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Our Collective Wisdom: Responding Properly

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 18, 2011

It is time to unveil the wisdom of the many users who have kindly submitted their thoughts on how best to respond to those who condemn or rudely challenge the Church, the Faith and the related positions we must take in defending and advancing a Catholic worldview. You may recall that I requested such advice because I too often find myself answering harshly or dismissively (see Bless me Father, for I have answered…).

I am deeply impressed by the responses, and I suspect they will be helpful to most of us. In what follows, I’ve taken the liberty of organizing the various points under a series of general headings, making it a little easier to discern some of the trends.

First, I should thank the large number of respondents who offered encouragement, making the important point that occasional failures to respond appropriately should not cause us (or me, in this case) to quit trying. The vast majority of responses included this sort of encouragement, which I appreciate. Now on to the other major areas of input:

Charity and Humility

Most writers recognized that charity and humility are at the heart of our ability to respond appropriately to challenges either to the Faith or to our own positions. But the richness of the comments was striking, exploring various aspects of these vital attitudes. For example, Jim Grumblatt of Richmond, Virginia tied charity and humility to the personal nature of all testimony to Christ:

I believe it is our example to others that gives the greatest testimony to Our Lord. It is through His grace alone that all such testimony is possible. I strive to see in each human being that immortal soul created in God's image and likeness. After years of working in the healthcare field, I have come to the realization that we are all remarkably similar in our insecurities, our innermost fears, and in our desire for salvation. Nonetheless, true charity, while at times perhaps painfully honest, will always be softened by Christ's love and the humility to trust Our Lord to handle the rest.

Irene Swanson of Parkland, Florida expresses herself very differently from Jim, but she made a similar point in emphasizing what we might call the “loveliness” of the other person in the exchange:

I asked Father God to show me what HE loves about those particular person(s) I may be having difficulty respecting/loving. Show me just ONE thing, ONE talent, ONE fact that YOU, O Lord, love, so that I may love him/her, too. Lo and behold, I began to not only see one thing, but having seen it, others followed. These talents then became my focus in the relationship/discussion and the springboard from which our conversations could more fruitfully develop.

Another user, Peter Downing, put the matter in very practical terms, recognizing that, in any discussion, there are some things we can control and some things we cannot:

Try to keep in mind two things: When others goad us and elicit hostility from us we lose and they can point out that we are not acting the Christian part. Unfortunately they are sometimes right. And second, be humble. We can stand up for what we believe in without getting angry, knowing all the while that our interpretation of the facts may not mesh with others' perceptions, and that's okay, too.

Brian Jenkins of Montreal, Canada recommended actively reflecting on the love of Christ, which after all is the source of our own charity, as we deal with hard cases. He’s learned this in the trenches:

Deliberating on Christ's message of love has been a source of support, coupled with giving myself time, in dealing with hostile persons. For example, in the counseling and praying I do outside abortuaries, I frequently receive unkind words and body language. My reflections on the love of God as well as Our Lord's passion have been supportive in coping.

Finally, writing from a military assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan, Therese Pawlowski brought me up short with a very succinct comment about the important role true humility can play in setting the groundwork for a discussion:

I try not to default to the assumption that it is my good example or faith that is offending them, because my sinful and flawed nature certainly merits contempt.

In other words, maybe it’s not resistance to Christ that is causing the problem. Maybe it’s just me. If that doesn’t give pause to a Catholic apologist, nothing will.

Delaying Tactics

Most contributors similarly recommended delay in responding to those who are demanding or abusive in content or tone. I had mentioned this possibility when I introduced the topic, and it is apparently a common tactic among those with experience. Jonathan Cutting of Keizer, Oregon offered perhaps the most colorful description of this approach:

I write my response as quickly and as angry as I like, and then save it to my drafts folder where I let it sit for part of the day, or longer if I feel I have the luxury of the extra time. Then I come back to it and read the initial email and my saved response. That’s pretty eye-opening, even shocking. I am usually amazed at how crass or unfeeling I can be. Often I rewrite the entire response, while giving thanks to God that I had the presence of mind while in the heated moment of my first response not to hit Send. Then I print off my response and read it out loud.

After that, the response is (usually) safe.

Discerning God’s Message

A number of respondents emphasized the importance of trying very hard to answer as God would want us to answer, with words that God can make effective. One way or another, this must always involve prayer, by which we ask God’s help and attempt to see with God’s eyes. Once again, Peter Downing cut to the chase:

Pray for the offending party and to try to make that your first thought upon encountering unkind people.

