Category Mistakes Abound: Marriage, Hell, and the Pope

A category mistake occurs when one thing is misidentified as another. This is often a matter of semantics, of word usage. But the reason why a category mistake is problematic is because the semantic confusion can lead to an ontological mistake, a situation where more than language is at stake.

When we try to communicate, I think we often have to admit that the two (or three or nine) sides of the discussion are at least partially guilty of making category mistakes from time to time. When emotions run high in a dispute we are more prone to associate this or that word with ME and my blessed emotions and opinions and pet ideologies and theories, than the actual usage of the word in that particular context of the conversation.

A more careful person might project a little, warning against the “possible” ways a word might lend itself to being mistaken for something else, but most of the time this is not the case.

There is no glamour or glitz in clarifying words and their referents and trying to communicate with clarity. But charity and sanity absolutely demand it.


After writing this, I spent lots of time trying to revise my rather agnostic view on the same sex marriage issue, but the more I read, the more I realized that there is no conversation happening. No one is communicating or willing to communicate with a lexicon that is consistent and clear across the different sides of the issue. The language and metaphysics of marriage is what is at stake, and the concerns for how that word gets used are built upon an array of interests. As complex as things are on the issue, the simple point remains: the word ‘marriage’ has yet to be operationalized.

The billboards, memes, and bumper stickers don’t help. We’ve devolved into a nihilistic anti-conversation of taglines, headlines, keywords, and platitudes.


One of my friends was telling me the story about how he left the Catholic Church: he was kicked out of confirmation class.

He had no reason to lie to me and I can see this happening myself, so I believe it: an overzealous, grumpy person attached every lesson to hell and damnation. As the weeks went by, and after it got to be too much for him to be told that he is going straight to hell, my friend protested and found himself in a room, alone, surrounded by incense and candles, being interrogated in a way that verged on exorcism. No wonder he left. This, my friends, is not the New Evangelization.

I explained to him that “hell” is complex and that he should remind himself that Dante and Milton have confused our contemporary intuitions and imaginations with imagery that is, actually, quite foreign to the Gospels and tradition. I love the Comedia and Paradise Lost, but to allow them to inform my sense of soteriology and eschatology would be to make a serious category mistake. When we do talk about hell — and I think should (it is too interesting and important to ignore!) — we need to ensure that we are actually talking about the Church’s hell, not Dante’s or Milton’s fantasies.

This is tough work. These notions are rarely, if ever, mutually exclusive. But any effort quickly reveals that there are distinctions that make a difference.


More recently, in the aftermath of Katrina Fernadez’s post on The Crescat, there has been a whole new, darker thread added to the sentiment behind the new winner of Vanity Fair’s man of the year: Pope Francis.

On my reading, Fernadez has two distinct issues with Francis:

(1) “Every time I read about how humble Francis is I take it personally, as a slight meant to imply that his predecessor was some how not.”

(2)  “…every time he shuns the trappings of the office of Pope I spiritually die inside a little more.”

I can sympathize greatly with the second. I, too, had something of an aesthetic (re)conversion. I say that while objecting to the way she expresses it — it seems unfair to try and predict what Francis’ intentions are; “shunning” seems a bit harsh — but while understanding something about the condition she writes about.

Aesthetic impoverishment is not negligible. It matters. However, it remains to me unclear how, exactly, Francis is shunning rather than simply adding his own aesthetic to the others who came before. What has been excluded?

In the case of the first issue, I find it problematic. For one it is very defensive. Complimenting someone need not be at the expense of another. That the media intends this and that other ideological opportunists do, too, is inconsequential to me. Benedict XVI did some serious housecleaning early on and very few saw it as a slight to John Paul II.


The bigger general issue I have with this whole discussion, beyond The Crescat, is that it seems to place certain expectation on the papacy that strike me as foreign to it.

A category mistake.

In the US, we tend to idolize (to use Elizabeth Scalia’s terminology) our presidents. Even those who hate the president, love to hate him. We are obsessed with the sentimental attachment to the office and the person in office. Voter approval means little more than junior high popularity.

I think I can see and smell some of this in our discussions of how much we like, don’t like, and struggle to like our Pope. Truth be told, I find him, at a personal level, charming but somewhat boring. This is probably because I am a misanthrope — so take it as saying more about me than him.

But this shouldn’t really matter. I don’t know what the exact relationship is between a Pope and a layperson like me, but I do know that it is highly mediated, and, usually, for good or at least practical reasons. Our local pastor(s), bishop(s), and so on cannot be forgotten. All the while, the authority between those offices is clear.

