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If you frequent websites such as YouTube or Facebook, you’ve probably read the exchanges that take place on these forums. Sometimes they are intelligent and substantive, but often they resemble two toddlers squabbling: “Did too.” “Did not.” “Did too.”
To heed the instruction of our first pope, which is to “always be ready to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15), we must have at least a basic understanding of argumentation. We must know what constitutes a strong argument and what constitutes a weak one. Furthermore, we must understand how to detect common fallacies.
What an argument isn’t—and is
An argument is not an assertion such as, for example, “Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church.” Nor is an argument merely a contradictory assertion such as, “No, he didn’t.” In contrast to the common usage of the term, an argument is not a quarrel, a fight, or a disagreement. A formal argument is a set of propositions called premises from which the person who is making the argument seeks to establish a conclusion.
Types of arguments
There are two main types of arguments: deductive and inductive.
A deductive argument is one in which, provided the premises are true, the conclusion follows necessarily. Here’s a classic example of a deductive argument:
Premise 1: All men are mortal.
Premise 2: Socrates was a man.
Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates was mortal.
Do you see that if both of the premises are true, then, according to the rules of logic, the conclusion follows necessarily? If someone disagrees with the conclusion, then he must, on pain of irrationality, argue that one or both of the premises is/are false.
An inductive argument is one in which a generalization is made based on specific instances so that, provided the premises are true, the conclusion probably follows. For example:
Premise 1: Socrates was a Greek.
Premise 2: Most Greeks ate fish.
Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates probably ate fish.
Though the conclusion here gives us probable certainty, it does not give us the absolute, logical certainty that a deductive argument gives.
Understanding what constitutes a sound argument—and what does not—will allow you to clear away the smoke of impassioned language that is sometimes used in Catholic-Protestant dialogue so that you can see clearly the argument your opponent is trying to make.
Watch out for deceptive arguments
Now that we understand what an argument is and the two main types of arguments, let’s take a look at five common fallacies. The word fallacy comes from the Latin word fallacia, which could also be translated as “deception.” A fallacy is a misleading or unsound argument that can be either accidental or intentional.
To demonstrate five common fallacies, I’d like to propose a deductive argument and offer five fallacious replies. Then I will explain why they are fallacious and how one ought to respond.
Premise 1: Jesus Christ established a church.
Premise 2: The only church that can trace its roots back to the time of Jesus and the Apostles is the Catholic Church.
Conclusion: Therefore, Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church.
Remember, to show that this conclusion is false, my opponent would have to show that either one or more of my premises are false or that my logic is invalid. He would then have to erect a case of his own to show that Jesus Christ did not establish the Catholic Church.
Types of common fallacies
Red herring: The person making the argument raises an irrelevant issue in an effort to distract the attention of his opponent or audience.
(This sobriquet comes from the practice of trainers of bloodhounds dragging a smelly red herring across the path between the dog and the target it is tracking to see if the dog will get distracted and follow the stronger fish scent or remain determined and follow the target.)
Example: How can you believe that the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus Christ established in light of the recent sex abuse scandal?
Response: The sex abuse scandal, though often exaggerated, is an important topic, which I’d be happy to address in a later discussion, but it has nothing to do with whether or not Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church. Let’s stick to the argument at hand.
Ad hominem (from the Latin: “to the man”): The person hearing the argument rejects the argument because of the one making the argument.
Example: You argue that Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church, but the last time I checked you were neither a biblical scholar nor a historian.
Response: You are right, I am not a historian, nor am I a biblical scholar. So what? I may also be obnoxious, arrogant, and smelly. None of that means my argument is unsound. Let’s focus our energy on the argument I’ve offered.
Non sequitur (from the Latin, “it does not follow”): The person making the argument draws a conclusion that does not follow from his premises.
Example: Jesus Christ was perfect, but some popes who have reigned over the Church have been corrupt; therefore, Jesus Christ did not establish the Catholic Church.
Response: The conclusion does not follow from the premise. While it’s true that all popes, because of original sin, are sinners—the first pope, St. Peter, denied our Lord three times—this does not disprove the Church’s divine origin.
Genetic fallacy: The person making the argument tries to invalidate a position based on how that position originated.
Example: The only reason you are making this argument is because you were raised Catholic. If you had been raised in the Bible Belt, you would have been Protestant.
Response: While it’s true that a person may come to hold a belief for inadequate reasons, this does not mean that the belief is false.
Straw man: The person making the argument misrepresents his opponent’s position in order to refute it.
