As Catholics, we can and should do better

by Christopher Dodson


“Politics is an exercise of reason, guided by faith. Personal attacks, partisanship, biases, and personal agendas are inconsistent with faith. As a result, they cloud our thinking.” – Christopher Dodson

Following the events in Charlottesville, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla., Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, stated: “We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism.”

Many Catholic leaders, lay and cleric, made similar statements.

The social media-popular Bishop Robert Barron posted on Facebook:

Friends, there can be no equivocation or nuance when it comes to racism. The Church's teaching is clear: “It is necessary to guard against the rise of new forms of racism or xenophobic behavior which attempt to make our brothers and sisters into scapegoats” (St. John Paul II). We must vehemently oppose the resurgence of an “insane, racist ideology born of Neopaganism” (Benedict XVI). The Church stands against and condemns all racist ideologies, and warns those who would propagate such horrors to repent.

These statements repeat well-established Catholic teaching and basic principles of justice. They should be non-controversial. With the exception of racists themselves, most people, presumably, would not debate them. Nevertheless, the airwaves and social media are filled with attacks on these and others who spoke against the hatred displayed in Charlottesville.

For the most part, these attacks do not overtly defend the racist nationalism on display that tragic day. Instead, they indirectly do so by attempting to undermine the statements and motivations of the bishops and other Catholic leaders. They made comments like: “What about condemning communists?” “No mention of the unborn . . .” and “The bishops have no credibility if they do not also criticize Trump.”

These are examples of the tu quoque logical fallacy. Tu quoque literally means “you also.” It is an appeal to alleged hypocrisy or inconsistency.

The Tu quoque "argument" follows the pattern:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.

3. Therefore X is false.

The fallacy of the line of thinking should be obvious. What Person A did or failed to say has nothing to do with the claim her or she is making.

Tu quoque appeals appear in response to almost every statement issued by the bishops on public policy matters. When the bishops speak against abortions, someone will ignore the statement because it did not mention the need for health care reform. When the bishops speak in favor of universal health care, they are attacked for not emphasizing abortion enough. When they talk of subsidiarity, they are criticized for ignoring solidarity. When they talk of solidarity, they are criticized for ignoring subsidiarity. And so it goes.

The work of Bishop Folda and Bishop Kagan through the North Dakota Catholic Conference is not immune. Some say our positions align with the Democratic Party. We are told by others that we are in lock-step with Republicans.

That “snapshot” critique illustrates another problem with Tu quoque claims: They are often based on incomplete pictures, particularly when it comes to Catholic responses to public policy issues. For example, I sometimes receive complaints from readers that I did not address a particular issue in these columns. If the person had made an effort to look, the reader would have seen that I addressed that issue in the previous month’s column.

Catholic social doctrine is comprehensive. It would be impossible for a bishop or a bishops’ conference to discuss every issue in every statement. Not mentioning an issue does not mean that the bishop is ignoring or downplaying it. Indeed, Catholic social doctrine is a whole. Emphasis on one part always implicitly includes the rest, and people of good faith, particularly Catholics, should always presume that implicit inclusion.

The use of tu quoque appeals, especially appeals to inconsistency, is pervasive in politics. Too often a lawmaker or politician’s positions are attacked not because of the rightness or wrongness of the position, but because of the person’s alleged inconsistency. It is a symptom of the growing focus on personalities and partisanship instead of good statesmanship.

Christians should know better. As I’ve written before, consistency eludes the human condition. It comes from being descendants of the Fall. No one is always consistent, even if we try. We should not judge a proposal or position, therefore, on other things its proponents say or have done.

Politics is an exercise of reason, guided by faith. Personal attacks, partisanship, biases, and personal agendas are inconsistent with faith. As a result, they cloud our thinking. Flawed “arguments,” like tu quoque attacks, slip into our political dialogue. As people of faith, we can think and do better.