When I reflect on my own interaction with critics over the past year, I recall those occasions when I was decidedly not conciliatory. And in surveying various discussion groups, including some consisting only of dedicated Catholics, I’ve overheard my share of vitriolic exchanges. We’ve come to expect a low level of social discourse in political discussion, led by political advertising and the verbal maneuvering of televised debates. But there is something wrong—something spiritually wrong—when the same problem afflicts religious discussions.
Hilaire Belloc wisely wrote that the grace of God is in courtesy. Nobody likes being ignored, ridiculed, insulted or otherwise abused. Everybody appreciates being treated with respect and listened to as if his ideas matter. And while not everyone has good ideas, everyone’s ideas do matter. They give us clues to the personality, to the strengths and weaknesses of a particular character, and—perhaps most important—to the needs of a brother or sister in a family that ultimately belongs to God.
But the Christian’s call goes far beyond the mere appearance of courtesy. Our Lord requires of us a courtesy motivated by something deeper, namely charity. We all know this, yet again and again, as soon we find ourselves on opposite sides of an issue, we tend to plug our ears and hold our noses—when we should be opening our ears and biting our tongues.
Sometimes, of course, we find ourselves under deliberate and even malicious attack. At CatholicCulture.org, we receive numerous messages through our Contact form in which “unregistered visitors” simply open fire on the Faith, the Church and those who write for the site. Sometimes it is wisest to ignore such messages, especially if the nature of the correspondence and the available time suggest that we will not be in a position to make a positive impact. Similarly, there will be times when any Catholic will have little choice but to extricate himself as politely as possible from an unpleasant personal confrontation.
But often we are faced with disagreements caused by approaching similar questions from different directions or backgrounds, in which animosity, if any, is largely incidental. In such cases, both charity and good sense demand that we hold our fire long enough to understand the values and principles which have led to a contradictory statement. We need to determine, first, whether we’ve missed something significant in either our own thoughts or, as is quite likely, in our own brief comments on the subject at hand. Second, we must discover the strengths and weaknesses of this rival point of view so that we can address the comments reasonably, and even generously.
And third, precisely as a matter of charity, we are called to discern the motivation of our would-be opponent so that we can figure out whether there is something incomplete, weak or broken which cries out for help and healing. Who knows if Our Lord might choose to bestow a grace here through an unworthy servant—through you or me—if we can but hold ourselves open for the task.
This readiness to be used as a means of grace is admittedly difficult to maintain. We are proud, which translates into an excessive attachment to our own ideas, along with a corresponding contempt for contrary ideas and those who express them. And because we are proud, we are also very prickly, taking offense easily, and prone to unseemly distress when contradicted. We seem to be able to recognize the absurdity of such reactions only when we have no stake in the game.
Those of us with dogmatic personalities—and that includes many who take the Faith seriously in a hostile culture—have an additional spiritual hurdle, because we so often confuse our commitment to God’s principles with our own self-importance as God’s spokesmen. This can lead to a habit of self-righteous indignation, as if we must denounce others in defense of Christ, though to be sure He has already indicated His complete willingness to suffer disrespect in order to win hearts. This is usually a case of the servant not really following the Master.
Moreover, we have a tendency to assume that because we know we are right about some things—namely, the dogmas of the Faith—therefore we must be right about everything. But because we have the privilege of accepting the truths of Catholicism, it does not follow that our pastoral preferences are infallible, or our political insight, or our social theories, or our ability to separate truth from falsehood in other fields, or even our spiritual perception. Why then do we pronounce as Catholics on virtually everything under the sun with the same certainty which we ought to reserve for the most basic precepts of the catechism? How easily do all men and women assume the rightness of their own judgments! But in Catholics, who ought to know that they depend at all times on the most generous gifts of God, this belief in our own perfection is a particularly offensive fault.
Here's a sobering thought: The next person to contradict us (or to contradict the Church) may actually be at an early stage of his own interior journey home. Now it just so happens that, for better or worse, in almost every discussion we ourselves represent home. A harsh word now may drive this person away. A good rule of thumb is that we need to know someone extremely well and have a pre-existing relationship with him if we are to be in any position to speak harshly, and then only as a last resort. We dare not break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick (Is 42:3; applied to Christ in Mt 12:20). But I know I have done it. Have you?
Therefore, as we begin a new year and consider our own resolutions, I’d like to recommend that we all strive to discuss the issues that animate CatholicCulture.org with greater charity. I don’t mean so much on the website itself, for we have precious little opportunity for discussion here, except for just a bit of it in Sound Off! or via email. I am referring instead to the deliberate and persistent cultivation of charity in our discussions with those who are not part of the CatholicCulture.org family.
Our purpose—the purpose of all those who take seriously the issues presented through CatholicCulture.org—is to enrich faith, strengthen the Church and form Catholic culture. These tasks are, inescapably, oriented toward others. None of this can be done without love and, in most cases, the first opportunity to show love is in how we talk with others.
Charity in discussion: This could easily be the most important thing we accomplish in the New Year and beyond.