Bless me Father, for I have answered…
Sometimes I wonder if I will ever get online correspondence right. I do fine with complimentary messages, or sincere inquiries about the Faith. But when our correspondents blast away with both barrels—and especially when they betray a serious animosity toward the Church or Catholic teaching—well, that’s often another story.
I know that lack of time contributes to an abrupt response, but that is no excuse. Sometimes—and if this were a real confession, I would be reluctant to dwell so much on a minor mitigating circumstance—sometimes a self-proclaimed Catholic correspondent will base his or her criticisms and even personal attacks on such an astonishingly comprehensive failure to understand what it means to be Catholic that I find myself sputtering the equivalent of, “Well, if you think these things, you haven’t a clue as to what the Catholic Faith demands of you.” Or, “You are so obviously wrong on so many points that I simply don’t know where to begin, and would never end if I did.”
In other words, what I’m saying is, “You’re an idiot.”
Recently, a correspondent whom I had treated more or less in this way responded that I wasn’t even a Christian, since I condemned him for “exploring” his Faith. Of course, he wasn’t exploring, he was flat out denying. I love exploration; give me a correspondent who wants to go deeper! Nonetheless, his reply rightly highlighted my heavy-handedness and utter lack of sympathy for his confusion.
Even if I responded in this way only when I was personally certain the correspondent was not the least bit interested in what the Church really teaches about this or that point, I cannot justify the response. After all, my judgment of the correspondent’s state of mind is hardly infallible and, at the very least, a harsh and dismissive response is a failure of courtesy. It might also be a case of breaking the bruised reed or quenching the smoldering wick (Mt 12:20). That’s what I’m talking about, really: Bless me, Father, for I have answered sinfully.
Occasionally I’ll receive an encouraging email from a priest, who will also explain how he tries to get the same point across in a homily, or he will point me to something he’s written on a related topic. Naturally, I find all encouraging emails extremely helpful. Their very graciousness gives me a boost, and Lord knows we all need encouragement. But when I’m buoyed up by a priest who is in the trenches every day—and especially when he shares some of what he is doing under far more difficult circumstances than my own—it helps me more than I can say. It also puts me to shame (which is not a bad thing), and reminds me that if I am not answering others in love, then I am nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13:1).
It is easy to grow apostolically proud. I have given personal witness to this truth repeatedly in my own life. There are certainly times when I’ve been the wrong sort of object lesson to others. Yet knowing all this, I still find it difficult to answer some correspondents the way I should. Harried by time and circumstances, and put off by their tone, I respond as if Christ does not love them as much as He loves me. If I would take the time to think of it in these terms, of course, it would give me pause. And I don’t mean I’m committed to being proud, vain and overbearing as a matter of principle. But too often I think about it later and so I have to say to myself, “Well, you did it again, didn’t you.”
It would be an excellent policy to let my response to a particularly fractious email wait until the next day. If I can’t answer like a Christian then, it would be better not to answer at all. Since correspondence is an important part of our work here, I’d like to ask all who support us in prayer to pray also for the grace I need to overcome my own deficiencies.
But I’d like to get our wiser users involved in this discussion, too. If you’ve found things that work to keep you focused on the good of those who may abuse you, let me know what holy tactics you use to avoid being thrown off track. And if you’ve found a way to respond effectively—or at least without sin!—to those who are in denial about the Church or the Faith, I’d very much appreciate hearing your tips.
I’ll offer just one self-help tip of my own here (in addition to the insights suggested by the two earlier Scriptural references), for someone else might find it useful. The great Blessed John Henry Newman talked about the faculty of “Christian memory”. He encouraged everyone to bear witness to the Faith in a positive and wholesome way even when someone seemed indisposed to benefit from the witness. He said that this would be held in memory, and when the time was ripe, the Holy Spirit would unlock the memory in a way which would help the heretofore closed soul to open himself to God. I guess the point is that we need to give the Holy Spirit something to work with down the road, something more than a bad and hurtful memory.
