Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Common Non Sequitur with Priests

There is a common non sequitur used towards priests/theologians' arguments, especially regarding sexuality, and it goes like this: "Because priest/theologian x has never been married/is a virgin/been in a relationship/had children/etc., therefore priest/theologian x cannot speak about matters concerning sexuality/marriage/abortion/contraception/etc."

Often the "fluffing" around the antecedent statement goes like: such experience would allow the priest/theologian x to see that not everything is black and white; things are more complicated than that; fuzzier.

But how is this premise that one has to directly experience something in order to speak correctly about it true, which in some cases it actually is not (for some men who become priests were married, had children, got divorced, etc., etc.)? There is an extent to which it is true—we can't meaningfully speak of what we don't know. I can't use many slang words that my co-workers use because I simply don't know what they mean (and even if I did know them, most of them I wouldn't use anyway probably). But actually, this premise is balanced by another, for really there are two ways for men to come to know things: 1) by direct experience; 2) on the authority of others.

We experience many things directly, but there are far more things that we never directly experience. The vast majority of what we know depends firstly on the authority of others, whether that be a parent, a teacher, a scientist, a neighbor, the media, a government/country, an institution, the pope, a priest, a customer, a coworker, a boss, etc. That authority could even be the description on the back of a food package, an internet article, or an email.

And if we were to trace back all of what we know from others, we could hardly pinpoint the exact authority and source. Most of what we take for granted of what we hear from others becomes a jumbled mess that collectively forms how we view the world. And because some of this information we sometimes apply in our direct experience and find that it "works" (e.g. looking up a "how-to" article online and doing it), we tend to casually assume that the rest of what we hear is also true. We assume that Tibet exists because there happen to be so many people talking about it. We assume that there is global warming because the media and scientists and political lobbyists say so—or at least there seems to be a big fuss about it. But unless we actually go to Tibet, how would we know? And how would an individual really come to know that global warming is in fact happening?

Regardless, there are undoubtedly these two ways of coming to know things: 1) direct experience; 2) the authority of others.

Ah, but I neglected to mention the third, and most human, way: 3) REASON. Now, reason is a special way of coming to know because it isn't exactly like the first two ways. The first two ways of direct experience and indirect authority are strictly "input"—they give us knowledge, data, that we didn't possess nor really could have possessed on our own before. But reason gives us more data only after it takes 1) and 2) and applies them to argumentation and logical analysis. Reason examines direct experience and what others say and begins to form propositions and conclusions; it then tests these products against 1) and 2). For example, a coworker x tells me that another coworker y is supposed to come into work today (this is an example of type 2) of gaining knowledge through the authority of another). I can check this claim against a schedule sheet that lists all the employees and their schedules for the week. If that coworker y isn't listed at the time that I was told (this is REASON applying the data to argumentation), then I know that the coworker x who told me that information was either 1) wrong or 2) lying. I can then form further conclusions and test them.

Now, to return to the point: why must a person directly experience these "difficult" experiences of sexuality, marriage, and such before being allowed to talk about them? Ah, and here we see: there really isn't any reason. What does direct experience of such matters really add to philosophical reasoning? After all, we are speaking about what gives a person the authority to make valid philosophical arguments regarding this experience. It seems to me almost purely arbitrary that a person must directly experience such things in order to speak on them.

But EVEN if this premise were granted—that a person must have direct experience of such things to speak validly on them—, it STILL forms a non sequitur because a proposition is either true or false, and an argument is either valid or invalid, and these hold even if the person advancing the argument does not have the epistemic authority to personally speak on such matters. For what if the person ISN'T speaking from personal experience but presenting what many others have presented? What if the argumentation is based on a survey, interviews, or some other means of gathering information?

The counter is a non sequitur because at the end of the day, we still have these propositions and arguments about sexuality that must be addressed on their own merit, regardless of the person presenting the argument. And in fact, this counter then reveals itself to be a kind of genetic fallacy, which brushes aside the truth of a proposition or the validity of an argument because of the origins or genesis of those propositions or arguments. It is true or false regardless of their origins although origins normally help to justify or warrant the propositions.

And even further: the assumption behind this counter is that priests are ignorant about such muddled, painful, dark, difficult, or even joyful matters as sexuality and family life because they are celibates. Now this is a HUGE assumption that simply cannot be backed. I recall a passage from one of G.K. Chesterton's short stories "The Blue Cross" that illustrates my point quite clearly:
"No, no," said [Father] Brown with an air of apology. "You see, I suspected you when we first met. It's that little bulge up the sleeve where you people have the spiked bracelet." 
"How in Tartarus," cried Flambeau, "did you ever hear of the spiked bracelet?" 
"Oh, one's little flock, you know!" said Father Brown, arching his eyebrows rather blankly. "When I was a curate in Hartlepool, there were three of them with spiked bracelets. [...] I rather wonder you didn't stop it with the Donkey's Whistle."

"With the what?" asked Flambeau. 
"I'm glad you've never heard of it," said the priest, making a face. "It's a foul thing. I'm sure you're too good a man for a Whistler. I couldn't have countered it even with the Spots myself; I'm not strong enough in the legs." 
"What on earth are you talking about?" asked the other. 
"Well, I did think you'd know the Spots," said Father Brown, agreeably surprised. "Oh, you can't have gone so very wrong yet!" 
"How in blazes do you know all these horrors?" cried Flambeau. 
The shadow of a smile crossed the round, simple face of his clerical opponent. 
"Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose," he said. "Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil? But, as a matter of fact, another part of my trade, too, made me sure you weren't a priest." 
"What?" asked the thief, almost gaping. 
"You attacked reason," said Father Brown. "It's bad theology."
And really, that's what these counters come down to: an attack on reason itself because these counters are themselves unreasonable and refuse to listen to reason. Of course, then, theology is rejected. People caught up in the "fuzzy," "grey," and "down-to-earth" stuff about sexuality actually are usually simply defending their pride and their sinful attachments. Theology is always too "pure" and "lofty" for such people, and therefore always "high tower," "black and white," etc. Well, there is a black and white at the end of the day, and it's called heaven and hell, and you're going to only one of those places.

Priests have abundant experience in such matters because almost daily they talk to people about them. They hear things that even spouses won't dare tell each other in a million years, that parents won't tell their children, or children, their parents. They hear these things in great detail, sometimes even exhaustively so. They deal with people who suffer from the whole range of mental and spiritual disorder, and yes, some of them are trained in psychology and counseling. If anything, priests are the most qualified to talk about such matters due to their combined education, pastoral experience, and typically higher and more developed abilities of reflexivity, critical analysis, and empathy. Of course, not every priest is stellar, and many are not. Nevertheless, when compared to the average person who has only so many romantic relationships over a long period of time, the priest faces people in these situations constantly. Only the person who has such breadth of experience can, through reflection, come to notice patterns of behavior and draw conclusions about human relationships, nature, and fulfillment. The priest is in the best position to do this.

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