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How to Condemn a Bad Work

Alexander Orlowski. Cossack Fighting off a Tiger.
Delicate and charitable approach to correcting an erroneous tiger. ;-)
(Alexander Orlowski. Cossack Fighting off a Tiger. [Source])

1) Introduction

Condemning a bad work (whether a web site, a book, a film, etc.) is a task which isn't easy, but which religious leaders must know how to do. (Of course, good philosophers who defend truths which can be known without Revelation also need this skill.)

Every case is different, but we can avoid many problems by respecting the following steps:

- List the good points of the work right from the start
- Make sure we've correctly understood the author
- Give the author the chance of fixing his work
- Quote specifically the errors before condemning them
- Leave the door open to the author's conversion

Let's try to explain each step.

2) List the good points of the work right from the start

Truth is invulnerable and invincible. Let's not forget that Almighty God says He himself is the Truth! A bad work normally contains some partial truths, which become the engine and the armour of this bad work. What attracts people to this bad work is the part which is true, and this is also what protects this bad work against the efforts of religious leaders.

Another way of saying the same thing is: "The Devil never says anything completely false!" Satan prefers leprosy:

The uncleanness of leprosy betokened the uncleanness of heretical doctrine: both because heretical doctrine is contagious just as leprosy is, and because no doctrine is so false as not to have some truth mingled with error, just as on the surface of a leprous body one may distinguish the healthy parts from those that are infected.
[Ia-IIae, q. 102, a. 5, ad. 4]

To remove the engine and the armour of a bad work, it is necessary to list right from the start as clearly and exhaustively as possible the truths which it contains. Then, we must show that these truths don't come from the author of this bad work, but from Jesus, the Prince of Light, either directly or indirectly. As you know, the Light of Jesus can shine on men either directly by God's Revelation, or indirectly, by natural reason which leads to all scientific truths, including those of Moral Philosophy.

Skipping over this first step leads to indiscriminate condemnations, which in turn guarantee that the error will continue to disseminate itself, since it still has its engine, and that the error will be invincible, since it has the armour of truth.

3) Make sure we've correctly understood the author

Expressing complicated thoughts is difficult, and many misunderstandings are possible. That is why the second finger of the Philosopher's Glove reminds us to make sure we understand how an author defines the terms he is using. This is also what Saint Ignatius of Loyola recommends us to do:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it.
[CCC, #2478]

(Please note that even if an author is actually very faithful to the Magisterium, he can still lead people into error because of poorly-worded opinions. In such a case, he must be just as urgently corrected, because he is causing just as much harm to others as if he was a heretic.)

4) Give the author the chance of fixing his work

Before condemning forever, we have to give the author the possibility of fixing his work. Maybe the author has a good intention? We must point out his mistakes, then ask him to fix them. If the author doesn't comply, then we can assume he is not acting in good faith.

Normally, this first step is private [Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 33, a. 7]. If somebody steps on your foot in the bus, you won't scream out loud: "Hey everybody, this gentleman is stepping on my foot!" You'll rather start by telling that person directly.

Skipping over this step can often lead to the transformation of an awkward but well-meaning author, into an author who is angry against the Church.

5) Quote specifically the errors before condemning them

When we condemn a web site or a book, we have to quote the actual sentences which contain the errors, as well as references or hyperlinks pointing to the sources of those sentences. We must not say things like: "It's bad, it's lousy, it's filled with prejudices", etc. We must use expressions more like: "Here is an excerpt from the work, quoted at length, copied from such a web site on such a date. It contains such and such an error, as we can see by the following references to the Bible, or the teachings of the Church, etc." And then we must repeat this process, point by point, for every error.

Personally, I like to "colorize" each assertion by the author, in order to show him clearly that I made the effort of reading everything he wrote. See the description of this excellent but time-intensive method in "The Critical Traffic Light".

Moreover, since to act well is to act according to reason, we must maintain a calm and rational attitude. We have to avoid talking about emotions we have toward the work, and concentrate on the objective, tangible, we could almost say measurable aspects of the work. This means that we have to avoid even more talking about negative emotions we might have toward the author of the bad work.

Skipping this step causes many problems, the worst often being that the religious leader which writes the condemnation doesn't make the effort to study the bad work exhaustively. This generally destroys the credibility of the condemnation.

6) Leave the door open to the author's conversion

As Christians, everything we do must spring forth from charity. A religious leader condemns a bad work out of love for his flock, so his sheep won't be poisoned by bad grazing lands (see, among others, [2Tm 2:25]). But we must not forget that the good shepherd always seeks out the lost sheep, which in our case means the author of the bad work.

This doesn't mean that the religious leader must tell the author things like: "I'll pray to the Lord that you'll be delivered from your turpitude, and now get out of my sight and never come back!" The religious leader must reassert his love for the author of the work (which is nothing else than Christ's love for all sinners), and his availability to resume the discussion so he may "be everything to all, in order to save a few". Of course, this doesn't mean that the pastor must waste his time with an author who is not acting in good faith, but that the door must remain open.

Skipping this step leads to condemnations which cause more harm than good, because they are not rooted in the charity of Christ.

7) Conclusion

To recap, respecting a few simple rules lets religious leaders better defend the truth of the Gospel, by condemning bad works in a just, patient, precise and charitable way.

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