On Red Herrings and Heresy

There is a hierarchy of truth, and true teaching on faith and morals trumps mere sentiment, utility and politics every time.

(photo: Image via Wikimedia Commons)

A red herring might be defined as a rhetorical device to distract someone from the real argument. There are three such relativistic devices–heresies or red herrings–that are used in our society constantly. They may be named the sentimental heresy, the utilitarian heresy and the political heresy. 

These forms of argument are, for the most part, subjective and relativistic. Like every red herring, they seem to be strong arguments, but they are false and misleading.

The sentimental heresy uses strong emotions—either negative or positive—to argue the case. Now before you get all worked up about married priests, This is a post about forms of argument, I’m just using the married priests issue to make my point. I could use a dozen different issues.

So, for example, the sentimental argument in favor of married priests goes like this: “Father Bob is so lonely being celibate. He’s such a fine man, and a good woman and a beautiful family would make him happy. Think of all those celibate priests who go home every night to an empty house…” You get the idea.

This is an argument for married priests based solely on a person’s feelings about Fr. Bob and how he feels. The sentimental argument is powerful because it is based in emotions, but it has no real substance. Fr. Bob may be lonely from time to time, but his loneliness has very little to do with the real reason for priestly celibacy.

The utilitarian heresy used for the same cause would be, “Father Bob would understand family life so much better if he were married himself. He would be a better priest because he would have a good woman to back him up, and she could earn a second income as well, which would be good!” In this case the argument seeks to show how a particular innovation would be more useful than the status quo.

The utilitarian red herring also seems like a strong argument, and it has a bit more substance than the sentimental heresy, but not much. This is because for every practical point you can make in favor of married priests you can find an equal practical point agains. So, for example, it might be useful for Fr. Bob to have a wife and family, but it is arguably even more useful to his vocation as a priest to be free of family worries.

The utilitarian heresy therefore depends on too many variables and is pointless because it is so relative.

The political red herring turns the debate into a question of human rights, justice and fairness. So for married priests the political argument is, “What right does the pope have to ban marriage for priests? Don’t they have the right to be happy like anyone else? It’s unjust. Why do men have to take on celibacy just because they have a call to priesthood?”

These three forms of argument are okay when you’re dealing with genuine questions of human rights, or a genuine debate about the usefulness of an idea or when you genuinely want someone’s sentimental opinion about an issue. Where they become heresies is when they become the only argument, and when they are used in matters where sentiment, utility and politics are of secondary importance—there being a more important and higher priority of truth to be decided.

This is where Catholicism cuts through the muddy thinking. Catholics should understand that there is a hierarchy of truth, and that true teaching on faith and morals trumps mere sentiment, utility and politics every time. 

The subjective opinions expressed as sentimentalism, utilitarianism and politics have their use, but they are subject to the objective teaching of the Catholic faith. How we feel about an issue, the practical points (either pro or con) and the fairness or “human rights” play a part in determining moral choices, but that part is very secondary to reliance on the objective teaching of Scripture and the Church’s magisterium.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which Way Is Heaven?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed on a quest for a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean.