Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

From the June AD 2000
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin

    Question:  A preacher on the radio claims that in the early Church, Christians believed that Mary had children in addition to Jesus, and that he has read the statements of several Popes to this effect. He claims that it is up to Catholics to prove him wrong. How can we do that?

    Answer: Proving that early Christians accepted the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Mother isn't all that difficult. There are writings by some of the Fathers of the Church -- men generally recognized as authoritative by all Christians, and recognized as representative by most historians -- there are also some pronouncements by early ecumenical councils. But as far as proving him incorrect about the teachings of a specific papal pronouncements, the burden of proof is on him to produce them

    It is relatively easy to prove that something exists or took place at some time. What is much more difficult, and perhaps impossible, is to prove that something did not exist or happen.

    Most reasonable people are willing to agree that an event took place if they can be shown a few unbiased and pertinent references or other forms of evidence. For example, one might "prove" that a particular military battle took place by the records of the two armies, hospital charts, grave stones, and church burial records. Not all "evidence" is valid and some is more trustworthy than others. There might be some discussion as to why one or more record might be false or deceptive or created by someone who didn't actually know the situation, but reasonable people can usually agree as to how evidence is to be evaluated. Someone less critical might simply accept the word of a few history books or encyclopedia articles.

    The point is that we can "prove" something existed by gathering evidence acceptable to all parties in a discussion. But not finding evidence doesn't necessarily mean that something didn't happen. We might be looking in the wrong place: Maybe our battle took place in Springfield, Massachusetts and not in Springfield, Illinois; during the Revolutionary War and not the Civil War; maybe the physics and botany text books of the period didn't think it was important. The "battle" may have been no more than a "fight," not recorded anywhere. If there were records, they may no longer exist. And, even if one party has looked in every conceivable place and found no evidence, he really has nothing tangible to show the other party to the discussion. "Proving" absolutely that something never happened or does not exist would take an infinite search conducted jointly by both parties!

    For this reason, the "burden of proof" normally rests on the party who claims that something exists or happened (for he should have some evidence -- some reason -- for his belief). The pparty who disagrees can reasonably say, "show me." The preacher who claims to have read papal decrees on devotion to the Blessed Mother can reasonably be asked to produce his evidence.

    Scholarly and responsible writers usually document their major claims without being asked. Their writings include footnotes or references within parentheses. Readers ought to be suspicious of writers who make surprising claims and no attempt to document them. But note that footnotes don't prove anything. They simply state where a piece of information was found. That way, an interested reader can consult the writer's sources for himself, both to be assured that the source actually exists, and to see if he agrees with the writer's assessment of it. Prudent readers occasionally check the footnotes, even of writers whom they trust and with whom they generally agree, for "evidence" isn't always what it is claimed to be, translations aren't always accurate, and sometimes people make statements having no basis in reality. Witness your man on the radio!


Considerations on Evaluating Written Evidence

    *  Is the source primary or secondary -- does the author have first or second hand knowledge of the event -- or is he commenting on the writings of those that do, or on the writings of other commentators?
    *  If the source is primary, is it written as an "official" document, or as a work of observation or speculation? Does it have some sort of "standing" as a result of approval by some "authority"?
    *  Does the author of the source document have a bias (everyone does!) that must be taken into account -- economic, ideological, emotional, parochial,etc.?
    *  Is the document an original, an accurate copy, an accurate translation? Do different "originals" or translations exist? If a known forgery or mistranslation, what can it tell about its author and his society?


Considerations on Evaluating Commentary on Evidence

    *  Is the presentation in the document logical, or does it rely on emotional and illogical arguments? Be familiar with inductive fallacies such as the ad hominem, post hoc, "begging the question,"etc.
    *  Does the author "obfuscate," presenting unintelligible or enormous amounts of information, hoping that he can lead readers who are unable or unwilling to wade through such volume and complexity to accept his point of view?
    *  No matter who the author is, check his footnotes (and translations if employed) occasionally to see if they say what he claims they do. Just because you agree with the author's point of view does not mean he is telling you the truth!
    *  What biases of the author need to be taken into account? What does he stand to gain? Who will be helped and who will be hurt if his arguments are accepted by his readers?
    *  Does the author engage in "transactorship," praising other authors, who will in turn praise him, so that all appear to be elevated in status?  



Dei via est íntegra
Our Lady of the Rosary, 144 North Federal Highway (US#1), Deerfield Beach, Florida 33441  954+428-2428
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