One of the more common issues faced today in proclaiming the faith is the problem that many, who reject some truth of the faith, set up false dichotomies. A false dichotomy is when one argues that there are only two possible and mutually exclusive alternatives, when in fact there are other alternatives, or the categories are not in fact mutually exclusive.

What makes false dichotomies particularly problematic when it comes to faith is that orthodoxy often requires careful balance and distinction. Since we are dealing with mysteries that often go beyond merely worldly categories, we must be careful in insisting that everything fit into worldly categories and boxes. Orthodoxy quite often says “both” whereas heresy chooses one apparently exclusive truth over and against the the other in order to resolve the tension between them. Orthodoxy also makes distinctions which false dichotomies fail to respect and holds the tension that is often required in two balancing truths.

A few examples of common false dichotomies that are directed against the biblical orthodox faith are:

1. The false dichotomy between Law and Love. In this mode of thinking, somehow law, or rules, or boundaries of any sort are a kind of anti-type to love.

Thus when the Church proposes any sort of limits to behaviors, teaches that certain acts or attitudes are sins, and so forth, the answer is often forthcoming that “God is Love” and that this somehow means that He doesn’t really care that I am doing what you, with all your rules, say is wrong.

A mitigated form of this, is to admit that perhaps a certain behavior is clearly described as wrong in Scripture but that since “God is Love” he therefore “understands” and won’t really care all that much.

But of course to oppose law and love is a false dichotomy. In fact all God’s commandments can be understood to flow quite beautifully from his love for us. The truth sets us free. In commanding us God seeks to preserve us from harmful behaviors that may harm or even destroy us and/or others. Because God loves, he commands.

2. The False dichotomy between Law and Freedom. In this mode of thinking somehow law exists only to limit my freedom. And therefore God, commandments and law belief are an assault on human freedom and exist only to limit and enslave human beings.

But of course law does not only limit freedom, it also enhances it. Since we humans are contingent and limited beings freedom can neither be absolute nor can it be a mere abstraction. Freedom must exist in a context wherein certain freedoms are limited to enhance others.

For example, I am free to write and you to read this post only if we both couch these words and letters within the limits of the rules of grammar and spelling. If you try to insist that you are free to read this post as a German language post, you are not going to really be free to read it. Without the limiting context of rules, the capacity to act stalls, and freedom breaks down. You and I are not free to drive, unless we also accept the limits that traffic law insists upon.

Hence Law and Freedom go together to a significant degree and are not directly opposed. They are not per se a false dichotomy. God gives us his law, not to destroy our freedom but to enhance and enable it. His laws are not prison walls, they are defending walls. The Catechism teaches: The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin” (# 1733)

3. The false dichotomy between Love and punishment. In this mode of thinking, that God might punish us is wholly dismissed as inconsistent with the fact that he loves us. Hence any mention by the Church that punishment might be due for sin, or any move by the Church to apply punitive measures is is called unloving and something Jesus would never do.

But here too is a false dichotomy since love and punishment are not utterly opposed. Any parent who truly loves a child will punish the child when necessary. Surely love will ameliorate unnecessary severity, but to fail to punish or discipline at all is the opposite of love. Punishment exists to help an offender experience in a lesser way the consequences of sin so that they do not experience something worse. To fail to apply proper punishment when necessary is unloving.

Scripture says,

My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his sons. For what children are not disciplined by their father?If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate children, but bastards.Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:5-11)

4. The False dichotomy between Love and Hell. In this mode of thinking the cry goes up, “How can an all loving and merciful God send anyone to Hell? – He would not!”

But here too is false dichotomy between love and Hell. For in fact love requires Hell since love first requires freedom. Without freedom there can be no love. And if somehow God could force a solution and require our presence in his heavenly kingdom no matter our final disposition to his kingship and sovereignty, then God is not a lover, He is a slave owner.

Hell is ultimately God’s respect of our freedom and of his loving refusal to force his will or law upon us.

That Hell is eternal is mysterious, but seems rooted in the fact that our decision for or against God and his Kingdom values (such as mercy, love of enemies, chastity, forgiveness, etc) at some point becomes final and forever fixed.

That Hell is unpleasant is certainly taught. But to refuse the end for which we were intended leads to unpleasant results. Yet that unpleasantness seems self inflicted, rather than merely a punitive measure of God who respectfully permits (I would suppose with reluctance – for He does wish to save us) those who reject him to live apart from Him.

And, while Scripture does speak allegorically of the suffering in Hell, we ought not claim to know precisely the nature and degree of that unhappiness which remains mysterious to us to a large degree, despite the glimpses Scripture gives us.

