our souls are at risk.

Facing the question of “how do we get out of a hole we have dug ourselves,” the humorous but true answer is, “Step One: Stop digging.” In terms of salvation, we need to stop digging and start asking questions about how we reached the state we are in. We need to ask ourselves if our focus on evil X has led us to giving our allies a free pass on evil Y. And if we discover this is so, we need to stop this hypocrisy and change. Moreover, we need to do this regardless of what others do. Our goal must be more than the political advantage of our preferred faction. It is turning back to Christ and helping others to see that His way is the right way to live.



(†) Some context is needed. Cardinal Bernadin’s 1984 speech was inspired by the specter of nuclear war and the morality of the Arms Race. He did recognize that Catholics needed to be consistent. Unfortunately, some of the language in his speech could be twisted into thinking we could pick and choose other issues over abortion. But I do not think that giving anybody a free pass on one evil so long as he was good on another issue was the Cardinal’s intention at all.