Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The False Dichotomy and the Synod on the Family

The false dichotomy is an invalid form of reasoning that artificially and erroneously restricts options – typically to two options, both of which are undesirable or incomplete. “Are you socialist or capitalist?” is a common example of a false dichotomy, because there are other alternatives.

The Church has a long history of fighting false dichotomies and sometimes is described as being both-and rather than either-or. One prominent false dichotomy considers Jesus Christ to be either only God (Docetism) or only created man (Arianism).  The council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. rejected this false dichotomy and formulated the Nicene Creed which reaffirmed Jesus as being true God and true Man.

We see the same idea in the philosophical structure of thesis-antithesis-synthesis (incorrectly credited to Hegel but actually originating with the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte). One example is: absolute obedience of children (thesis), rebellion of adolescence (antithesis), and mature independence of adulthood (synthesis).

In general society also, there is a typical rejection of the false dichotomy. We often cite the need to hear “both sides of the story” and in popular expression that “it takes two to tango.”

So in the Church, in academia, and in common life we are almost conditioned to think that both sides of an argument always have something positive to contribute and the truth is somewhere in the middle – the Aristotelian mean.

Because many either-or formulations are false, the tendency is to conclude erroneously that all either-or formulations are false. Then with a default posture of suspecting all dichotomies to be false and seeing merit in both sides of an argument, it is not surprising to find people wary of “radical extremes” and if truth is to be found, assuming it always will be in the form of a compromise.

We are seeing this played out with the recent Synod on the Family.

The first error is imposing the alien liberal-conservative framework on the fathers of the synod: Kasper-camp-liberal and Pell-camp-conservative. The second compounding error is to “correct” this false dichotomy by trying to find truth somewhere in the middle. Some have gone so far as to align this to a traditional “both-and” posture in the Church of Truth-And-Charity whereby Pell represents Truth and Kasper represents Charity; and so claiming to follow this Church tradition, the answer is believed to be  in the form of a middle-ground between these two camps.  Truth-And-Charity will be realized as Pell-And-Kasper.


In this view, these are the Yin and Yang of the synod, especially with regard to the Holy Communion for divorced-remarried question. And so the resolution can be expected to be a compromise between Pell-Truth-Doctrine and Kasper-Charity-Pastoral-Accompaniment.

The doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage is upheld (Truth-Pell) and also pastoral-accompaniment will allow for special discernment of individual cases (Charity-Kasper).

Pope Francis looks to be posturing for such a compromise between Truth-Doctrine-Pell and Charity-Accompaniment-Kasper. On Nov 10, 2015 (2 weeks after the close of the Synod on the Family), Pope Francis gave an address to the National Ecclesial Congress on the traits of Christian humanism. ( ) As part of that address Pope Francis said

A second temptation is the gnosticism that leads us to place our trust in logical and clear reasoning that, however, loses the tenderness of our brother's flesh…

This advocates a softening of pure, “hard” truth. Francis added,

Faced with the ills or the problems of the Church, it is useless to seek solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of outdated forms and conduct that have no capacity for meaning, even culturally. Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts and uncertainties, but it is living, it knows how to disturb and to encourage. Its face is not rigid, it has a body that moves and develops, it has tender flesh; Christian doctrine is called Jesus Christ.

According to this, Christian doctrine must generate questions, doubts and uncertainties. Christian doctrine disturbs. Christian doctrine must not be rigid or outdated. So while we may not alter the doctrine itself (the sort-of Platonic ideal of marriage), we also will not rely on that alone by introducing a path for exceptions within the “real world.” Pell-And-Kasper will be played out to be Truth-And-Charity.

But as Cardinal Walter Brandmüller articulately summarized, “Under no circumstances can pastoral work be in contradiction with doctrine. Actions of the Church need to – if they want to be Catholic – correspond to faith and dogma.”

Liberal-Conservative. This is not a false dichotomy within the Church. It is just false – a foreign object in the Body of Christ. The answer is not compromise or combination of Liberal-Kasper and Conservative-Pell. The answer is to discard the liberal-conservative framework and reaffirm the unchanging Catholic doctrine with a conforming and coherent pastoral approach.