September 26, 2014

Be Our Guest / Gilbert Marsh

Facts, opinions and first principles

The proximate cause of my writing this observation is the column in the Aug. 22 issue of The Criterion by Father Tad Pacholczyk titled “Is artificial insemination wrong even among married couples?”

I have long noticed certain patterns that emerge when some teachers of the faith set out not only to address Church teachings, but also to offer reasons for those teachings. These patterns seem especially prone to emerge around teachings having to do with sexuality, marriage and life issues. Father Pacholczyk’s column exemplifies both patterns.

The first thing I notice is that those who offer explanations about what the Church teaches often fail to distinguish between a fact and an opinion.

For example, people will often say that the use of artificial contraception leads to the “dehumanization” or “objectification” of women. Oh really? If this claim is established fact, then there should be some sound evidence offered in support of it. Such evidence is rarely offered. It would be more honest for a writer, whether he is bishop, priest, or layman or woman, to say “this is my opinion and here’s why.”

Opinion presented as fact is not helpful, in my humble opinion, because a reader senses that opinion is being offered as fact, and when that happens without being acknowledged, both the author and the argument are experienced as less credible and less honest. The substance of the argument is, inevitably, thrown into doubt.

A second difficulty which leads to problems in acceptance of the Church’s teaching, especially in regard to marriage, sexual ethics and pro-life issues, has to do with an overreliance on deductive as opposed to inductive reasoning.

Church teaching is often framed by deductive reasoning from “first principles.” So, for instance, a first principle might be that the use of artificial contraception or the use of artificial insemination is morally wrong. These things are deemed to be wrong because the Church, as a result of revelation or Church teaching itself, says they are wrong. When arguments begin with first principles it becomes difficult to allow inductive reasoning, which takes into account—note I say, takes into account—the lived experience of people, if that lived experience seems to be at variance with the first principles. Some think that first principles just have to be true because they are first principles.

When this happens, people sense a disconnect between the first principles that are the starting point of deductive reasoning and their own lived experience. When this disconnect is perceived, people will give more credence to their lived experience.

I am not saying that Church teaching should be based on people’s lived experience alone. After all, we do have revelation and the Church’s reflection on that revelation with its implications. These are the basis of the Church’s teaching and deposit of faith. What I am saying is that we are out of balance in our reliance on deductive as opposed to inductive reasoning.

Too often, opinion is asserted as fact because it seems that first principles must be defended at all cost, even without the nuance that might be present if we gave equal weight to both deductive and inductive reasoning based on the evidence from people’s lives.

One sad result of this imbalance is that teachings are asserted that are not convincing to a lot of people. When these teachings are not accepted, three other things often happen.

First, some will say, as author George Weigel often does, that “the teaching on artificial contraception is not accepted because we have done a poor job explaining it.” Really?

Second, some will assert that the Church’s arguments in support of a teaching are not accepted because people are too secular in their outlook. There may be some truth in this, but the observation fails to address the imbalance between the use of deductive versus inductive reasoning.

Third, when all else fails, people fall back upon quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church as though that resolves the problem. It does not. Such a tactic not only fails to convince or resolve the issue, but ends up making some people think that we should just read the catechism and be satisfied. When a teaching does not take sufficient account of people’s lived experience because of starting with first principles, many people are not only unconvinced but angry as well. The result is suspicion of Church teaching, and then much of Church teaching in these areas is dismissed.

It is my opinion that if Church teaching were not so lopsided in its too heavy a reliance on deductive reasoning, the teaching of the Church would be given a more respectful hearing than it often receives.

(Gilbert Marsh is a clinical psychotherapist in Bloomington and member of St. Agnes Parish in Nashville.)

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