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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David Wanat holds a Masters Degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has been blogging in defense of the Catholic Church since 2007. His personal blog is at http://www.ifimightinterject.com/.