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.

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