Catholic Debate and Personal Polemics:
Are we just full of “Bitter Zeal” and “Venom”? Can We Only Attack an Argument and Never a Person?
Some readers of our web site, though happy with the content in general, may be somewhat displeased with our rhetorical and polemical style, or our personal rebukes of certain individuals, specifically (our favorite targets) members of the bogus Vatican II hierarchy, but also subscribers to the false “recognize-and-resist” opposition, including Michael Voris, John Vennari, Michael Matt, John Salza, and Christopher Ferrara. As of late, it seems to have become fashionable to object on certain blogs and forums that Novus Ordo Watch is just full of “venom” and “bitter zeal” — a rather convenient excuse not to have to deal with the facts presented.
The unfortunate reality is that so many people today, at least in our American-European-Western society, have become so conditioned by the feminized culture around them that they tend to equate charity with niceness, and conversely, criticism and rebukes with “hate” (see an interesting meme on this here). This attitude has been instilled in us by the culture around us, and it affects all of us, but we must work to overcome it. This is one reason why we do not mince words: Error and evil must be denounced charitably but forcefully, and one way to do that is to counter the let’s-not-offend-anyone society by being willing to offend, not needlessly, but needfully. For offense is not necessarily wrong. Sometimes we all must be whacked over the head. We must be rebuked, criticized, humiliated, for our own good. The mother who yells at a child who is about to put his hand on the hot stove does not mind that the child will be “offended” by her harsh words — she has the child’s good in view and realizes that, at the moment, only a harsh rebuke will obtain that end.
Some, while conceding that error and evil must be denounced, will argue that although we may and must do this, nevertheless we cannot ever attack the person, only the false or dangerous views held by him.
But is this so? Is it ever permissible — perhaps even necessary — to criticize people and not just their views? What is the traditional Catholic attitude in this regard?
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the epitome of piety, zeal, charity, and perfection. He is Charity Incarnate, but this divine and perfect charity did not always express itself in “nice” words. He certainly rebuked the Pharisees by calling them very “offensive” names and accused them of being children of the devil. Imagine if we did such a thing on this blog!
Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you go round about the sea and the land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, you make him the child of hell twofold more than yourselves. Woe to you blind guides, that say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but he that shall swear by the gold of the temple, is a debtor. Ye foolish and blind; for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gift that is upon it, is a debtor. Ye blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? He therefore that sweareth by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things that are upon it: And whosoever shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth in it: And he that sweareth by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you tithe mint, and anise, and cummin, and have left the weightier things of the law; judgment, and mercy, and faith. These things you ought to have done, and not to leave those undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you make clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but within you are full of rapine and uncleanness.
Thou blind Pharisee, first make clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, that the outside may become clean. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you are like to whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men’ s bones, and of all filthiness. So you also outwardly indeed appear to men just; but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; that build the sepulchres of the prophets, and adorn the monuments of the just, and say: If we had been in the days of our Fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore you are witnesses against yourselves, that you are the sons of them that killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. You serpents, generation of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell? Therefore behold I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them you will put to death and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city: That upon you may come all the just blood that hath been shed upon the earth, from the blood of Abel the just, even unto the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you killed between the temple and the altar.
I know that you are the children of Abraham: but you seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and you do the things that you have seen with your father. They answered, and said to him: Abraham is our father. Jesus saith to them: If you be the children of Abraham, do the works of Abraham. But now you seek to kill me, a man who have spoken the truth to you, which I have heard of God. This Abraham did not. You do the works of your father. They said therefore to him: We are not born of fornication: we have one Father, even God. Jesus therefore said to them: If God were your Father, you would indeed love me. For from God I proceeded, and came; for I came not of myself, but he sent me: Why do you not know my speech? Because you cannot hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and he stood not in the truth; because truth is not in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof. But if I say the truth, you believe me not.
Which of you shall convince me of sin? If I say the truth to you, why do you not believe me?He that is of God, heareth the words of God. Therefore you hear them not, because you are not of God. The Jews therefore answered, and said to him: Do not we say well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil? Jesus answered: I have not a devil: but I honour my Father, and you have dishonoured me. But I seek not my own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth. Amen, amen I say to you: If any man keep my word, he shall not see death for ever. The Jews therefore said: Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest: If any man keep my word, he shall not taste death for ever. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, who is dead? and the prophets are dead. Whom dost thou make thyself? Jesus answered: If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father that glorifieth me, of whom you say that he is your God. And you have not known him, but I know him. And if I shall say that I know him not, I shall be like to you, a liar. But I do know him, and do keep his word.