Example: Just because the Catholic Church is the largest denomination in Christendom, that does not mean Jesus Christ established it. Islam is the second-largest religion in the world and may one day have more followers that the Catholic Church. Wouldn’t that then make Islam the true religion?
Response: You’ve misrepresented my argument entirely. I did not say that Catholicism is true because it has more adherents than all Protestant communities combined. Rather, I proposed that Jesus Christ established a church and the Catholic Church is the only church that dates back to the time of Christ; therefore, Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church.
Tips for constructive discourse
Listen. Really listen.
Have you ever been in an argument with someone who wasn’t listening? At best, he was waiting for your lips to stop moving so he could unleash another set of reasons why you were wrong and he was right.
Don’t be that person. Listen to your opponent. Ask him questions. Be interested in him. Generally speaking, individuals don’t hold to a belief that they know to be in defiance of the truth. They have their reasons for believing it, reasons with which, though you can’t agree, you can sympathize.
I once had a Protestant tell me that Catholicism was arrogant because it claimed alone to possess the fullness of truth. Instead of responding with an argument as to why the Catholic Church is not arrogant, I simply said, “I see where you’re coming from. If Jesus Christ did not, in fact, establish the Catholic Church, and if the Mmagisterium is not infallible on matters of faith and morals, then I would agree with you.” Showing your opponent that you are genuinely interested in his reasons for believing a particular thing will demonstrate that you are not there to “win a debate” but rather to converse with a brother.
What would it take?
Before launching into an argument with a non-Catholic, you might find it helpful to ask, “What would it take for you to become Catholic?” You might even show him what you mean by answering what it would take for you to leave the Catholic Church. Many times I’ve said to Protestants, “If you could show me one Catholic teaching that sacred Scripture rejects, or if you could show me from history that Jesus Christ did not establish the Catholic Church, or if you could point me to a pope’s infallible teaching that contradicts a previous or subsequent pope’s infallible teaching, then I would leave the Catholic Church.”
Your Protestant friend might respond by saying, “If you could show me a Scripture passage in which Jesus taught the Catholic belief of transubstantiation, then I would become Catholic.” Or he might say, “If you could show me that the earliest Christians after the times of the Apostles were Catholic and not ’Bible Christians,’ then I’d convert.” If your Protestant friend allows you to respond, you will be able to direct your arguments accordingly and your discussion could become a prime opportunity to evangelize.
One topic at a time
A Protestant friend once asked me, “Why do you call your priests ‘father’ when Jesus, in Matthew 23:9, explicitly commands his followers not to call any man on earth ‘father?” When I pointed out to my friend that St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 4:14-15, claims for himself the title “father” in the spiritual sense, and then asked my friend whether he was willing to admit either that his interpretation of Matthew 23:9 was incorrect or accuse St. Paul of sin, he asked, “Why do you Catholics worship statues?”
Non-Catholics often reject many tenets and practices of the Catholic faith. Therefore, it’s important that you stick to one topic at a time so as not to only partially address each objection without ever coming to a conclusion.
In this particular instance, I replied to my Protestant friend, “We can address your concerns about statues at another time, but if it’s alright with you, I’d rather you answer my initial question before we change topics. Then I’d be happy to share with you from the Bible why Catholics use statues."
It’s alright not to know
Once I debated a Protestant minister who, when I offered texts such as 2 Peter 2:20 and Hebrews 6:4-8 to show that, according to the Bible, one can lose his salvation, said something to the effect of, “You know, you’ve got a good point. Would you mind if I spent some time in the Word, prayed about this, and got back to you next week?” It was evident to me that this was a truly humble man who was concerned not about winning a debate but with the truth and following Christ. Though he did not change his mind on the matter, I gained a lot respect for him, and it taught me that confessing that you don’t know something is not a sign of weakness but of humility.
If a non-Catholic asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, tell him you don’t know. Don’t wing it, and don’t offer your best guess. Instead, humble yourself and simply say, “You know, that’s a good question. I’m not entirely sure what the answer is, but let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.” Just be sure that, if you do promise to get back to the person with an answer, you actually do it.
Recognize that the Holy Spirit, not you, converts hearts. Follow the advice of Peter who, before charging us to “always be prepared to make a defense,” tells us to “reverence Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15). Pray not only for the person you are speaking with, that he may come to believe the truth of the Catholic Church, but pray also for yourself, that you would be humble, loving, attentive, and respectful. Remember that, as Fulton J. Sheen put it, it’s entirely possible to win the argument and lose the soul.