Monday, May 24, 2021

Equivocation: Taking Sides in the Wrong Culture War

(Yeah, I like cheesy CCM at times)

The term “Culture War” appears to have two meanings. One meaning is “Right vs. Wrong.” The other is “Right vs. Left.” The result of this is people confuse the two meanings and often assume that the person speaking about the Culture War in the wrong sense. This is the fallacy of Equivocation (A fallacy arising from the use of the same term in different senses) and it leads to taking sides in the wrong war. 

We need to understand that, as Catholics, the right concept of a Culture War is one we must fight in. But the culture war we must fight is the one Dr. Peter Kreeft has described as:

[T]he spiritual war between the Gospel of Life and the Culture of Death, is the greatest war in our history. It is a world war far deeper and more extensive than World War II. It is deeper because it attacks life itself, body and soul, at its root and origin. It is more extensive because it spreads over the whole world like a cancer. [Peter Kreeft, Three Approaches to Abortion: A Thoughtful and Compassionate Guide to Today’s Most Controversial Issue (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 60].

The terms Gospel of Life and Culture of Death did not come from a political spin machine. They were emphasized by St. John Paul II and echoed by his successors. The saint pointed out the dangers of the “Culture of Death” frequently. For example, on December 15th, 1999, he said:

In recent decades, the loss of the sense of God has coincided with the advance of a nihilistic culture that impoverishes the meaning of human life and, in the ethical field, relativizes even the fundamental values of the family and of respect for life. This does not often occur visibly, but through a subtle methodology of indifference that makes all kinds of behaviour seem normal, so that moral problems are no longer acknowledged. It is paradoxically demanded that the State recognize as “rights” many forms of conduct which threaten human life, especially the weakest and the most defenceless, not to mention the enormous difficulties in accepting others because they are different, inconvenient, foreign, sick or disabled. It is precisely this ever more prevalent rejection of others because of their otherness that challenges our conscience as believers. As I said in the Encyclical Evangelium vitae: “We are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin … characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and, in many cases, takes the form of a veritable ‘culture of death.’”

We cannot be neutral in that war.

Unfortunately, many Catholics miss that distinction and assume that “Culture War” is a fight over which ideology should be supported by the Church. That fight assumes the values of the Church can be bound to a political outlook and whatever the Church does contra that political outlook is a betrayal of the Church. 

Both factions—called Right and Left—in that misguided fight assume that the other side is neglecting their Catholic beliefs and replacing it with politics, while ignoring the fact that the same could be applied to them. Thus, we see some involved say that Catholic social justice teaching is “Marxism” and others say that Catholics opposing abortion are “pro-birth but not pro-life.” Both see the other side as betraying the Faith while ignoring the fact that if we downplay a teaching that hits against the faction we favor, we are also guilty of betrayal. 

Others assume their politics are the only way to approach the moral issues and condemn those who disagree with their politics as being guilty of rejecting the Church. But sometimes those politics have nothing to do with the Church teaching. For example, some might think that taxes and social programs are the only way to follow Church teachings on social justice. Others disagree and think personal effort is the key focus. Provided we do not abuse the letter of the law to avoid doing what we are called to do, this is a matter of prudential judgment. But some Catholics practically excommunicate each other as being “faux Catholics” if the other disagrees over politics.


This leads to a third problem: Assuming Catholics who are fighting the culture war in the first sense are fighting it in the second sense. For example, the Catholic Church has taught since the beginning that abortion is a moral evil. There is literally no place for a “pro-choice” mindset in the Catholic Church. But some factions assume that opposition to abortion is a “right wing” political belief and rain down contempt on those working to end this evil. On the other side, some Catholics look at the divided response among the bishops towards Catholic politicians who defend and promote abortion and accuse those who do not respond in the way that they favor as “trying to undermine” the Church teaching.

None of the bishops supports abortion as a right. But they do disagree over which policy is the best one for pro-abortion politicians and the Eucharist. One can legitimately disagree over which is better of course. But if we start applying our factional preferences to those bishops—making them into heroes and villains when the Church—then we are guilty of fighting the wrong Culture War, and guilty of rash judgment by claiming that our “villains” are guilty of promoting evil.

This second meaning of the Culture War is the one Catholics must avoid. But it seems to be the one most of the Catholics feuding on the internet are fighting. Instead of focusing on how to work at the Great Commission, we focus on vanquishing our foes. And if that means we tear the Church apart while trying to make our foes concede that our side is “right,” we dismiss the damage we cause while pointing out the harm caused by the other side.

This is something we should ponder if we’re ever tempted to confuse the two. 



[‡] It seems to be a matter of schools of thought in dispute over prudence on how to handle a manifest public sinner, comparing the harm to the benefit.

[†] As a disclosure, my own belief is “If canon 915 doesn’t apply in this case, when is it ever applied?” But I recognize (following Lesson One) the possibility that there may be more in play than I realize. So, I temper my response recognizing that possible hole in my knowledge.

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