Help Wanted: Critical Thinkers to Evangelize
by Mary Ann Kreitzer
Of all the skills necessary for Catholics to survive and evangelize in the modern world, critical thinking ranks near the top of the list. False ideas bombard one from the time he rises and turns on the radio for the morning rush-hour report until he heads for bed after the eleven o’clock news. In between he’s constantly assaulted by messages telling him how to eat, wash, dress, and think. Politicians, newsmen, columnists, and talk show hosts try to form his opinions often feeding him slanted stories and false information. To fight the culture of the lie Catholics need to be able to reason effectively, recognize logical fallacies and false arguments, construct good responses, and defend the truth. But to defend truth one needs the ability to sift through data that’s been twisted and spun to find the truth to defend. That’s easier said than done in a world of virtual reality.
In view of this, one of the first requirements of critical thinking is to recognize when lies masquerade as truth. Unfortunately, lies are endemic to our cultural heritage, taught in school as gospel truth. Take a specific example. In American history students learn that Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest presidents, the Great Emancipator who freed the slaves, preserved the Union, and saved the country. Honest Abe loved all men, would walk ten miles to return a dime, and was even called “Father Abraham,” savior of the country. Sounds familiar, right? But there’s a flip side to the Lincoln penny that isn’t quite so shiny.
Abraham Lincoln was no lover of the black race. In fact he was a white supremacist who opposed extending slavery into the western territories, not because he respected blacks, but because he wanted the west preserved for whites. In the presidential debates of 1858, Lincoln said, “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races…I am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” His solution to slavery was to propose sending all the slaves back to Africa, the Caribbean, or anywhere else they would be offered a home. In his own state of Illinois freed blacks were denied the right to work, vote, sit on juries, etc.
Illinois did everything it could to prevent blacks from moving there. Lincoln, as a state senator, could have worked to increase opportunities for blacks; he had no interest in doing so. In his entire career he took only one slavery-related case in which he defended the rights of the slave-owner. The Emancipation Proclamation only “freed” blacks in the Confederacy, an area over which Lincoln had no control. His cynical hope was to inspire blacks in the South to revolt against their masters and help end the war. They did not. While there were four slave states in the Union (Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland), Lincoln did not free a single northern black and did not even free slaves in those jurisdictions in the South under Union Army control. Like so many crass politicians, Lincoln used an emotional issue (slavery) as a political football.
Lincoln is generally portrayed as a champion of freedom and the little guy, but when he became President he was actually a wealthy elitist, the highest paid lobbyist in the country working for the railroad industry with a salary equal to the governor of Illinois.2 There is little evidence of his commitment to the downtrodden except in legend. Once he became President and the war began, Lincoln’s actions were downright tyrannical. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus which prevents unjust imprisonment, first in Maryland where he jailed the entire legislature, and later in the rest of the Union. When Chief Justice Roger Taney demurred and wrote a legal opinion that the President had usurped Congress’ right, Lincoln had an arrest warrant issued for him. Judge Benjamin Robert Curtis, author of the dissenting opinion in Dred Scott, later called this action “a great crime.”3
When northern newspapers wrote negative editorials about him, Lincoln sent federal troops in to smash their presses and prevent any further publication. He exiled from the country an Ohio democrat, Clement Vallandigham, who opposed him and called for an end to hostilities against the South. During this period Lincoln had thousands of civilians arrested for any reason or no reason at all. In Alexandria, VA an Episcopalian minister was jailed for failing to offer a mandated prayer for the President of the United States.4
From a Catholic standpoint, Lincoln’s conduct of the war is problematic. When early generals like George McClellan failed to be aggressive enough, waging war under the rules of civilized engagement (if one can use the term war and civilized in the same sentence), Lincoln turned to others. Ulysses Grant, Philip Sheridan, and William Sherman were all proponents of total war defined as a “new way of conducting war that appeared during the Civil War. Instead of focusing only on military targets, armies conducting total war destroyed homes and crops to demoralize and undermine the civilian base of the enemy's war effort. (Sherman in Georgia or Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, for example)”5 Lincoln, the micro-manager, communicated regularly with his generals through the new technology of the telegraph. He actively engaged in the new warfare fully supporting the looting and burning out of civilians: primarily women, children, and old men – the only ones left at home since most Southern men were on the battlefield.
Many Americans know nothing about the dark side of Abraham Lincoln. They swallowed the Lincoln legend hook, line, and sinker in American history class. Yet much of the legend is based on lies. (This author was as deceived as anyone until 1990 when I read a book of Lincoln’s own letters and had the disloyal thought that I was reading the correspondence of a political hack. Further research unearthed more evidence of the man’s deceit and his Machiavellian policies.)
Some would argue that none of Lincoln’s abuses matter because the end result was the elimination of slavery, a good thing. Such an attitude overlooks 620,000 battlefield deaths, many others killed by disease, hundreds of thousands maimed, the destruction of the southern economy, a draconian “reconstruction” that was primarily responsible for the birth of the KKK, and a myriad of other evil effects that plague the United States even today. It also ignores the fact that slavery was disappearing everywhere without violence through compensated emancipation. Read St. Paul to see whether he justifies bloodshed to end slavery. Besides, truth is truth and the Lincoln legend is based on lies.
