Sophists and Sophism

Reading the story of June 22 in the Mpls. Star Tribune about CPO, “Self-Appointed Watchdogs over parish behavior have some Catholics wary”, by Kim Palmer, reminded me of the college course I had in Logic (first taught by Aristotle who died in 322 BC) when we learned about sophists and sophisms. Her article like many others is full of sophisms. Webster’s dictionary defines sophisms as “unsound or misleading but clever, plausible and subtle arguments or reasoning.” In logic we would simply call them “non sequiters” or invalid arguments. This approach is typical of so many writers today. They have their own point of view and cleverly twist the facts putting on a spin that furthers their own agenda.
In logic there is a name and a method for each one of these sophisms. One of these is arguing from a particular to a universal. One can not say, for example, that because this man is blind therefore all men are blind. This is a “non sequiter”. Thus to say that the Church changed its teaching in the past and therefore it can do it now on many issues is an invalid argument. Palmer quotes Kathy Itzin who says, “Scriptural interpretation and tradition evolve, and things once thought sinful, such as charging interest on money, are not acceptable.” Itzin’s conclusion evidently, is that her lesbian life style falls into that category as something which has evolved and therefore acceptable. The example given is “usury”. If in the past, the church changed its teaching on usury from immoral to moral, it can change its teaching today on the morality of homosexual acts.

This strikes at the very heart of the authority of the Magisterium of the Church. (the pope alone, or the pope with the bishops, but not the bishops without the pope) Who has the authority to interpret scripture and sacred tradition in the Church? The Vat. 11 document on the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation No. 10, states: “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” Obviously, the authority of definitive interpretation does not rest with those outside the Magisterium.

Let’s examine this case on the evolving teaching on usury a little further. What is usury? The dictionary states that usury is the practice of lending money at a rate of interest that is excessive or unlawfully high. If the church taught this way of judging usury in the past it was obviously correct. Even Jesus seems to imply that receiving some interest on money put into the bank is an acceptable practice. (Read Matt. Ch. 25:27, the parable of the talents) But regardless, it does not follow that the Church because of a remote unclear example in the past, can now change its teaching on other moral issues. In modern times what comes to mind is Pope Paul the VI’s teaching against the use of contraceptives in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” in 1968, which because of the rejection of so many, fractured the Church which is still yet to recover. One of the strong reasons the pope gave for maintaining this restriction, besides being contrary to the natural law (which implies that every sexual act must be open to life) was the fact that forbidding the use of contraceptives was always taught in the past and therefore the pope had to be faithful to this tradition.

What needs to be better understood is that the Magisterium can never change its teaching on anything that is intrinsically evil. Homosexual acts fall into this category. The genital expression of homosexuality has always been taught by the Church as immoral and intrinsically evil for a very good reason and that these acts cannot generate life or are not open to life, as Paul the VI so wisely stated in his 1968 encyclical. Thus the church can never change it teaching on this issue. To think otherwise regardless of how much pressure is put on the bishops and the Church, is wishful thinking and can never happen. If individuals, churches or parishes do this they are acting contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium and the universal church and therefore it is invalid.

Another sophism often used is ambiguity, the failure to define one’s terms; for example to say that the Church welcomes gays and lesbians to receive Holy Communion. The ambiguity here is concerned with the definition of gay and lesbian. The distinction which the Church makes is that no one is prohibited from receiving Holy Communion because of their sexual orientation. However, people of both orientations whether heterosexual or homosexual must be chaste and in the state of grace. This is brought out very clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (No. 1385) The deception here is that the word ”chaste” is left out. Receiving Holy Communion implies one is in full communion with the Church and with a pure heart.

A frequently used sophism is what is called the “ad hominem” argument, which means that the person is attacked rather than the issue which that person represents; for example to call a person “ultra consevative”, or a “right winger”, puts that person in a category which then apparently leaves out the necessity of addressing the morality of the issue. The word homophobe, or to say this is the 21st Century smacks of the same method. If you accuse a person of being a dinosaur, you feel that will silence that person forever. Palmer states that CPO members are “self-appointed watchdogs over parish behavior”. I don’t think she meant that description as a compliment. When we think of all the people who are prolife, we do not think of them as watchdogs, but of people who are convinced of the terrible evil of abortion.

It seems what is not well understood is the distinct roles of the laity, the clergy and the magisterium. Vat. 11 speaks of the “sensus fedei”, that is, the whole body of the faithful, “from the bishops to the last of the faithful who manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals. By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority, the magisterium, and obeying it, receives not the mere word of men, but truly the word of God…The people unfailing adheres to this faith penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully to daily life.” (Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, No. 12)

It seems like we have a long ways to go to obtain this kind of unity. One can understand then, why people like members of CPO are so concerned about flagrant errors among the Church members. Jesus spoke about the necessity of being the salt of the earth and to let your light shine before others “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” Matt. 5:13-16) St. Paul in speaking to his favorite community, the Philippians, told them to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like lights in the world.” (Phil. 2:15) I couldn’t help wondering if Paul were alive today whether he would say the same thing to encourage the CPO. I think he would.

By Fr. Marvin Deutsch