Showing posts with label understanding. Show all posts
Showing posts with label understanding. Show all posts

Thursday, January 20, 2022

It’s Iimi! “Because X. Therefore, You’re Scum!”

We've reached a state where we've become so polarized that we believe anyone who reaches a conclusion that is different from ours must be done from willful malice. Sometimes, that can be

true. But not always. We can't forget that some can be mistaken about the facts. Some can have a different but valid view that goes against ours.

 

If we would avoid rash judgment or calumny, we need to ask whether our views are true before we say that our opponents are guilty of knowingly siding with evil. Otherwise, we are to blame for the mutual hatred that divides us. Above all, we must reject the bulverism that claims one holds their position BECAUSE X. THEREFORE, YOU’RE SCUM.

















Saturday, April 8, 2017

Knowledge and Understanding

[H]e would answer: ‘My good friend, he who would be a harmonist must certainly know this [i.e. how to pitch the highest and lowest note], and yet he may understand nothing of harmony if he has not got beyond your stage of knowledge, for you only know the preliminaries of harmony and not harmony itself.’

 

Plato, Phaedrus. The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, Third Edition, vol. 1 (New York; London: Macmillan and Co., 1892), 477.

A common problem for our times is thinking that because we have some knowledge on a subject, we are qualified to pass judgment on that subject and those who have authority on that subject. The problem is, this is false. A little knowledge of First Aid does not make one qualified to serve as a surgeon. A little knowledge on changing an oil filter does not make one qualified to serve as an auto mechanic. Likewise a little knowledge in theology does not make one qualified to be a theologian. Yes, the surgeon needs that knowledge of First Aid. The mechanic needs that knowledge of changing the oil filter, and the theologian needs that basic knowledge found in the Baltimore Catechism. But, to be qualified in their field, the surgeon, the auto mechanic, and the theologian need to know much more than that.

As the dissenting Catholics (whether radical traditionalist or “Spirit of Vatican II”) grow more defiant against the Church teachings they dislike, we see more clearly their deficient knowledge that leads them to false conclusions. Compassion for the sinner was also taught before Vatican II, while moral obligations were also taught after. Yet the dissenter insists that the Church was/is defective for not teaching those things. But their criticism is based on gaps in their knowledge, while assuming they know enough.

The Saints, the Popes, the Councils, the Theologians have written a great deal on our Catholic faith over the almost 2000 years our Church has existed. One individual Catholic cannot hope to read it all. So, it is not surprising that a Catholic will discover something unfamiliar to them. It may even seem excessive or deficient based on their own experience [†]. But we have to recognize that what seems strange or false to us might actually be due to deficiencies in our knowledge. This is why it is dangerous to quote mine Scripture or Church documents in order to declare something the critic dislikes as being contrary to God’s will or Church teaching. Certainly individuals in the Church can and do go against these things, but it does not follow from the fact that sin exists in the Church that those with the authority to teach are teaching error.

I would say this error revolves around making the wrong choice on how to look at things:

  1. What could the Church mean by this?
  2. What else could the Church mean but this?
The first choice says, “I don’t know what the Church, Pope, Bishop, Council is saying here.” The second is refusing to consider any possible interpretation than the one the critic has drawn. The problem is, if that interpretation is wrong, the conclusion will be as well. Before we conclude that something taught by an authoritative source in the Church is in error, we have to make sure we properly interpret what the person says, and properly understand what the Church teaches on the subject. If we focus on only the absolute teaching while ignoring the circumstances that may reduce culpability, or if we only focus on circumstances without the absolute teaching, we will miss the point that leads the Church to apply teaching one way in one circumstance, and a different way in a different circumstance—without denying either the moral obligations or the personal culpability.
 
So, when the Pope talks about the divorced and remarried, calling for bishops to investigate the culpability of individuals, he is not denying the Church teaching that divorce and remarriage is wrong. He’s talking about assessing where this specific individual stands in terms of culpability, using that assessment to help that individual reconcile with the Church. The critic who thinks that this means ignoring past teaching is overlooking the long held teaching of the Church on the necessary conditions for mortal sin—grave matter, knowledge, and consent. Grave matter is usually straightforward. Determining what the person knew and whether they consented to what they properly understood to be evil is more difficult. If a person got themselves into a grave sin through deficient knowledge or consent, they may have difficulty extracting themselves from their sin. That’s what the confessor needs to evaluate. Is the person trapped in a sin where they did not realize the gravity of their act when they first began?
 