For now allow these examples to begin a discussion on the false dichotomies that we often face in the world today as we seek to teach the faith. The modern and Western world that is often poorly trained not only in the faith, but also in philosophy and logic. It will also be noted that many of these dichotomies are rooted in the ego-centrism of our times that somehow eschews any notion that God would in anyway inconvenience, punish or demand any sort of accounting from me.

I am interested in having some of you list some of the false dichotomies you encounter as well. There are many of them. I have only listed a few generic ones here.

28 Responses

  1. Alan R. says:

    Msgr. Pope,
    One of the dichotomies or mysteries that I experience in the young people I am blessed to teach in High School Rel. Ed could be stated:
    I am unique so who are you (or the Church) to judge? v.s. I am no different than anyone else so nothing I could do will make any difference.
    The students are not argumentative or outwardly cynical in class, but it seems that they struggle with the mystery of thier individual spirit created by God while having the same nature common to other people.
    Thank you for teaching through your blog.
    Peace be with you,
    Alan R.

  2. John W. says:

    The false dichotomy between being saved by faith vs. works comes to mind.

    • And and the false dichotomy between God’s sovereignty and mans freedom that the double predestination folks hold. Granted teh too relate mysteriously, but orthodoxy say both and heresy says one and get rid of the other.

  3. Fr. George says:

    Just about to sack out here and taking a quick read of your blog, Msgr., so please excuse if my sleepiness is keeping me from being fully lucid. However, one dichotomy that drives me batty is the “all religions are the same” or “all Christians are the same” vs. the “oh, the Catholic church is so different” …. and whatever is being argued for somehow should “naturally” fall under one or the other. (Why can’t I go to communion …. are all Christians the same? or Why do I need an annulment and so much marriage preparation …. why is the Catholic Church so different?)

    On another note, while reading thru the blogosphere about a year ago (and I wish I had bookmarked it …. perhaps in Mark Shea’s blog?), a paragraph quote was thrown out to talk about Christ. The essence of it was that Christ cannot be dichotomized or pigeon-holed. He is strong and gentle. He is stern and forgiving. Etc., etc. In essence, we do ourselves a great disservice when we look toward God or His Church and pick what we want, breaking the tension. One of the beauties of the Faith, I believe, is that it does well to get us to reflect upon both/and …. not either/or.

  4. Stephen from New Orleans says:

    Regarding infant baptism….many of my dear Protestant friends tell me that salvation by faith is a personal choice/freedom that infants are incapable of making. They say that the priest is just “getting the infant wet”.

    The false dichotomy exists because the premise is that faith is only the result of a conscious decision one way or the other; and it ignores the truth that it is a grace that results from the workings of the Trinity and not the priest, nor the person baptized.

    (This line of thinking fits into their rejection of the notion that salvation can be lost through mortal sin.)

  5. Pam H. says:

    Re “Because God loves, he commands”, I like to think of God’s commands as His “instruction manual” for complete happiness and fulfilment. They are commands in the sense that this is how He made us to be, and we won’t be fully alive and fulfilled unless we become what we were made to be. But they are not “commands” in the sense that He forces them on us (we have free will). But He is not going to change the way He made us to be, simply because we reject that. I think mostly we are unaware of the arrogance of what we do, when we insist that the One who MADE us, change the way He wanted us to be. Of course, there are those who continue to insist that they KNOW He did not “make us to be” in the way the Church says He did. But we follow the Gospel as it has been handed down to us.

    • Ben says:

      Good call on interpreting it as an instruction manual to happiness, I’ve often called the creation stories in Genesis “Creation for Dummies”- we can look up all of the scientific theories in the world, but what will they tell us and what does that mean?… For meaning, we go right back to Moses telling us, in one sentence mind you, that we don’t decide what is good through “from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” … Infinite intelligence whittled down to a single sentence, only the Good Lord can do something that amazing.
      What perplexes me is when people who believe in God don’t question – “If God made you and everything you know, wouldn’t it be logical to assume that He would know more about how to make you happy than you would?” … See “instruction manual” for directions! – :)

  6. Pam H. says:

    I like this: “Punishment exists to help an offender experience in a lesser way the consequences of sin so that they do not experience something worse. To fail to apply proper punishment when necessary is unloving.”

    It’s what I’ve told my kids.

  7. Mike says:

    Regarding the false dichotomy between law and freedom, one is reminded, Monsignor, that your freedom to proclaim the truth and mine to read it are grounded in the freedom of expression articulated in Amendment I of the U.S. Constitution and the laws that enforce it. At the same time, one cannot help but be mindful of the increasingly contemptuous attitude of the current Administration toward those who respect life and toward the Constitutionally grounded laws, as expressed most cogently in Amendments V and XIV.

