When a Yes or No Question is Not a Yes or No Question

When a Yes or No Question is Not a Yes or No Question December 6, 2016


I’ve mostly said what I have to say about the dubia, but there is one more aspect of the problem that I want to comment on because it pertains to a broader habit that I’ve encountered a number of times over my years as a blogger: the “clear yes or no, please,” trap.

Why do I call it a trap? I mean, assuming Francis is orthodox, shouldn’t he be able to simply affirm the doctrine that the four Cardinals refer to in their submission? It seems like that shouldn’t be difficult. A single word, “yes,” or “no.”

The problem is twofold. First of all, the fact of the questions being asked suggests that there is serious reason to doubt that the Pope would affirm the prior teaching. In the case of the dubia, there is one question that is potentially a remotely reasonable question to ask on the basis of the text of Amoris Laetitia, and then there are four other questions that are… for lack of a better word, contentious.

The theory behind the form of dubia as a series of “yes or no” questions is that the questions are presented simply, without theological argumentation. Questions 2 through 5 are actually arguments presented as though they are questions. There just isn’t any reason to even ask them on the basis of the text, unless you believe that allowing communion to divorced and remarried people in some exceptional circumstances would deny, for example, the “existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and that are binding without exceptions”.

Furthermore, it’s clear that the Cardinals intend the publication of the Pope’s answers. They’re not asking for themselves, they’re asking in order to clear up “uncertainty, confusion, and disorientation among many of the faithful.” This end would not be fulfilled by a purely private conversation.

And this is why the “yes or no” trap becomes a trap: if Francis answers “no, there has been no change at all in the teaching,” then those who agree with his questioners get to feel vindicated (and let’s be realistic, they also get to use his answer to beat up their opponents in the culture wars.) But all of the people who felt that Francis had opened the door to mercy, who had perhaps lost hope or even left the Church but were now considering approaching their parish priest to try to resolve their personal situations…what happens to those people? They feel betrayed, shut out, unheard.

On the other hand, if Francis answers, “yes, in some cases Communion may be possible,” then his enemies have the ammunition that they have been looking for. They get to jump up and down and shout “Heretic!” They get to talk about disciplinary action. They get to summon together a mob to march on the Vatican shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Even if the Cardinals themselves do not intend to do this, there are plenty of Catholics who are just chomping at the bit to get a piece of the Pope.

In other words, the questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. It may be that the Cardinals asking are naive enough to imagine that these are questions that could be put to Francis in good faith, out of sincere solicitude for the needs of the faithful, without any intent to stir up shit. But anyone who is conversant with the politics of the Culture Wars, including, I imagine, the Pope, should be able to see that the dubia are in fact a hornet’s nest.

So what do you do?

Well, if you’re perfect, you third option out of it. This was the approach that Christ always took when the Pharisees tried to pin Him down with requests that He affirm the most scandalous and unpopular parts of the Mosaic Law. The story of the woman caught in adultery is probably the most familiar of these. (cf John 8:1-11)

The Pharisees bring her before Christ, asking for a simple yes or no answer: “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” It is, as the text says, a trap. They have Him either way. If He affirms the teaching of Moses, then not only will the gospel of mercy that He has been proclaiming suddenly seem like a sham, but also He’ll be breaking the laws imposed by the Roman occupation. If He denies the teaching of Moses, then they can prove that He’s a heretic and they’ll have cause to discipline Him under Jewish Law. It’s win win, for the Pharisees. Lose lose for Christ.

Except, of course, that instead of falling into the trap, He comes up with a brilliant third option – just as He does when they try to corner Him about healing on the Sabbath, paying taxes to Caesar, etc. Instead of stepping into the trap by answering the question on their terms, He seizes the initiative and forces them to acknowledge that, oh, actually, they don’t want to be held to the Mosaic standard themselves. At which point they walk away, He’s left alone with the woman, and He’s free to exercise mercy.

That’s the ideal way to deal with it. If you are perfect, that’s how it’s done.

But what are you supposed to do if you’re just an ordinary guy from Argentina and you can’t think of a brilliant outflanking maneuver? If you’re not the only begotten Son of God, you’re just the successor of an outspoken fisherman who was constantly putting his foot in his mouth? What do you do then?

Maybe, just maybe, you would simply refuse to answer.

Image credit: pixabay
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