If they did not, then they may not be guilty of a mortal sin, even though they are committing a grave sin. That’s a nuance of Catholic moral theology for confessors to determine culpability. It’s not something Pope Francis or Vatican II invented, and it’s not something that lets sinners go on sinning with permission. It’s something aimed at helping such people escape their sin at a pace they can endure. Can it be abused? Yes, but that can be said about any Church teaching that deals with individual cases. An individual priest, for example, might be too lenient out of pity or too rigid out of legalism. Or a member of the laity might resent being told they are at odds with the Church. But this hypothetical priest does not make Church teaching and practice wrong. Nor does the perceptions of the individual member of the laity mean that the properly applied teaching is unjust.
 
The point is, before we accuse the Pope, bishop, or Council of teaching error, we need to make sure we understand what they actually said and the intention in saying it. We also need to make sure we understand the Church teaching we contrast it with. Because if we are mistaken about either (or both), our accusations would be unjust. I think this is one of the major problems leading to our growing disobedience from those who claim to be “true Catholics” or “true Christians” while being in opposition to the Church.
 

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[†] Examples might include St. Louis de Montfort, whose writings on the Blessed Virgin Mary can seem to go too far for some, or some medieval teachings on keeping order in society might seem to be deficient in mercy. In both cases, we need to know the context.

Monday, May 30, 2016

How Hard Did You Look?

One common complaint about the teaching authority of the Church today is that she does not teach clearly. This complaint pops up a lot when a person railing against a Church teaching or press conference by the Pope gets refuted. In other words, the person assumes that any misunderstanding about Church teaching must be the fault of the Church. Translated: “I don’t make mistakes. So if I misinterpreted it, someone else must be to blame!"

But when I witness people who blame the Church for their misunderstanding, the question that pops into my mind is How hard did you look for the true interpretation? Now the ability to interpret Church teaching may vary from person to person. Each of us have different levels of education and training after all. Some may be able to research for themselves. Others may not even know where to begin and need help from a reliable source to understand. But how many are even looking?

The fact that people automatically assume that the Pope and bishops in communion with him are seeking to change Church teaching shows that not only are they not looking for truth misrepresented in news reports, they do not even know the foundations the Catholic theology needed to properly assess what the Church teaches—both now and in the past. Since we believe that the Church can only bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18:18) because Our Lord gave the Apostles and their successors that authority, and that Our Lord equated rejecting the authority of the Church with rejecting Him (Luke 10:16), it follows that when the magisterium intends to teach—even if the teaching is not ex cathedra—we must give our assent to that teaching[†]. Since it is absurd to think God would expect us to obey error and deny truth, it logically follows that Our Lord protects His Church from teaching error in matters that would force us to sin against God if we obeyed.

So, when we read a report that the Church is reversing a long held teaching to allow what she formerly condemned as sinful, Catholics searching for the truth should know this claim is untrue. From this, we can search out what the Pope, bishop or synod said and in what context. The belief that Pope Francis intends to change Church teaching on moral obligation shows both an ignorance about what Pope Francis says and what his predecessors said. 

For example, many take offense at Pope Francis condemning evils in Capitalism and call him a Marxist. But if we look at what Popes said about moral obligation in social justice, we see that from Pope Leo XIII to the present have consistently opposed the same economic injustice Pope Francis opposes. To call him a Marxist means calling his predecessors the same thing.

What we have is the same situation Socrates spoke about. People often do not know the truth, and they do not know they are ignorant about the truth. Instead, they think their assumptions and preferences are truth, and attack whatever challenges those assumptions and preferences as error. So long as they do not constantly investigate whether their assumptions are true, they will never escape error.

When we are ignorant about something and we could have learned the truth if we bothered to look, we have vincible ignorance—that is to say, ignorance we can avoid and are responsible for if we do wrong through our ignorance. If we rely on the secular news and decide that the Church is in error while we are not, then we reach our interpretations through vincible ignorance and the error is our fault.

Yes, some people say “Pope Francis should have expressed himself more clearly” to excuse themselves. But people have misinterpreted Church teaching throughout history. How many anti-Catholics still believe we “worship” statues? How many of them think we believe in “works-based” salvation where we have to earn it? We do not believe these things but you will always find someone taking the Bible or a Church document out of context to justify a false accusation.

