“What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him.”
[Many of the arguments used to justify the “recognize and resist” position of radical traditionalists are extremely convoluted, and it would be unthinkable to use them in another context. In this short play, Mark Hausam imagines what it might sound like if the same logic was applied to a conversation in everyday life. —Mike Lewis.]
Catholic hyper-traditionalists like the Society of St. Pius X want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to dissent and rebel against the teachings of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, but at the same time they want to present themselves as obedient children of the Church. Not surprisingly, this leads to some interesting twists in terms of how they justify their position. I thought that perhaps an analogy by way of a fictional dialogue might be a good way of bringing this out. Of course, in my dialogue, we are dealing with motherly authority, which has no promise of unfailing divine guidance from God like the Magisterial authority of the Church has according to Catholic teaching. So if my dialogue shows the absurdity of Johnny’s reasoning in this case, how much more would the argument apply when we are dealing with the divinely protected and guided authority of the Church, which God has appointed to “preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #890)?
I’m imagining Johnny as being about seven or eight years old, though I’ve given him a rather sophisticated vocabulary and reasoning ability in order to explore more nuance than a real, ordinary seven-or-eight-year-old would likely be able to express.
Mom: Johnny, I would like you to clean up your room before going outside to play today.
Johnny: No, Mom, I won’t do it.
Mom: What do you mean you won’t do it? I’m telling you to do it.
Johnny: And with all due respect, I’m telling you I won’t.
Mom: You’re directly disobeying what I’m telling you to do. There is no respect in that!
Johnny: Actually, Mom, though it may seem like I’m disobeying you, I’m really obeying you.
Mom: And how, exactly, do you make that out?
Johnny: Well, a few days ago, if you recall, we were talking about how our days were going to be structured this summer, and you said that you were going to allow me to go outside each day to play after lunch. Well, I just finished lunch, so according to what you said before, I should be allowed to go outside and play now. Your present command is in contradiction with your previous statement. Since they can’t both be correct, I have to decide which one I ought to follow. Upon reflection, I have decided that your previous statement has greater authority, and so I have chosen to follow that in preference to your current command. So, although I am technically disobeying your current command, I’m actually doing it out of obedience to you.
Mom: But my previous statement doesn’t contradict my current command! I didn’t mean that you would always be allowed to go outside and play after lunch in every possible set of circumstances. I was stating my general intention, but one which could admit of exceptions. Today, for example, your room is messier than usual because we didn’t have time to clean it this morning, so you need to clean it up now before you go outside to play.
Johnny: Mom, that may be your interpretation of your previous statement, but I disagree with that interpretation. You never said that you were intending merely a general policy that would admit of exceptions. You simply said that you were planning to let me go outside to play after lunch each day. You didn’t use any mitigating language, like the word sometimes, nor did you state any exceptions. So I have to insist that you are misinterpreting your previous statement, and your current command does indeed contradict that statement. Now, you have also said before that you are capable of being wrong, and that I always ought to do what is right. Well, if you are capable of being wrong, then you are capable of being wrong about how you understand the meaning of your previous statement, and about what I ought to do today. So, in honor of your command to me to always do what is right, I must, respectfully, disobey your command to clean my room.
Mom: What?! You can’t say I’ve misinterpreted my own statement! It was my statement! I said it! I’m the one who gets to interpret what it meant!
Johnny: But you’re ignoring what I just pointed out, that you have said you can be wrong sometimes. So I have to consider the possibility that you might be wrong in your interpretation of your previous statement. I have to consider your contradictory statements and decide which of them carries more authority, and then I am bound to go with what I think is right—as you have always taught me to do. So you see, I am not disobeying you, but rather giving my obedient tribute to your authority.
Mom: This is ridiculous! Johnny, all your bluster and pretense of obedience can’t obscure the fact that you are sitting here, right now, explicitly refusing to obey what I’m telling you to do! You can’t pretend that you respect my authority when you are blatantly defying it! Your pretense of obeying me is based on a twisting of things that I have said in the past, taking my own words out of the context of my own interpretation, giving them your own interpretation instead, and then using them to tell me I mean something different from what I’m clearly and plainly telling you I mean! But you can’t give the definitive interpretation of my statements. That’s my job! They are my statements, after all! You’re not obeying me; you’re obeying nobody but yourself. You’re ignoring your real mother and creating a fake, imaginary mother in your head who agrees with what you think you should do, and then using your submission to this imaginary mother as the basis for your claim that you are obeying your real mother! Yes, I made a general statement before, but now I have clarified further what I meant by it as a new situation has arisen. Yes, I’ve said in the past that I can be wrong sometimes, but that doesn’t give you a license to take any statement of mine you wish, declare that it to be wrong, and decide to ignore it unless it agrees with what you already have decided to do. I did not intend to give you that license when I made the general statement that sometimes I can be wrong. Again, you are taking my words, ignoring my own stated meaning of them, giving them your own interpretation, and then using them to defy my authority while claiming to be submitting to it. But your defiance is not removed simply because you try to obscure it with a barrage of convoluted and illogical reasoning and cover it with the veneer of the language of obedience. I’m glad we’re catching this behavior now! I can’t imagine what would happen if you tried to use reasoning like this with some future employer!
Johnny: Mom, you’ve always taught me to think for myself. Now you’re asking me to stop thinking and just blindly follow whatever you say?
Mom: It is not an abandonment of critical thinking to recognize that a person has the right to interpret their own statements, and that a person who has authority has the right to explain their own commands, and even to command different things at different times depending on the circumstances. Look, Johnny, I’m not asking you to ignore reason. But you have no basis in reason to draw the conclusion that your interpretations of my previous statements are correct and mine are wrong. Obviously, the fact that they are my statements, combined with the fact that I have authority over you as your mother, implies that you ought to defer to my own reading of my own words. So unless you can prove that I have blatantly contradicted myself, or that I am confused and don’t really mean what I am saying, you can’t jump to that conclusion. You can’t dismiss my own perfectly plausible account of the meaning of my own statements in favor of your own interpretations without much weightier justification than simply pointing out ways my words, by themselves, without the context of my own explanatory interpretations, might be understood to mean something else. You would not want anyone to interpret your statements in that way, and so you shouldn’t do it to anyone else either, and you especially should not be doing it to your mother!
An earlier version of this piece was posted on Mark Hausam’s personal website here.
Scripture quotation from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Image: Adobe Stock