    Today, the Administration is seizing power to decree that taxpayers shall finance the spread of an anti-Constitutional culture of death. It is not difficult to envision other decrees in coming months and years to stifle peaceful and courageous protests against these and other governmental assaults on fundamental human rights and liberty.

    A government so contemptuous of human life cannot be imagined as having a great deal of respect for the truth, or for the freedom to speak it. May each of us nonetheless be granted the grace and courage to follow your example, Monsignor, in proclaiming the truth according to God’s will.

    • Ben says:

      Hence the false dichotomy of our country and it’s constitution not having anything to do with religion; It’s founders were clear that our very survival as a country was dependent on our people having virtue… Modern society needs to realize that self righteousness is NOT a virtue!
      How though?… We don’t even need to invoke the Good Lord if we don’t want, Socrates proved this before Christ and without the Jewish law….

      A goddess called Socrates up to the mountain near Athens, there she told him “You’re the wisest in Athens”. He didn’t believe her and talked to all of the smartest men in Athens, he went back and told her that he now agreed with her because each man thought that they were the wisest in Athens, but the reason Socrates changed his mind is becuase he was the only one with the wisdom to doubt himself, and therefore he agreed after speaking with “the smartest” people. …
      It’s not all that different than the tower of Babel, what are the chances that if all the “smartest in Athens” or all of the “smartest in America” got toether, they wouldn’t be able to understand each other because each of them had “a better way”…. ? … Hence the problem with “good” being subjective and not objective!

  8. Howard says:

    Yup! Also Faith vs. Reason and “the Jesus of History” vs. “the Christ of the Church”

  9. Nathan says:

    How about the false dichotomy between Christ and His Holy Church (ie His Mystical Body)? This one is obviously present with all Protestants, but can be found in the thinking of even many (most?) US Catholics. It usually surfaces in thinking like “The Church says homosexual activity is wrong, but Jesus would have approved of it” or “The Church teaches the Eucharist is the Body of Christ, but Jesus meant it was just a symbol”. My favorite is the claim of the Unitarian Church to be the “religion OF Jesus not ABOUT Jesus.” Etc. etc. etc.

  10. Brother Juniper says:

    Christ’s sacrifice is “made once for all” and “never repeated” [Hebrews10:10-12] yet it is also experienced at Mass daily and everywhere.

    The Chapter on Time and Eternity from the Confessions of St Augustine explains that God is transcendent to the Universe and exists outside of time and space. For Christ, then, the Sacrifice on Calvary and the Sacrifice at Daily Mass are one and the same event. Not only does Christ have no trouble bridging the gap, for Him there is no gap to bridge. We are on Calvary with Him every day at Mass.

    For us there is a two thousand year gap from Calvary to today, but Christ has no such limitations. To think otherwise is to think “not as God does, but as human beings do.” Matthew 16:23

    What I have always wondered, if the Ascension, the end of time, and the last judgment are just different names for the same event. If we can somehow manage to hitch our little red wagons to Christ, He takes us with him when He goes. I think there is no authority for this thought, just my wandering imagination.

  11. Michael says:

    The need to maintain the existence of hell (as it’s obviously mentioned in Scripture) and a loving God generally comes down to free will. “For in fact love requires Hell since love first requires freedom.” Do we have freedom in heaven? Do we have free will? Can we, like Satan, be thrown down to hell for disobedience or do angels have free will but we will not? Then why couldn’t “on earth, as it is in heaven” apply to this vale of tears rather than just the hereafter?

    This is not a false dichotomy, just incomplete reasoning.

  12. RichardC says:

    Works versus faith.

    “And if somehow God could force a solution and require our presence in his heavenly kingdom no matter our final disposition to his kingship and sovereignty, then God is not a lover, He is a slave owner.”–Well said, or else we are robots.

    After David has killed Urias the Hethite and take his wife, Nathan says to David, Second Book Of Kings (2 Samuel), 12:10-14 “[10] Therefore the sword shall never depart from thy house, because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Urias the Hethite to be thy wife.

    [11] Thus saith the Lord: Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thy own house, and I will take thy wives before thy eyes I and give them to thy neighhour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun. [12] For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing in the sight of all Israel, and in the sight of the sun. [13] And David said to Nathan: I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said to David: The Lord also hath taken away thy sin: thou shalt not die. [14] Nevertheless, because thou hast given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, for this thing, the child that is born to thee, shall surely die.”

    This is biblical proof that sin can be forgiven, and yet, temporal punishment still be required.

  13. Hegelian Dialectic says:

    Perhaps the “hermeneutic of continuity” versus 1900 years of magisterium and the Ottaviani intervention?

  14. Clare says:

    One can believe in God without professing the existence of objective truth. This is the “you create your own reality” aspect of pride.