Please send me your own thoughts, and I’ll publish the best ideas in this space. I have to believe—if only to make myself feel better—that I’m not the only one who suffers occasionally from too sharp a tone, a response that is too dismissive and demeaning. Obviously, none of us ever wants to sin while representing Christ or the Church to somebody else. Yet we sometimes do, or at least I sometimes do. Your prayers, and your suggestions, are welcome. Use the email link beneath this item, or write to me at [email protected].
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Posted by: -
Aug. 17, 2011 6:40 PM ET USA
2 things, Dr. Jeff. First, remember Jesus's own righteous anger at the moneychangers in the temple. You're not always wrong to get impatient. And B, don't forget to remind the anti-Catholics about this phantom verse, Matthew 16: 19(b), "And all men who become my priests will be made perfect, and all priests who advance higher in the church will also advance their level of perfection." After all, most anti-Catholic criticism seems to point toward that idea.
Posted by: -
Aug. 17, 2011 10:02 AM ET USA
Waiting a day or so to respond to a provocative email is the first step. Next, try to find something to validate in what the "opponent" is saying. Never tell someone they are wrong. Misinformed, perhaps. Next, walk WITH them; we are on this journey together. We can learn from critics; humility calls for that. Also, "separate" the mystical Body of Christ from the temporal Church. One is perfect, the other is not. Always ask the Holy Spirit to give you the words the other needs to hear
Posted by: -
Aug. 17, 2011 2:17 AM ET USA
I often have Facebook conversations with Catholic and non Catholic friends, and I always find two things especially helpful: waiting one day, and a glass of wine.
Posted by: bsp1022 -
Aug. 17, 2011 12:14 AM ET USA
There was one stroke of absolute brilliance IMO at the Republican debate in Iowa. A political reality, profound to the point that I miss it all the time, busy as I am thinking about myself. A kernel of truth I now have taped on my monitor at work. BE SURE YOU ARE WORKING ON THE RIGHT PROBLEM.
Posted by: wsw33410 -
Aug. 16, 2011 10:33 PM ET USA
Just keep doing what the Holy Spirit tells you to do - respond politely, but firmly; we need to defend our Church and Faith, and we cannot do it sitting quietly or being mute. One of my friends, when disagreeing, used to say: you could be right, with emphasis on COULD. God Bless you Mr. Mirus, Mr. Lawler and entire Catholic Culture team!
Posted by: howland5905 -
Aug. 16, 2011 7:50 PM ET USA
I am fond of Bishop Fulton Sheen's comment: "Win an argument, lose a soul." When confronted with someone who challenges the verities of the Faith, rather than attempting to win the argument, it can be helpful to ask, "How did you come to see it that way?"
Posted by: JP810 -
Aug. 16, 2011 7:20 PM ET USA
I believe you have to set the ground rules, first. Without it, chaos may ensue. Imagine, as an instructor, with certain pre-requistes for a course your students need to have, and they don't have it, and decided to take the course! Meaningful dialogue can't truly ensue without it. In the same way, our catholic faith presumes that we treat each other with love. However, if the other party doesn't fully understand this, then only prayer can help in these situations. There has to be love.
Posted by: kessler9569822 -
Aug. 16, 2011 6:52 PM ET USA
Don't be too hard on yourself. I am equally guilty.
Posted by: New Sister -
Aug. 16, 2011 11:57 AM ET USA
Calling someone an idiot is not necessarily uncharitable... "hypocrite" - "brood of vipers" - "would be better for him to have not been born" -"treat him as a tax collector." I think that last one needs to be practiced A LOT more these days. Think Saints John the Baptist, John Crysostom, Thomas More...
Posted by: wacondaseeds4507 -
Aug. 15, 2011 9:53 PM ET USA
The best way I know to avoid despising or being uncharitable to someone with whom I disagree or am in conflict is to pray for them. I find it impossible to simultaneously pray for and demean another. BTW, I pray for you and Phil and catholicculture.org daily, but not for this reason! The challenge of your work and the criticism it engenders requires much divine grace.