Along with presidential category confusions, I suspect that we also import a sense of the corporate/business hierarchy into the papal esteem equation. If the purpose of a Pope is only infallibility, then, a Pope is fairly useless — these declarations are very rare. There must be more to this than the relationship between a struggling student and the answers at the back of the book. The Pope is not an oracle.

We don’t have to like our Popes equally. We’re allowed to have favorites and preferences. Some Popes have been terrible people. Some have been saints. I think Francis trends towards the latter, but I also don’t like many of the saints. I think we need to get over the simplistic idea that being holy makes someone likable and popular and super fun to be around.

To love someone, to love God, is not about likability. It is a category mistake to confuse the two. It would also be a (different) mistake to totally ignore likability and sentimentality. But the fact remains: it is a category mistake to mistake US presidential neurotics and businesslike accountability hierarchies with the office and role of the Bishop of Rome, our Pope. This may not resolve our inner desires and fears and blindnesses, this may not save us from doubt and the abyss, but it surely will allow them to be real and for our talk about it all to be grounded in something more clear and accessible to charitable and sane conversation.

  • Andy

    I see in the two popes a continuity. I see Benedict as the professor and as a professor myself I enjoyed being pushed through his words and his actions to think about my faith and the multitude of shortcomings I had in my faith. He helped me rethink how I related to the faith on an intellectual level. But not everyone liked or could relate to that. I see Francis as presenting the same ideas using a simpler syntax and simpler if you will verbiage. When I put their messages side by side I see little difference in the thrust.
    The same can be said about liturgy _ I appreciate a simple Mass, a reverent mass as it allows me to relate more to the Lord – I ma not distracted as much if you will. That does not mean I do not appreciate the more complex liturgies, I just find it harder to concentrate on the mass during those.
    I think that the media lionizes Francis because he is new and not from Europe and is distinctly different then Benedict in appearance and demeanor. NOT BEtter, different. And in the new world pointing out differences is what seems to sell. I think that if we all step back and trust that God has a plan for us and that plan is what we need to address it might be better for all of us.

  • ahermit

    . The language and metaphysics of marriage is what is at stake, and the
    concerns for how that word gets used are built upon an array of
    interests. As complex as things are on the issue, the simple point
    remains: the word ‘marriage’ has yet to be operationalized.

    Bullshit. The debate is about the legal contract between two people who declare their commitment to one another and the host of legal and financial rights and obligations attached to that contract. It’s really pretty simple.

    • SamRocha

      Your assertion here, ahermit, doesn’t really engage with the portion you quoted, or the post in general, except to call it bullshit. It might be more helpful to me for you to describe exactly *how* the claim I made is bullshit. I am sympathetic to your reading of the situation, it is one the few that make sense to me, but that others see it differently and have developed significant arguments for it, seems hard to ignore entirely. Simplicity sounds nice, but when there are, as I mention, different interest at stake, things rarely are that simple — except from the view that understands *their* own position and has no stomach or patience to see the other sides.

      • ahermit

        The “bullshit,” as I see it is in the suggestion that it is the “language and metaphysics of marriage” that is “at stake.” The issue being debated far and wide is whether the relationships between gay couples should be afforded the same legal rights and obligations as heterosexual couples. Contrary to your assertion the meaning of “marriage” in the context of that debate is quite clear; it is the contract between two people and all the attendant legal rights and obligations attached to that contract.

        Others may be trying desperately to obscure that definition by appealing to some mythical idea of “traditional” or sacramental marriage, but they are not engaging the issue they are trying to avoid it.

        As for different interests being at stake let me just say that I’ve been married, happily and heterosexually, for thirty years and I have no problem understanding what a marriage is or realizing that my interests as a married person are in no way threatened by allowing other people to get married; ie to enter into the same legal contract as exists between my wife and I. I’m afraid I have little patience for all this hand-waving about “changing the definition of marriage.”

        • SamRocha

          I think you’re projecting a bit into this as far as where my own personal interests are and heart is. You might want to read the post I linked to see more of my view in the matter. I think it comes down to what, exactly, we agree to mean when we say “marriage.” I am, again, not at all unsympathetic to your way of framing the issue, and that was all I had to begin with, but I’ve also spend some time reading the other side on the matter and they do make the issue out to be something entirely different. All that aside, the descriptive fact is that, presently, there are at least two sides who invoke the “same” issue in two entirely different lexicons. Which leads me to call that a category mistake. This mistake is not normative, just the descriptive case — the way things are.

          • ahermit

            I read your other piece, and I’ve heard all the arguments on the other side. Yes they do make the issue out to be something else, but that is dishonest posturing and handwaving on their part. The only issue here is whether the relationship between my aunt and her “lady friend” of fifty years is entitled to the same legal rights as that between my wife and I.

