False Dichotomies by Monsignor Ferrarese

When Martin Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other”, he established a leading Protestant Principle of making a choice in an ‘either/or’ context. It is either one or the other and you have to choose.

The Catholic Principle is closer to accepting multiple, diverse ideas and harmonizing them, being faithful to each of them and attempting to fit them together into an organic whole. This could be called the ‘both/and’ method.

The first way of looking at things (either/or) fits very well the temperaments of those who are adversarial in nature. Just watch any of the political debates! People take sides and begin to demonize each other, putting their adversaries into boxes that cannot possibly contain their true contributions to the way forward.

Take some examples: is there any real contradiction between concern over climate change (an issue of the left) with the concern for the healthy protection and development of the human fetus in the womb (an issue of the right)? They are both important and even internally consistent with the need to preserve life either in the womb or outside it. But you would never know that from the often paradoxical way they are formulated. Both are life issues. There is no either/or in this.

On a related issue, there is no contradiction between the quest for equal rights for women and a nuanced and universal understand of what it means to be of the female gender with its particular giftedness. It is not necessary to imitate the foibles of males as well as to accept male solutions to the world’s problems to be equal to males. The unique giftedness of women should not be lost with the mistaken assumption that uniformity means equality.

To look at another highly contentious issue: one need not have to choose between the value of having secure borders and having a realistic and humane policy of immigration, including a path to citizenship that is actually doable in real time.

There is something in the human being that prefers the simple to the complex, even though the simple can be very deficient in the nuances necessary to fully account for truth. People love to square-off and argue an issue even though it may be just a partial truth. One can get very passionate in trying to get someone over to your way of seeing things even when it sacrifices the truth in its wholeness.

Witness the three examples that we have cited. In each there is a truth on either side of the argument, but each side is prevented from seeing it due to it’s obstinate argumentativeness.

What is most necessary in allowing the complex truth to emerge is the virtue of detachment. The spiritual masters often spoke very highly of this virtue. But the modern misunderstanding of it makes it seem like an uncaring, emotionless response to life. It is, on the contrary, a very life giving virtue!

When we believe something to be true, or if we, rightly or wrongly, profess something to ‘my insight’ or ‘my opinion’, we personalize it and make it ‘ours’. This makes it unlikely that I will admit it is wrong or must be qualified, especially if someone points out the mistake. Our pride gets in the way and we begin to fight for the partial truth because it is ‘mine’ and the other must be wrong. It is then very tempting to demonize the other person who has the contrary opinion rather than to admit that he has some truth in it.

Detachment gives us the power to stand back from our opinions and to get a fuller and more inclusive picture of the issues involved. It increases our objectivity and releases our emotions from the stranglehold of basing our self-worth on winning arguments.

It moves us away from false dichotomies and enables us to work with others to discover the whole truth, not its partial impostors.

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