These holy words of our Blessed Lord are very charitable, because He cannot fail in His perfect charity, but they arenot “nice.” Secular society’s equating of love with niceness is nothing but a tool to suppress inconvenient truth. People are supposed to be intimidated into keeping silence about that which is evil, and this is to be done by accusing them of “hate”, “bitterness”, and “venom” if they should denounce that which must be denounced.
Of course, this does not mean that we can just go around insulting people willy-nilly (cf. Mt 5:22). Insults and mockery against others — the term in moral theology is “contumely” — are certainly sinful if they are done gratuitously, that is, without a justifying reason. But that’s just it: It is the unjust violation of the honor of another that is sinful, not the dishonoring of him per se.
As the Catholic moral theologian Fr. Heribert Jone notes in his succinct handbook on morality:
Contumely consists in unjustly dishonoring another person in his presence and thus showing one’s contempt for him… Dishonoring another may be done by words, deeds or omissions… Contumely is ex genere suo … a grave sin against justice.
(Fr. Heribert Jone, Moral Theology, n. 378, pp. 254-255; underlining added.)
So, again, an essential condition of the sinfulness of contumely is that the dishonoring of the other be unjust.
In Sacred Scripture, we see a good example of a saint mocking his opponents and drawing dishonor down upon them in the presence of all:
And Elias coming to all the people, said: How long do you halt between two sides? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people did not answer him a word. And Elias said again to the people: I only remain a prophet of the Lord: but the prophets of Baal are four hundred and fifty men. Let two bullocks be given us, and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces and lay it upon wood, but put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under it. Call ye on the names of your gods, and I will call on the name of my Lord: and the God that shall answer by fire, let him be God. And all the people answering said: A very good proposal. Then Elias said to the prophets of Baal: Choose you one bullock and dress it first, because you are many: and call on the names of your gods, but put no fire under.
And they took the bullock which he gave them, and dressed it: and they called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying: O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered: and they leaped over the altar that they had made. And when it was now noon, Elias jested at them, saying: Cry with a louder voice: for he is a God, and perhaps he is talking, or is in an inn, or on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep, and must be awaked. So they cried with a loud voice, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till they were all covered with blood. And after midday was past, and while they were prophesying, the time was come of offering sacrifice, and there was no voice heard, nor did any one answer, nor regard them as they prayed: Elias said to all the people: Come ye unto me. And the people coming near unto him, he repaired the altar of the Lord, that was broken down:
And he took twelve stones according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying: Israel shall be thy name. And he built with the stones an altar to the name of the Lord: and he made a trench for water, of the breadth of two furrows round about the altar. And he laid the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid it upon the wood. And he said: Fill four buckets with water, and pour it upon the burnt offering, and upon the wood. And again he said: Do the same the second time. And when they had done it the second time, he said: Do the same also the third time. And they did so the third time. And the water run round about the altar, and the trench was filled with water.
And when it was now time to offer the holocaust, Elias the prophet came near and said: O Lord God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Israel, shew this day that thou art the God of Israel, and I thy servant, and that according to thy commandment I have done all these things. Hear me, O Lord, hear me: that this people may learn, that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart again. Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the holocaust, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw this, they fell on their faces, and they said: The Lord he is God, the Lord he is God. And Elias said to them: Take the prophets of Baal, and let not one of them escape. And when they had taken them, Elias brought them down to the torrent Cison, and killed them there.
(3 Kings 18:21-40; underlining added.)
So, we see that St. Elias the prophet mocked the pagans — he used sarcasm — and his doing so was not unjust.
Furthermore, Holy Scripture also affirms explicitly that it’s not wise always to just be “nice” in one’s speech: “…if the speech be always nicely framed, it will not be grateful to the readers” (2 Mach 15:40).
Finally, specifically with regard to the question of attacking a person in the course of polemical discourse — what is known in logic as an ad hominem attack (“against the person”) —, we would like to quote a substantial excerpt from the great Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany’s 1886 book Liberalism is a Sin. This work was endorsed and praised by the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of the Index under Pope Leo XIII, and we too cannot recommend it highly enough. In fact, one may say that this book completely destroys many fundamental ideas of the bogus Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the new religion it engendered (which we call the Novus Ordo religion). The excerpt below is Chapter 21 of the book, which specifically addresses the objection that while it is licit to attack and refute a person’s argument, it is forbidden to also attack the person who makes the argument. Not so, as Fr. Sarda explains with eloquence and persuasiveness.
