|Scarecrows' gathering, near Lausanne, Switzerland (Rastplatz Bavois)|
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Now this whole exercise my sound absurd, but actually this sort of practice goes on every day, just not in a literal sense. It's called the "strawman" argument, and its a form of logical fallacy. This is how it works. Suppose you're in a debate with somebody, and you're not sure if you'll win. So what you do is you take your opponent's argument, and then reconstruct it to your own liking. In other words, you misrepresent your opponents position. That's the "strawman." It's like you've built a straw effigy of your opponent and his position. Then you go after that misrepresentation with a vengeance. You use every argument at your disposal to tear down this misrepresentation (strawman). After you've successfully done that, and the misrepresentation (strawman) is vanquished, you declare your victory before a cheering audience that is none the wiser. You're opponent is left speechless. Assuming your audience has a short attention span, or the debate is timed, such a strategy could easily garner a victory -- albeit an empty victory. You've just destroyed a position your opponent doesn't really adhere to. You beat the strawman, but you didn't beat your opponent.
You'll find that many of the Protestant arguments against Catholic Christianity are really "strawmen" (misrepresentations of our actual beliefs). These strawmen are constructed and then torn down, on a regular basis, so as to prove the Biblical superiority of Protestantism over Catholicism. Usually the attention span of the audience is short. Most people don't want to stick around to hear both sides of the story. They're more than satisfied to hear a short justification of why Catholics are wrong about this or that, and why their own Protestant teachings are right. Then they move on. So the strawman argument works, and it works well. In fact, it's been working for a very long time. The first Protestants to use this method were the original Protestant "reformers" themselves back in the 16th century, and the same method has been employed by successive generations of Protestants every since. Let's face it, if it didn't work, they wouldn't keep using it.
Probably, the most common strawman employed by Protestants is the "Catholics worship Mary" misrepresentation. They say "Catholics worship Mary," then they point to the Old Testament prohibitions against worship of anyone but God. So? Since worship of anyone but God is idolatry, and Catholics worship Mary, then presto! Catholics must be idolaters. Now obviously that's not true. Catholics don't worship Mary. Our beliefs have been misrepresented here. But the average Catholic can barely get a word in edgewise before the Protestant is on to the next strawman argument concerning a different matter. I call this debate tactic "bombardment" wherein so many strawmen (misrepresentations) are presented in succession, that a Catholic never has enough time to address them all. I once had a Protestant employ this exact method on me, to which I tried to patiently respond to each and every strawman by explaining that's not what we believe. His response was to ask, in a rather condescending way: "So do you feel like you're always having to explain your religion? Shouldn't Christianity be simple?" At my protest to his misrepresentation of Catholic beliefs, he then shouted, "Stop tap-dancing around the issues!" I'm not alone. Many Catholics deal with this on a regular basis, especially in the Bible Belt of the United States. Needless to say, I ended that debate abruptly by accusing him of breaking the commandment to not bear false witness against thy neighbour. I told him that I can't address several lies simultaneously, and when he's ready to have a civilised discussion about the issues, one at a time, I would be willing to talk to him. So long as he continued to lie about what I believe, the conversation was over. He then said: "Are you calling me a liar?" To which I said yes, because he's already told several untruths about my beliefs, and refused to be corrected about a single one, or even listen to a correction. The debate ended on unhappy terms, but he couldn't claim a victory out of it. His audience was left with the nagging question concerning the credibility of his claims about Catholicism. Now my response to him may sound like a cop out, but it's actually a very useful strategy. Nobody likes being called a liar. Once you do that, the burden of proof shifts onto the one creating the strawmen. He now has to prove that what he is saying is actually true. He has to prove that the Catholic teaching he "vanquished" was actually the real deal, and not a misrepresentation (strawman).
Now to be clear, I don't like calling people liars, and I almost never do it. The only time I ever employ this strategy is when the one creating the strawmen will not listen and is also using a tactic of bombardment in a cheap attempt to win a debate without really discussing the issues. It's actually a fairly rare occurrence, and not generally part of regular everyday discussion with Protestants.
Most of the time, strawman arguments come up one at a time. When that happens, you can be sure the Protestant making the misrepresentation is probably just repeating something he's heard, or is genuinely confused. This requires a response with charity and patience.
A good way to begin is to ask the Protestant to explain exactly what he thinks we believe about this issue or that. Once the explanation is complete, if it doesn't match Catholic doctrine, then simply say the following. "Wow! I see what you mean. That sounds terrible. I assure you, if the Church actually taught that, I wouldn't believe it either." Then proceed to explain what the Church actually teaches. If you're unsure as to what the Church actually teaches, then simply respond by telling them: "Hmmm. That doesn't sound right. Let me check and see what the Church actually teaches and I'll get back to you."
We have to understand that nearly every Protestant objection to Catholicism is built on a strawman of some type. It could be a very small and subtle one, or it could be an overpowering enormous one, but they are almost always strawmen. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said: "There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be." Let's face it, when the average Protestant looks at Catholicism, what he sees is not the Catholic Church, but rather a field filled with ugly scarecrows. They may not have put those scarecrows there in the first place, but who can blame them for wanting to tear them down.
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