Today, Americans continue to gobble up lies on all sorts of issues because most are not critical thinkers. They ingest propaganda without a second thought. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, notorious atheistic abortionist turned pro-life Catholic, describes in Aborting America how he and Lawrence Lader, founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League, conspired to bring about abortion on demand. They fabricated statistics and fed them to the media. They created a false “reality” by repeating it over and over until most Americans accepted and parroted their views. Even today people talk about the “millions” of women who died from illegal abortions every year before Roe v. Wade despite the fact that the real number was generally under a hundred per year. Likewise, the same manipulation of fact is taking place on embryonic stem cell research, living wills, and assisted suicide. Americans are being primed to accept unspeakable evils because anti-life advocates frame them in ways that sound compassionate and good. Critical thinking skills are essential to recognize and resist the manipulation of language and outright lies used to herd people into easy-to-control-groupthink mobs.
Lies disguised as truth do not represent the only challenge to the critical thinker. Another is his ability to recognize muddled moral reasoning that substitutes nationalism or humanitarianism or some other apparent good for authentic morality. How often do mothers tell children that the end never justifies the means and two wrongs never make a right? Despite that, many otherwise ethical people will accept and even champion evil means to achieve what appears to be a good end.
Examine another specific example: the deliberate targeting of civilians in World War II in order to undermine the morale of the enemy and bring about a speedier end to the war. One of the most horrific episodes in the 20th century was the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only time weapons of that magnitude have ever been used. The immediate death toll in Hiroshima was about 66,000 mostly civilians, more than a quarter of the population. Another 70,000 were injured. The city was obliterated within a four and a half mile radius with ninety percent of its buildings damaged or destroyed. In Nagasaki the devastation was somewhat less extensive because of the hilly terrain which confined the blast. The area of complete destruction was about three square miles. The instant death toll was about 39,000 with another 25,000 injured in a city of approximately 200,000 residents.6
While most Americans are aware of these two attacks, few know much about the sustained allied policy of firebombing enemy cities. Dresden alone suffered 25,000-35,000 civilian casualties during a two-day Anglo-American raid which began on Ash Wednesday 1945 just a few months before the war ended. Eighty percent of the city’s homes were destroyed, many citizens burned beyond recognition. The Allies conducted similar attacks on other major German and Japanese cities frequently against civilians rather than military targets in all-out total war.Despite the horror of these mass killings, which violate every rule of just war theory, many people, even Catholics, still defend them. Some believe the bombings shortened the war and saved lives by preventing a land assault, a proposition still debated over half a century later. They subscribe to the position that the good end, surrender of the enemy, justified a bad means, the bombings. Unfortunately for their logic, that rationale can also be used to justify abortion and euthanasia. Like the situation ethicist, their morality is not based on solid rock, but on the shifting sands of good intentions. The Church makes it clear that “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” (Gaudiem at Spes 80) These were Allied war crimes plain and simple.
Another temptation is to subscribe to a false patriotism that justifies any action done in the guise of national necessity, i.e., “My country right or wrong.” Many so-called conservatives adhere to that position today. G.K. Chesterton made it clear such a sentiment was “a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying 'My mother, drunk or sober.'" However, the attitude is not uncommon as demonstrated by a Pew Research Center 2005 national survey. When interviewers asked, “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?” 46% of those interviewed said torture of prisoners was often or sometimes justified. Catholics were even more willing to subject prisoners to the rubber hose; 56% agreed. Only 26% of Catholics said it is never justified, the position of the Church: “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to the respect for the person and for human dignity.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2297) In other words torturing prisoners is evil.
In view of the serious moral issues facing the world today the need for Catholics to develop critical thinking skills seems self-evident. How to do it is more of a challenge. A famous pagan, Socrates, can give us some direction. When Chaerephon asked the Oracle at Delphi whether anyone was wiser than his friend Socrates she said no. Socrates, who considered this a riddle, set about to prove the Oracle wrong by finding someone wiser than himself. He approached those considered wise and asked questions about important matters: truth, goodness, beauty, virtue. What he discovered was that those who believed themselves to be wise knew nothing. The difference between them and himself was that he knew that he knew nothing, a good definition of humility. His method involved getting people to define their terms (so they would know what they were talking about) and then asking questions. By that means he helped them identify their own inconsistencies and logical fallacies. It did not earn him the popularity of the powerful, who are often more interested in the pursuit of wealth and power than in truth. But the Socratic method is invaluable to the humble man who wants to be a critical thinker. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said, so the first step to becoming a critical thinker is to examine everything. Ask questions.
Catholics have an advantage over Socrates because they know that “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Therefore, it is mandatory to pray, frequent the sacraments, study the faith, and look at everything through Catholic eyes with a Catholic heart and mind. What does the Church teach about an issue? What does Scripture say? What do the popes and the saints preach? Because of the Internet and easy access to inexpensive books, today’s Catholic has the wisdom of the ages at his fingertips more than any previous generation. He is called to be a philosopher, to enter the great conversation helping others to think and drawing them to open their eyes and hearts in the pursuit of truth. In the end that pursuit leads directly to Him who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Jesus wishes all to seek and find Him.
Being a critical thinker is not an end in itself, but a means to bring as many as possible to the heavenly banquet, to save sinners from eternal damnation. It is serious work, the work of an apostle sent out to bring in the harvest. Every Catholic needs to carry the scythe of critical thinking, honed to a point to penetrate the falsehoods of the age.
Thomas DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln, Three Rivers Press, NY, 2002, p. 13.
Robert Guisepi, editor, The American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, www.history-world.org/abraham_lincoln.htm.
Thomas DiLorenzo, Lincoln Unmasked, Crown Forum, 2006, p. 94.
James Randall, Constitutional Problems under Lincoln, University of Illinois Press, 1926/1964, p.30.
American Civil War Glossary, Civil War preservation Trust, civilwar.org/historyclassroom/hc_glossary.htm.
The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/abomb/mpmenu.htm