    I would like also like to note that most dichotomies clear up when you acknowledge that there is such a thing as original sin. So a 2nd one would be, “Yes there is a problem with us (and me) but we (I) can fix it!”

  15. Donna says:

    How about the false dichotomy of Justice and Mercy? Many people reject the idea that many will be condemned to Hell, because God is a God of love and mercy… therefore, He will not punish but only forgive. The truth is, God is both just and merciful.

    Another one is Law and Grace. Many Protestants believe we are under “Grace” and therefore, we are not under “Law”. They claim that all one needs is faith in Jesus and his salvation is secure. They fail to realize that one must also be obedient.

    Interesting piece, Monsignor! I am presently reading a book by Peter Kreeft (a professor of philosophy) called “Socrates Meets Jesus”. Wonderful stuff! My first example came from this book.

  16. Nigel McCarren says:

    The difficulty that both Christians and atheists face is the improbability of faith. It is hard to make a person understand the road that he or she is on leads to judgment when the majority 21st century view opines that that judgment does not exist. Viewed entirely objectively our faith reads like some species of fairy story – so how can a modern, sophisticated, educated person – Christian or atheist – ever be convinced of the inherent danger of these dichotomies? By love, I think. It is only by understanding the love Christ has for us that we can understand the concept of judgment.

    • Ben says:

      True, but I also came across God the same way (atheist at the time) C.S. Lewis did… I knew there was such a thing as “Good”, and atheists do too which most are readily willing to admit, but what is “good” and how do we know?

      In trying to answer that question I took a tour of the world’s faiths, due to my previous psychological studies it seemed like Christianity was specifically designed for the human mind, and alas, after initially being a non-denominational Christian for a year or two, God enlightened me to the truth of the Holy Roman Catholic Church and I couldn’t have been more highly rewarded; So mush so that I feel the need to pass on what I’ve learned through helping out with my parish’s RCIA program, a fantastic way to see the Gospel unfold right in front of you!

  17. Ben says:

    Hi Msgnr!
    Great post, couldn’t have pinpointed it better myself, I try to teach as many people as I can about the philosophical and logical failures of our culture. You have a more eloquent way to put it for readers, the young people I come across who don’t read much who tell me that “one night stands” is a matter of freedom, I try to ask “What is freedom?”… They usually settle on some form of “doing anything you want whenver you want” as many young do, I then tell them, “No, that’s anarchy, so what is freedom?”….
    In that question, it finally occurs to them (albeit slowly), that they’re promoting anarchy in the moral realm and they get stumped, as many have never thought about it before; that way I can point to anarchies and ask “What’s good about it?, What’s good about not being able to buy milk without fear of being shot by someone else’s radical use of freedom?” … Sierra Leone is a sad place, and it’s because of the absence of rules that people are not free and they begin to see that their very own lives can cause a large amount of heartache, just out of the absence of laws, and I can only pray they know that means the absence of God’s love…
    Do unto others as you’d have done unto you!!! :)
    Have a good day Father!

  18. Sarah in WA says:

    One that I’ve encountered a lot is the false dichotomy between respecting human dignity and maintaining definitions that are explicitly based on gender. Three specific examples come immediately to mind:

    1) Barring women from the priesthood simply because they are women “demeans” the human dignity of women
    2) Objections to marital roles that are specific to wives and husbands: “Wives, obey your husbands / husbands love your wives” as laid out in Eph 5:22-25. Women sometimes act as though it’s personally demeaning to obey their husbands.
    3) Defining marriage as an opposite-sexed conjugal union “demeans” the dignity of people with same sex attraction

    I think this dichotomy comes from a messed up understanding of gender. I’ve read that modern philosophers treat gender as a changeable “social construct” rather than a de facto reality that comes directly from the Creator. If you view gender as changeable rather than a fixed reality, then fixed definitions related to gender can be construed as somehow inhumane.

  19. John Hellmann says:

    You wrote on the eternal nature of hell. Jehovah Witnesses, and SDA, claim that a loving God will annihilate hell. To the contrary, I would claim that God doesn’t make mistakes. He has no reason to undue his creation. Further, since God identifies Himself as Existence in the pure sense, “I Am Who Am” I would argue that to exist, even in the midst of suffering, is a good thing. And it glorifies God.

  20. John Hellmann says:

    Fr. Richard Rohr sets up a dichotomy. One the one hand he claims (sic), there is the Council of Trent and its Dualistic thinking, whereas Vatican II and the French Revolution stopped that and embraced mystical and contemplative thinking. It is odd that he has such a disdain for dualistic thinking, yet most of his talk was juxtaposing Trent with its dualism and Vatican II’s higher mystical thinking. He claims Rome knows that he is right. Yet, see http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2005/december/documents/hf_ben_xvi_spe_20051222_roman-curia_en.html

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