            It’s a debate about the fair application of existing civil law, and it really is that simple. Pretending otherwise looks like avoiding the issue to me.

          • SamRocha

            Have you read Robbie George’s work on the matter? It is interesting that *that* side say the exact same thing about your angle. I myself find yours more attached to reality, but they do make some persuasive points regarding some misnomers of the issue as being about “love” and other, more altruistic, details. The Supreme Court (at least the majority) seems to agree with your reading, though, and for good reason: the whole case was instigated by a tax dispute.

          • ahermit

            Not familiar with George, but I’ve certainly seen most, if not all, of the arguments on the other side. Unlike you I don’t find any of them in the least persuasive. Self serving, misleading, dishonest, ignorant, sloppy…but not persuasive.

            Of course love is the first reason people seek to enter into a marriage contract. Love in marriage is about sharing your life with someone; if the law prevents you from fully doing that, by creating financial burdens not faced by other couples, by denying rights around medical issues, child care etc that is as much a part of the issue as taxes. It’s the legalistic denial of a fully realized relationship that’s at issue.

          • SamRocha

            It is not clear to me that, on this logic, love has anything to do with it. It could simply be a pragmatic decision to secure the deserts that come with it. George, I think, is the most thoughtful on the subject, although I find his argument to be couched in a sense of marriage that doesn’t reflect the broad reality of the anthropology of the institution of marriage. Here’s one representative example:

          • ahermit

            It COULD be a simply pragmatic decision in some cases, but do you really think it often is?

            Skimming over George’s arguments I’d say he’s spouting the usual insupportable nonsense about gender roles. Not impressed.

          • SamRocha

            Insofar as it COULD it follows that love is not necessarily the primary rationale. That is my only point.

            I’m not a huge of George’s argument, but his overall point (that this is about how we define the term ‘marriage’) is interesting to me because it also trivializes the whole affair to the proper use of language — which seem odd in the other direct.

            Taxes or words? Is THIS what it all comes down to?

            Who knows?

          • ahermit

            Rights and fair treatment under the law is what it comes down to.

            Not really that complicated.

          • SamRocha

            Again, and at this point I think we’ve circled back around, I am not adversarial to your view. And I have no “agenda,” believe it or not. With that, I hope you’ll at least see my perhaps overall complicated, but actually quite modest, set of questions and concerns and curiosities as being sincere and not dismissive in the least of your position — nor of the counter balances from the right. Cheers!

          • Zarchne

            If ahermit’s view is correct, then it would be possible for the Federal government to satisfy the demands on it of “rights and fair treatment” by passing a law recognizing registered domestic partners as having all benefits and obligations of spouses, with the several States creating registries for domestic partners. That is to say, while “separate but equal” is a lie when it comes to which schools one is allowed to attend, etc., it surely is not if the ONLY separation is which filing cabinet (or nowadays, table in a database, I suppose) the certificate is filed in. While ahermit could complain that it is unnecessarily complicated, and the “marriage traditionalists” could complain that the state has no interest in registering domestic partnerships, which registration also undermines marriage proper (and we are stipulating here that states would mandate such things as adoption agencies treating RDPs as spouses), neither taxes nor words would have to be given up.

            Personally, my view is that the states lost their legal ability to define marriage with Griswold v. Connecticut.

            Not that this is the be-all, end-all (and not from personal experience), but it seems to me, operationally, if you can tell your mother that you’re married, and she accepts that you’ve found your vocation and stops bugging you about it, then you’re married.

          • ahermit

            If ahermit’s view is correct, then it would be possible for the Federal
            government to satisfy the demands on it of “rights and fair treatment”
            by passing a law recognizing registered domestic partners as having all
            benefits and obligations of spouses, with the several States creating
            registries for domestic partners.

            And those relationships would inevitably come to be commonly known as “marriages.” Because that’s what they would be. If the benefits etc are the same there’s no reason for separate file cabinets.

          • ahermit

            I do appreciate your thoughtfulness, and I should apologize for coming on a little strong in my first comment.

            I’m just less inclined than you are to take the counter arguments seriously. And all one has to do is look around to see that reality has already disproven those arguments. Eight years ago the Canadian government passed legislation recognizing the validity of same sex marriages. None of the dire consequences predicted by the naysayers have come to pass here. I have little sympathy for people who cling to what amounts to bigotry, however sincere they may be.

            I don’t think all the nonsense over the definition of the word is even relevant frankly. It’s just a word which means “to join together.” I used to “marry” steel structural members to one another in my younger days…no one seemed to object…