In modern Catholicism, the term “theology” is often linked to Church doctrine, much of which is regarded as definitive, and even infallible, and thus not open to question. That linkage has inclined the hierarchy to be averse to dialogue, to expect even those highly trained in theology to agree with them, and to dismiss those who don’t as enemies of Christ and His Church.
One important cause of the melding of theology and doctrine is confusion about the meaning of theology. The term derives from the Greek word for “speaking” (logia) and the related word for “reasoning” (logos). St. Augustine, among others, regarded the definitions as interchangeable; he defined theology as “reasoning or discussion about God.”
From this perspective, theology is subject to the principles of logic, and the purpose of theology is therefore not to confirm the pronouncements of the hierarchy but to independently evaluate those and other pronouncements in light of Scripture, tradition, and logic. In other words, the purpose of theology is to use our God-given intellects to pursue God’s own truth whether or not that endeavor results in affirming hierarchical pronouncements. This understanding in no way disrespects the hierarchy, and it certainly does not imply the heretical notion that everyone is his/her own authority. It simply values truth more highly than protocol.
Before noting some examples of the logical errors that have occurred in modern theological discourse, a brief explanation of what constitutes a logical error, or fallacy, is in order. There are more than a hundred specific errors, each describing a particular failure in reasoning, but they are often grouped by kind. The most fundamental is Non-Sequitur, a Latin term meaning “the conclusion does not follow from the reasoning or evidence.” Others are Failure to Make Distinctions; Oversimplification, a conclusion that does not reflect the complexity of the issue; Contradiction, an assertion at odds with itself or with a related belief; and Unwarranted Assumption, taking too much for granted. (Another kind, Deliberate Deception, is intentional and therefore not, strictly speaking, an error, but it has the same effect of disqualifying an argument.)
Now for some examples of fallacies in modern theological discourse:
German Cardinal Gerhard Müeller: “The authority of the papal magisterium rests on its continuity with the teachings of previous popes.” (Cited in Pope Francis’s ‘Paradigm Shift by Jose Antonio Ureta, 2018)
The clear implication here is that without continuity, there is no authority. Yet as John Noonan and others have documented, over the centuries there have been significant breaks in continuity. Notable examples are those concerning slavery, usury, and religious freedom. Therefore, continuity among the popes cannot be the foundation of papal authority. (In any case, we do not need to elevate continuity to that level of importance. We have Matthew 16:18, “Thou art Peter . . .)
Failure to make important distinctions
A common example of this error among the hierarchy is failure to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration, and instead speaking as if all immigration were legal. Ignoring this distinction has the effect of affirming migrants’ rights but denying the rights of the citizens who live in the country to which the migrants relocate.
Pope Francis, speaking about migrants: “A Christian excludes no one, gives a place to everyone, allows everyone to come.” (General Audience: June 22, 2016)
This assertion omits the important qualification that, just as there is no moral obligation to take into one’s HOME someone who poses a threat to one’s family, there is no obligation to take into one’s COUNTRY someone who poses a threat to its citizens. Francis’ oversimplified formulation of the Gospel message places an unjust burden on Christians.
Pope Francis: “Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other and improve our knowledge of the world.” (Cited in Pope Francis’ ‘Paradigm Shift’)
To begin with, to say that proselytizing is “solemn nonsense” is to imply that Christ’s commission to the Apostles to “go and teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19) is also “solemn nonsense.” Furthermore, this assertion oversimplifies the relationship between proselytizing, on the one hand, and knowing others and growing in knowledge, on the other. They are not mutually exclusive but perfectly compatible. Knowing others can bring us close to them, in fact to love them, and one of the finest manifestations of our love is to share the “Good News” of the faith with them, which is the very essence of proselytizing.
Pope Francis: “The truth is an encounter, an encounter between people. Truth is not found in a laboratory, it is found in life.” (“Private Visit to Caserta”)
The standard definition of “truth” is correspondence with fact or reality. It may be apprehended by encounters with people, but also through laboratory experiments and other forms of search/research, all of which are “part of life.” To say truth cannot be found in a laboratory is false. And to define it as an “encounter” is to conflate what is sought with the method of seeking.
Pope Francis: “In political philosophy we learned that to defend oneself, one can wage war and consider it as just. But can we call it ‘just war’? Or rather ‘defensive war’? Because peace is the only just thing . . . No war is just. The only thing [that is] just is peace.” (Quoted in Wolton, Politique et Société)
This not only oversimplifies a complex matter; it makes it unnecessarily confusing. A fundamental principle of ethics is respect for persons. One way to show that respect is to defend a person who is attacked, even if that person happens to be oneself. It is equally true if a larger number—for example, the citizens of an entire nation—are attacked. The term “just” means “consistent with what is morally right.” Therefore it is an appropriate term to describe a defensive war. (Note: to say that a war can be just in no way challenges the idea that peace is just.)
Pope Francis: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality,no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.” (Evangelii Gaudium, #202)
The contradiction here is with the teaching of the Church that sin, notably Original Sin, is the root of all evil, a teaching which Francis presumably accepts. Francis’ assertion could also be considered an oversimplification because in some cases inequality is caused by personal irresponsibility—as in refusing to take opportunities for self-improvement— rather than by external forces.
Pope Francis: “If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others.” (Laudatio Si, #95)
Here the contradiction is of the teaching of the Church confirmed by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum. Leo condemned taking advantage of others for “the sake of gain,” but he also argued that “the first and most fundamental principle . . . if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.” Moreover, that “neither justice nor the common good allows” taking one person’s property and giving it to another. Moreover, he stressed that the duty of helping those is need is one of charity and not of justice.
Some examples of this error: The assumption that elevation to high office brings wisdom. The assumption that the more familiar an idea is, the more insightful it is. The assumption that Catholic doctrine never really changes as long as revised positions are called “developments.” The assumption that avoiding public scandal to the Church is more important and virtuous than protecting the innocent or serving justice. (Note: to call an assumption unwarranted does not mean that it is necessarily false. Only that its truth cannot be taken for granted but must be demonstrated.)
Why are so many of my examples of logical fallacies taken from Pope Francis? Not because of any animus, but simply because as the leader of the Catholic Church he is more influential than almost anyone else on earth. Also, alas, because he seems more tempted to incautious and often questionable public utterances than any pope in at least a century. He has, in fact, yielded to that temptation frequently enough to have prompted accusations of deliberately undermining traditional faith.
The quotations mentioned above lead me to an assessment that is not only more charitable but also, I believe, more accurate than that of Francis’ accusers. Though at times he speaks with such insight as to suggest guidance from the Holy Spirit, at others he seems not to think before he speaks—that is, not to evaluate the issue carefully, examining various lines of reasoning before settling on one, and striving to present his thoughts clearly enough to prevent misunderstanding. In short, he seems at times both ideationally and rhetorically reckless!
Such recklessness is not uncommon in western culture. We live at a time when truth is regarded as subjective and personal—I have mine, you have yours, and both are wonderful; when feeling is more valued than thought and emotional health is maintained by saying whatever happens to pop into our minds without prior restraint. This behavioral pattern does mischief everywhere, including government, education, the arts, and everyday social interaction. But nowhere is that mischief more lamentable than in religion.
Copyright © 2019 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved