People have a habit of thinking in a binary manner: Either X or Y. If one doesn’t support X, they must therefore support Y. The problem is, that’s only sometimes true. It’s only true if there are only two possible choices and you must pick one. But, if choosing Z is an option, if rejecting both X and Y is an option, or if choosing elements of X and Y are options, then the either-or dilemma is false because it is NOT a choice of only X or Y.

When it comes to the teaching of the Church, Catholics often commit this fallacy. They interpret Church teaching in a narrow way, then argue that whoever disagrees with their narrow interpretation must—by the fact of that disagreement—be in opposition to Church teaching. But they overlook the possibility that the Church teaching is different from what these critics think it is and actually rejects the dilemma the critics present.

Recently, we’re seeing American Catholics fall into this trap over the debate on immigration. The bishops, following Church teaching, have been speaking out against changes to immigration policy that makes it harder for legitimate asylum speakers to apply and presents migration as an “enemy horde” to be defended against. Supporters of this policy are accusing the bishops of supporting illegal immigration. In terms of logic, they are saying:

  • Either support the current administration’s policy OR support illegal immigration (Either X or Y)
  • Not supporting the current administration’s policy (Not X)
  • Therefore supporting illegal immigration (Therefore Y)

The problem [§] with this reasoning is that the Church is not saying “Y.” The Church is saying “Neither X nor Y.” The bishops recognize that the needs of security are legitimate, but also recognize that we cannot use this need as an excuse to evade our Christian obligations to help those in legitimate need. What the Church is calling for is a just process that seeks to find and aid—without delay—those who do need help. The bishops don’t want members of MS-13 in the country any more than the rest of us do. But they do realize that trying to keep all or most immigrants out in order to keep out the gang members is not a just response.

Whatever the issue, the Catholic is tempted to see the “right” solution as the one they support (X) and whoever rejects X must support the antithesis, not recognizing that they could be the ones in error. Some Catholics label the Church teaching against contraception and abortion as being about “controlling women” because they interpret these intrinsic evils as necessary “rights” so women can be “free.” Other Catholics interpret the Church teaching on social justice as “promoting socialism” because it necessarily condemns government laxity on the topic. In both cases, they accuse the Pope and bishops of supporting “Y” when the Church is rejecting both X and Y.

The Either-Or fallacy used by Catholics against the magisterium is effectively an attempt to shift the blame: “I can’t be in error, therefore YOU must be!” by way of wrongly accusing the magisterium. As Catholics fall into this trap, they see the Church as increasingly going wrong—never considering that they have been misled about what is right behavior for Catholics.

It doesn’t have to be on an issue either. It can also happen if someone assumes that a problematic action must be “proof” of willful heresy as opposed to misunderstanding, a mistake, or a matter of personal sin. Or a case where we don’t see a public rebuke leads to an assumption that the Church “approves of the error” instead of a private correction.

The “either-or” fallacy leads Catholics to violate the proper sense of Matthew 7:1–assuming to rashly judge hearts and minds where no justification to do so exists. To avoid this logical error and the accompanying sin of rash judgment, we need to consider whether there is more to a story than our usual sources; more to an action than our presumed motives. We can certainly say X is wrong, when we know (i.e., using submission to the magisterium as the guide for our knowledge) that X goes against Church teaching. But we can’t justify attitudes that reject or explain away the teaching of the Pope and bishops in communion with him, or make accusations against them without explicit proof that there are only two possible conclusions and they have deliberately chosen the evil one.

 


[§] In this form, it’s also a logical error of Denying the Antecedent.

 

This post was originally published at David Wanat’s personal blog, “If I Might Interject.” Re-posted here with permission.

 

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10 Responses

  1. Avatar carn says:

    You are correct in your general argument about the either-or problem. You are probably to some extent correct, that a number of US Catholics are to some considerable extent wrong about immigration being an either-or problem.

    But unfortunately you yourself also seem to make a mistake regarding either-or:

    “he bishops, following Church teaching, have been speaking out against changes to immigration policy that makes it harder for legitimate asylum speakers to apply and presents migration as an “enemy horde” to be defended against.”

    That seems to be in your words for those skeptical of what the bishops say:

    Either oppose the current administration’s policy OR oppose Church teaching (Either X or Y)
    Not opposing the current administration’s policy (Not X)
    Therefore opposing Church teaching (Therefore Y)

    “The Either-Or fallacy used by Catholics against the magisterium is effectively an attempt to shift the blame: “I can’t be in error, therefore YOU must be!””

    The either-or fallacy used by Catholics against other Catholics is effectively an attempt to skip the argument: “My proposal regarding complex political issues is perfectly, 100%, without a glimmer of doubt exactly what the magisterium infallibly demands, therefore you must be wrong.”

    Just an attempt to show you the complexity of that problem.

    Also there is one issue about immigration that is either-or: Either the state acting as the will of the people who OWN the country has at the very first the right to deny both entry and citizenship, if there are no special circumstances (like people starving or slaughtered if not allowed to enter the country or some contract requirements), just like i have at the very first the right to deny anyone entry to my property, if there are no special circumstances (like people starving or being slaugthered if not allowed to enter my property or some contract requirements) or
    the state does not have in absence of any special circumstances to deny entry and citizenship.

    I do not think there is a third.

    Either i am allowed to in absence of special circumstances say “No” to anyone trying to enter my property or i am not allowed to.
    Either the state is allowed to or not.

    I think many catholics think that immigration is mostly an either-or issue, cause they have the impression that pro-immigration arguments seem to rest upon there being no such right (“impression” “seem” mean to imply, that i just claim that this is how not a few people perceive it; not that the perception is correct or false)
    Otherwise cheers for a nice article.

  2. Avatar jong says:

    Dear David Wanat,
    Simple and short article but very timely topic and also you had presented it very well.
    I thank WPI for giving the link to your blogsite as I’ve seen a lot of good articles and want to read your articles maybe this week.
    Good to know that there are numerous good Catholic who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to defend the Pope and the Church.

    Pope Francis wisdom on immigration issues were inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit as the Church sees the problem based on Her mission to save souls while the State mission although good but normally does not align to God’s mission and inspiration. Pope Francis is magnifying the need to embrace Church Teaching on compassion towards the less fortunate souls,lost and wounded. As Pope Francis said “The Divine Mercy is Infinite but the Time of Mercy is Not.” And St.Mother Theresa had exemplify the meaning of compassion by saying “Give until it hurts”. The present immigration crisis demand for government to exercise compassion, can they extend compassion based on what the Gospel of Christ demands? This is where Pope Francis leadership is needed as he is the Vicar of Christ and can shine the Light of Christ in the darkness of this world we now live in.

  3. Avatar Peter Aiello says:

    Why are the opinions of the magisterium elevated above the opinions of the whole Church?
    Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium 12 says: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, (111) [cf. 1 Jn 2:20, 27] cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” (8*) they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth.”
    Shouldn’t this be considered in any discussion about inerrancy in the Church?

    • Pedro Gabriel Pedro Gabriel says:

      The answer to that question is on the very same document you quote over and over and over, if only you did not take a piecemeal reading of it: Lumen Gentium 25

    • Avatar ONG says:

      [[[REPOST]]]

      Many leaders of the new sects (or cults) of Bible-Only believers have actually resuscitated and built upon many of these heresies (in a way or another), without the knowledge of their gullible and naive followers. SHAME on them!

      ••• Mat 15:14 [KJV] “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”

      Here are some more ( a couple have a different designation):

      • Abelians
      • Abelites
      • Abelonians
      • Adelphians
      • Adoptionism
      • Antidicomarianites
      • Antinomianism
      • Antitrinitarians
      • Apollinarianism
      • Arianism
      • Bogomili
      • Cathari
      • Circumcellions
      • Docetism
      • Donatists
      • Dositheans
      • Ebionites
      • Enthusiasts
      • Euchites
      • Filthy, The
      • Gnosticism
      • Hussites
      • iconoclasm
      • Lollards
      • Macedonianism
      • Marcionites
      • Messalians
      • Monarchianism
      • Monophysitism
      • Monothelitism
      • Montanists
      • Naturism
      • Nestorianism
      • New Thought
      • Novatianism
      • Origenism
      • Paulicians
      • Pelagianism
      • Pneumatomachi
      • Priscillianism
      • Quietism
      • Rigorism
      • Sabellianism
      • Seleucians
      • Semi-Arianism
      • Semipelagianism
      • Traducianism
      • Tutiorism

      A “good conscience” and a “honest spirit” that claims Truth and seeks the truth, and that already speaks of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit, would surely and undoubtably do the homework and study them all one by one, as to WHY they were condemned!

      Then, one could “humbly” scrutinize and compare one’s own overall theology/Christology with them, and, God willing, perceive where the “errors” lie.

      Here’s a clear and well recorded disobedience to the Church’s authority:

      “I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge my authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, prating against me with evil words. And not content with that, he refuses himself to welcome the brethren, and also stops those who want to welcome them and puts them out of the church” (3 John 1:9-10).

    • Avatar jong says:

      Peter Aellio
      The sin of the mind is pride and your embraced confusions interpreting Church documents contradicting Church Magisterium and more so against the Supreme Pontiff will lead you to eternal damnation. As Cardinal Caffara reminded all the prelates ” all bishops who oppose the Pope must go away because they are no longer one with Christ. They really must go away because they will lead the confused souls to eternal damnation.”
      And C.S Lewis beautifully stated “the door of hell is locked in the inside.”
      The merciful graces emanating from the Church thru the hierarchy established by Christ Himself cannot descend on a proud soul always opposing the Church Magisterium.
      The simple reason you are intepreting wrongly Lumen Gentium is because you are using a Protestant lenses on a documents or doctrines written by the Catholic Church., it is foolish thing to do, dont you agree?
      So stop fooling yourself brother, a Protestant cannot interpret Catholic Doctrines because schismatic perceptions is never inspired by the Spirit of Truth.
      I leave you with St. Faustina’s words ” the devil can wear the cloak of piousness to deceive people but the devil does not know how to wear the cloak of obedience.” Why?
      Their sin of pride & disobedience puffed-up their head it wont fit.
      Or better I will quote the demons confession during exorcism. “Obedience in heaven is written in CAPITAL LETTERS.” If you do not learn to submit humbly to the Church Authority, I think Heaven will not be a good place fot you because pride & disobedience is more fitting in hell.
      Proverbs18:2

  4. Avatar Marie says:

    Great article. This either or mentality has taken over our thought process and has caused Catholics to morph their faith into a political ideology, abandoning their roots along the way. The dividing line became clearer around the time of abortion, and now continues as left and right go amiss yet so many still stay on their one familiar road, no matter which way it turns. We need to jump ship and get on the right path. The teachings are clear when we rid ourselves of the ideologies. Abortion is wrong; making excuses for why we don’t need to help our neighbour in distress is wrong. We need to remember what it was like to think like a child, with no ego directing our thoughts. Would a child think it’s okay to kill an unborn child? Would a child think it’s okay to leave people who are desperate and in need of assistance? They are are guide to how far off the path we go, for they have yet to be poisoned by indifference, greed, fear and prejudice that hardens our hearts and allows us to excuse the inexcusable. “If you do not change your hearts and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3)

  5. Avatar Christopher Lake says:

    I am truly trying to not be an “either/or Catholic”, in terms of how I think about and live out the faith, *and* in terms of how I vote politically. To say the least, it’s not always easy. It’s not even *often* easy, but by God’s grace, I am still trying.

    The “thinking” part is a bit easier, because it’s a matter of my own mind and will intellectually assenting to what the Church teaches. The “living” part is more challenging, partially because, in the process, I end up confronting my own sinfulness and/or blind spots, but by God’s grace, thankfully I’m still working at it (because *He’s* still working in *me*, thanks be to God)!!

    In terms of how I vote though, I am still struggling with trying to be a consistent *Catholic* American. The major reason for my political struggle is that, as most Americans know all too well, in the U.S., the only two political Parties that have serious power and visibility (to the point of *overwhelming dominance* of both the political scene *and* the electoral process, local and national!) are the Democratic Parties and the Republican Parties– and increasingly, in more and more open, brazen ways, neither the Democratic or Republican Party “machine” really even makes a *pretense* of representing Catholics who are trying to be consistent in their faith in following *all* of the Church’s teachings.

    Both Parties *emotionally manipulate* U.S. Catholics, in desperate appeals for our votes– even as, increasingly, both Parties openly, angrily, viciously dissent from various, serious Church teachings. I can’t vote for a contemporary Democratic Party which, in its political platform, treats the murder of unborn humans in the wombs of their mothers as a sacred, virtually-unquestionable human right (which is obviously an anti-Catholic position) *and* which treats any dissent from its increasingly anti-Catholic gender/sexual ideology as grounds for social and professional demonizing and ostracizing. I also can’t vote for a contemporary Republican Party, which I have seem become more and more given to winking at, and/or trying to explain away, open racism and xenophobia from an increasing number of its leaders and followers, *and* which is also increasingly libertarian/Social Darwinist, in its economic thinking– *all* of which is anti-Catholic, in terms of what the Church clearly teaches and has taught for a very long time.

    How should a Catholic American who is trying to be *consistent* in his or her faith vote, then, when both major political Parties are increasingly, openly hostile to various, respective, serious teachings of the Church? I’ve looked at the third Parties (even voted for one of the candidates for President last time!), and, of the ones who seem to be trying to consistently represent Catholic teaching, they either have almost no public visibility and power at all, or they are so plagued by in-fighting that they can’t get their own ranks together to *even begin* to mount a serious *voting challenge* to the Democratic and Republican Party “machines.”

    Almost as frustrating as all of the above, for me, as a Catholic, is *also* the fact that where I live, to be able to vote in local elections at all, one *must be* officially registered as either a Democrat or a Republican. I don’t want to be associated with either Party when both openly defy and despise Catholic teachings. I’m not a Republican, or a Democrat, or a member of *any other* anti-Catholic political Party!

    I’m a follower of Christ. I’m Catholic and have freely, happily chosen to be a member of the Church that Christ founded. I would love for my Catholic Christian faith, first and foremost, to be able to be *consistently reflected* in how I vote as an American! Is that just a fantasy? It sometimes seems so to me. I don’t want to give in to knee-jerk cynicism about voting, but it is becoming more and more difficult.

    When I was a radical, far-leftist secularist, long before my conversion to Christ, I didn’t vote at all, because the entire political “establishment,” both right and left, was too “conservative” for me (!). Then, after my Christian conversion, for many years, whether as a Catholic convert, an evangelical Protestant, or a Catholic “revert,” I voted Republican, straight ticket, straight down the line. It seemed so clear to me (at the time) that I was voting in accordance with my Catholic faith.

    In recent years, though, especially as I’ve studied more of the Church’s social teachings, I’ve come to face the hard reality that neither the Republican Party *nor* the Democratic Party even comes close to consistently representing the teachings, values, and convictions of Catholic Christianity. In terms of political allegiance and voting, I am politically homeless in the U.S. as a Catholic American. I would love for that to change. I would rather be politically homeless, though, than twist my faith into an idolatrous mess (as I have, sadly, been all too close to doing at times in the past, though unintentionally!) by dissenting from the Church that Christ founded, *whenever and wherever* the current platform of either the Republican *or* Democratic Party unashamedly, nakedly, dissents from the Church.

    • Avatar Marie says:

      Christopher- Wow! Politically homeless is exactly the position many of us have found ourselves in recent years. Maybe you have come up with the perfect catch phrase to express a very difficult dilemma. Catholics are politically homeless. If that message was ever taken seriously, imagine the change that could come.

  6. Avatar carn says:

    As there seems to be a general dislike here of either/or, i should note, that either/or done correctly is of course without fault.

    Cause either either/or is applicable to some situation/problem, then you use it, or it isn’t, then you don’t. Perfect either/or applicable always.

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