The fact is, the Church cannot express herself in such a way where nobody can misinterpret or misrepresent what she said. We use words in different contexts than Church documents intends and then assume the Church uses the word in the same context we do. That’s our fault. We rely on what others claim the Church said and don’t consider whether their claims are in context or even factually correct. 

I’d like to end this article with two truths that always helped me when people try to attack my faith in the Church:

  1. Just because we don’t know the answer to a problem does not mean the Church has no answer
  2. When we’re tempted to think the Church is teaching error, we must investigate whether we have misunderstood
If we remember these things, we are less likely to fall into error when the Church says something we find confusing.

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[†] Pope John XXII (commonly cited as proof that “heretic Popes”can exist) offered a personal opinion on a topic not yet defined at the time and never intended to teach it as Church belief. Yes, we’ve had bad popes, but that badness was moral, not doctrinal.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Speaking Truth and Avoiding Falsehood and Rash Judgment

Regular readers of mine probably know my favorite quotation of Aristotle, his definition of truth by heart, but it’s time to cite it again:

To say that what is is not, or that what is not is, is false; but to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true; and therefore also he who says that a thing is or is not will say either what is true or what is false.

 

 Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, Translated by Hugh Tredennick. (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1933, 1989).

What brings up this citation this time is my seeing a growing number of people on the internet willing to impute motives to people based on their own interpretation of the quoted words, without concern as to whether the author intends those interpretations or not. It’s an important thing to keep in mind. If we want to speak truthfully about a person, we must make sure that our interpretation of his or her words are what the author intends before we praise or criticize the author/speaker in question. If we don’t do this, then we speak falsely about the person and our criticism is either wrong or, if it’s right, it’s only right by coincidence. 

This is especially a problem when personal preferences and beliefs color the meaning of words. For example, I have had to defend St. John Paul II when he used the word “feminism” from detractors who assumed he was using it in the sense of the American meaning of radical feminism. From this interpretation, his detractors accused him of being faithless to the Church. Or for a more recent example, millions of people still think that Pope Francis was endorsing “same sex marriage” on account of an out of context quote, “Who am I to judge.” (See HERE for context). Such people do not speak the truth when they claim/accuse the Pope of changing Church teaching.

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft demonstrated why this is a problem in one of his Socratic dialogues he wrote (they’re all worth reading):

Socrates: I think you are confusing belief with interpretation.

Flatland: No, I'm just saying we have to interpret a book in light of our beliefs.

Socrates: And I'm saying we must not do that.

Flatland: Why not?

Socrates: If you wrote a book to tell other people what your beliefs were, and I read it and interpreted it in light of my beliefs, which were different from yours, would you be happy?

Flatland: If you disagreed with me? Why not? You're free to make up your own mind.

Socrates: No, I said interpreted the book in light of my beliefs. For instance, if you wrote a book against miracles and I believed in miracles, and I interpreted your book as a defense of miracles, would you be happy?

Flatland: Of course not. That's misinterpretation.

Socrates: Even if it were my honest belief?

Flatland: Oh, I see. We have to interpret a book in light of the author's beliefs, and criticize it in light of our own.

Socrates: Precisely. Otherwise we are imposing our views on another. And that is certainly not charitable, but arrogant.

Peter Kreeft. Socrates Meets Jesus: History's Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ (Kindle Locations 749-755). Kindle Edition.

So if I interpret the meaning of something based on my personal beliefs, and not according to the intention the speaker/author had, then I miss the point. Moreover, if my criticism is based on this misinterpretation, I do injustice and quite possibly do moral wrong to the person I criticize. Speaking falsely can be a sin if we know it is false, or if we can research the statement and see the true content, but simply don’t bother to (vincible ignorance). But even in a case where the person who speaks falsely has no way of learning that his/her criticism is false (invincible ignorance), wrong is still done. Invincible ignorance simply means that the person has no way of finding out that they speak or act wrongly.

Nor can we hide our speaking rashly behind the excuse of “So-and-so needs to speak more clearly” (which is an excuse which is very popular among the detractors of Pope Francis). If you think a person speaks unclearly, then you have the obligation to act on that belief to be extra careful in avoiding misinterpretation and false accusation.