CHAPTER 21 Personal Polemics and Liberalism
“It is all well enough to make war on abstract doctrines” some may say, “but in combating error, be it ever so evident, is it so proper to make an attack upon the persons of those who uphold it?” We reply that very often it is, and not only proper, but at times even indispensable and meritorious before God and men.
The accusation of indulging in personalities is not spared to Catholic apologists, and when Liberals and those tainted with Liberalism have hurled it at our heads, they imagine that we are overwhelmed by the charge. But they deceive themselves. We are not so easily thrust into the background. We have reason–and substantial reason–on our side. In order to combat and discredit false ideas, we must inspire contempt and horror in the hearts of the multitude for those who seek to seduce and debauch them. A disease is inseparable from the persons of the diseased.
The cholera threatening a country comes in the persons of the infected. If we wish to exclude it, we must exclude them. Now ideas do not in any case go about in the abstract; they neither spread nor propagate of themselves. Left to themselves–if it be possible to imagine them apart from those who conceive them–they would never produce all the evil from which society suffers. It is only in the concrete that they are effective, when they are the personal product of those who conceive them. They are like the arrows and the balls which would hurt no one if they were not shot from the bow or the gun. It is the archer and the gunner to whom we should give our first attention; save for them, the fire would not be murderous. Any other method of warfare might be Liberal, if you please, but it would not be common sense.
The authors and propagators of heretical doctrines are soldiers with poisoned weapons in their bands. Their arms are the book, the journal, the lecture, their personal influence. Is it sufficient to dodge their blows? Not at all; the first thing necessary is to demolish the combatant himself. When he is hors de combat [“out of the fight”], he can do no more mischief.
It is therefore perfectly proper not only to discredit any book, journal or discourse of the enemy, but it is also proper, in certain cases, even to discredit his person; for in warfare, beyond question, the principal element is the person engaged, as the gunner is the principal factor in an artillery fight and not the cannon, the powder, and the bomb. It is thus lawful, in certain cases, to expose the infamy of a Liberal opponent, to bring his habits into contempt and to drag his name in the mire. Yes, this is permissible, permissible in prose, in verse, in caricature, in a serious vein or in badinage, by every means and method within reach. The only restriction is not to employ a lie in the service of justice. This never. Under no pretext may we sully the truth, even to the dotting of an “i'” As a French writer says: “Truth is the only charity allowed in history,” and, we may add, in the defense of religion and society.
The Fathers of the Church support this thesis. The very titles of their works clearly show that, in their contests with heresy, their first blows were at the heresiarchs. The works of St. Augustine almost always bear the name of the author of the heresy against which they are written: Contra Fortunatum Manichoeum, Adversus Adamanctum, Contra Felicem, Contra Secundinum, Quis fuerit Petiamus, De gestis Pelagii, Quis fuerit julianus, etc. Thus, the greater part of the polemics of this great Father and Doctor of the Church was personal, aggressive, biographical, as well as doctrinal–a hand-to-hand struggle with heretics, as well as with heresy. What we here say of St. Augustine we can say of the other Fathers.
Whence do the Liberals derive their power to impose upon us the new obligation of fighting error only in the abstract and of lavishing smiles and flattery upon them? We, the Ultramontanes, will fight our battles according to Christian tradition and defend the Faith as it has always been defended in the Church of God. When it strikes, let the sword of the Catholic polemist wound, and when it wounds, wound mortally. This is the only real and efficacious means of waging war.
[End of Excerpt – bold print added for emphasis, with slight adaptations.]
Thus, we can see here that it is a favorite tactic of the Liberals (Modernists and those who are tainted by them) to try to silence their Catholic-conservative opponents by accusing them of being “hateful” or “venomous.” While an ad hominem attack is logically fallacious, it nevertheless can have a very important function, if used with justice and prudence, in polemical discourse.
It is time to stop being “offended” at every turn and actually focus on the substance of criticism, rather than the tone. Let us be zealous in giving as well as accepting just criticism, lest we one day have to hear the words: “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41) — words that are certainly not very “nice”.
- Liberalism Is a Sin: The Complete Text Online (Imprimatur, 1899)
- Liberalism is a Sin: Buy a paperback or electronic copy of the book
- “Who are YOU to say who’s a Heretic?” Fr. Sarda blasts another favorite liberal objection
- Important Catholic Quotes against Liberalism and Other Errors
- Auctorem Fidei: Pope Pius VI condemns Ambiguity in Documents, which allows for teaching error with plausible deniability