All of us have the moral obligation to speak truthfully. If we know we speak falsely when we speak against someone, then we outright lie. If we just assume that an accusation must be true without verifying that the speaker/writer intended to say what we accuse them of, then we are guilty of rash judgment.

This doesn’t apply only to other people committing rash judgment against Popes. It also applies to the people we dislike. A person can find Obama, Bush, Clinton, Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Wayne LaPierre (among others, I’m just culling the boogeymen most hated by Left and Right) to be offensive and supporting offensive policies. But that offense we take does not give us leave to spread whatever hostile interpretations we think sound good. We still have the same obligation to make sure that what we say is true and that we have made an accurate interpretation of our foes. In other words, even if the person that you oppose is a total bastard, that doesn’t give you the right to speak falsely against him or her.

I think this is especially important in an election year. Issues will be thrust forward, and candidates will take both sides. There will be attempts made to put the preferred idea in a positive light, and claim bad will for the opposed idea. We are not allowed to take part in misrepresentation, whether this misrepresentation tries to make an evil plan sound good or morally neutral, or to make a good or morally neutral idea seem evil. If we speak in favor of something or someone, we must do so honestly, and if we speak in opposition to some person or policy, we must be sure we accurately understand it first, and not distort it.

Otherwise we bear false witness and do wrong, whether we do so deliberately or through careless indifference.

Monday, September 3, 2012

TFTD: Damnant quod non intellegunt (They condemn what they do not understand)

 

Dammant quod non intelligunt – They condemn what they do not understand.  These words of wisdom by Cicero are important to consider when witnessing the modern American political discourse.  All too often we see rhetoric which condemns a position while that condemnation demonstrates no comprehension of what they oppose.

A couple of days ago, someone posted the following comment on Facebook.

"[A]ll of us need to put a stop to the 'Republican WAR ON WOMEN'. I can NOT, I am mean [sic] I can not understand why ANY woman would be a republican."

Which made me think of a comment made by GK Chesterton:

"It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

—G.K. Chesterton in The Catholic Church and Conversion

I think this points out the dangers of the ideology being forced on us today.  The people who cannot comprehend why we believe what we do respond by ad hominem attacks condemning those they disagree with. 

GK Chesterton wrote once, in the article, The Drift from Domesticity:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

I think it is a valid point.  I can understand why a Blue Collar Catholic or a Feminist might support the platform of the Democratic Party.  I believe their reasoning is faulty and leads them to a wrong conclusion, but I do understand the point their reasoning comes from.  I can also understand why certain Conservatives might be tempted by the Ayn Rand concept of Objectivism (a wrong turn in the concept of objective truth), even though I believe it is also wrong.  It is by understanding what they do think, I can also understand where they go wrong.

But when someone who opposes the Republican platform says, "I can not understand why ANY woman would be a republican," shouldn't such a person step back and ponder the issue before condemning it?  How do they know their knowledge contains all truth and no part of untruth?

Essentially this mindset argues that (to put it in a valid form):

  1. Everything I understand is true (All A is B)
  2. I do not understand [X] (No C is B)
  3. Therefore [X] is not true. (Therefore No C is A)

Even if the major premise is true (doubtful), that does not mean Everything that is true I understand (all [B] is [A]).  There can be gaps in the knowledge, and if there are gaps, there can be things which are true and you do not understand.  So it is foolish to think that because you do not see a reason a thing can be so, it follows that it cannot be so.

One can say, "I understand what they claim, but reject it as false."  One can say, "I do not understand, and so I need to explore more."  One can say, "I understand what is claimed and I accept it as true."  These three responses can be wise.  But to say, "I do not understand, so I think it is wrong" is not the act of wisdom, but the act of a fool.

This is one of the problems of modern thinking.  Nobody seems to recognize Socrates' maxim, The unexamined life is not worth living (Plato, Apology 38a), which is a pity  Responding to the question at his trial as to why he cannot just be quiet and stop teaching to save his life, he says:

Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; [38a] and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less.

Plato. (1966). Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.

In other words, Socrates believed he was obligated to continue to examine himself and others as the greatest good to man, and the life which failed to do so was not worth living – not an endorsement of suicide but a commentary on the quality of life of the person who does not do so.  All of us are called to search for the truth and to absorb it into our lives. 

To refuse to accept truth and to refuse to reject error on the grounds of not understanding, is foolishness.