Morag Marinoni’s response from Birmingham, England, described her approach to tough exchanges with her non-Catholic friends and relatives where, obviously, special care is needed. Her message was this: Over a period of several days, pray, write, pray, reread, wait, reread, pray again, print and reread, pray more—well, you get the idea. Like Jon Cutting, Morag finds that rereading the message in printed form reveals a great many errors. She concludes:

All this caution plus the printed page show up the worst errors I have made, those of exasperation, conceit, and pride, carefully hidden and entirely unconscious behind some highfalutin sentence! When I reach the stage that I do not want to send my letter at all, and my correspondent will have to be left to the Almighty's mercy, I do a last check for typos and incorrect grammar, PRAY, and hit Send.

One user who prefers to use the pseudonym of Pseudodionysius emphasized a slightly different way to attempt to adopt God’s own viewpoint:

It’s easy to get wrapped up in responding to certain challenges to our Faith but if you take the long view and look at the response as something you want them to be able to mine for wisdom years from now I think it will curb the temptation to write something that satisfies a momentary impulse at the expense of timeless insight. Looking at things over a longer time horizon begins to give us a glimpse of how God views such matters and leaves us more concerned with eternal things than with ephemeral things.

There’s considerable wisdom in that exercise, and also in the contribution of the Dominican Timothy Combs, who recommends that we try always to attract others to God’s beauty, rather than to cite rules they cannot yet grasp:

I maintain that, in most cases, the best policy is to present the beauty of the Faith as something that is so attractive that one would have to be insane not to want to follow it to the letter. In other words, more an ethic of beatitude than an ethic of obligation.

Discerning Time and Energy

Part of discerning God’s own viewpoint is to discern the nature of the situation itself. There are only so many hours in the day, and every worker—including workers in Our Lord’s vineyard—must use his energies where they can do the most good. Not a few suggested that if a particular correspondent seems completely closed to whatever you might say, then it may be the best course simply not to respond at all, or at least not get drawn into a time-consuming exchange.

I have no doubt that such a determination is sometimes the better part of valor. We simply cannot undertake to solve every problem. But Carol Uhlarik of Elk Grove Village, Illinois warns that, at least in many cases, “the absolute worst response is no response at all.” Carol recommends at least a brief courteous reply thanking the correspondent for writing.

A variation on the need to husband our resources is offered by Deacon Philip Rogerson of Birmingham, England:

One piece of advice I learnt at our diocesan seminary (Birmingham, England) is that it is not always necessary to answer every question you're asked. We need discernment to identify the motivation behind a question. If the reason for asking is to mock, to scoff or to give an opportunity to air a particular grievance against the Church, the best reply may be simply to say, "I'm not going to answer you." Telling someone that you have chosen not to answer their demands may make them stop and ponder their own motivation for asking.

Our Dominican Brother Timothy also cites Aquinas to make a significant distinction in the nature of our responsibilities in those cases when a more detailed response is called for:

The Angelic Doctor distinguished thus: When a detractor makes his objections to the Faith public, the sort of public response that is called for is one that is strong, authoritative, and not lacking in gravity. This is so as to illustrate for others the real danger of deviating from the truth God has revealed to us. Contrarily, in a private exchange, when speaking only to the detractor, it is then that Paul's admonition to speak with patience and gentleness applies.

My friend John Pretz, right here in Manassas, Virginia, advises against getting bogged down with those who do not seem sincerely open to discussion. He’s another example of the important school of thought which teaches us to apply our energies where they can do the most good, but with a slightly different twist:

[If] they are not concerned with the Truth, they will not consult authoritative documents even if you cite them. But I would cite them anyway and be done with them. Casey Stengel said “you could look it up.” If I were you, I would say the same thing.

Obviously, discernment of motivation is critical, and we cannot expect to discern infallibly. But time and energy are very practical concerns. Sometimes, we really do have to cut our losses. Better to do so by quickly citing an authority, or by referring someone to a relevant author, than through denunciation.

Inviting a True Exchange

Several of those who generously gave their time and insights to this project suggested approaches which should increase the chances of engaging someone in a true exchange of ideas. A good example is Lt. Daniel Qualk of Norman, Oklahoma:

When I am angry with someone, to be frank, for being an idiot, I will usually try to point out something that we agree on and attempt to praise them for that thing, especially if it is something that I missed. So I will say something like, I agree with this thing that you said and that is a good point, however this or that is still the case.

Drawing on professional experience in getting people to talk about what lies at the heart of things, Michael Brown, MD, a Psychiatrist from College Station, Texas, suggests the following technique, without at all forgetting the need for a certain efficiency:

I have found that inviting such correspondents to share the basis for their expressed opinions or beliefs often gives me a place to start my end of the conversation, and shares the responsibility for a reasoned discussion. You then have an entry to reply, succinctly, with a correct answer, and a reference for them (fact for fact, not opinion for opinion), and you’re out from under the correspondence. An unwillingness by your correspondent to be so engaged provides confirmation of your initial impression, and guides your next response to a gentle but rapid termination of the exchange.

Awareness of Role, Purpose and Presence

Two of our respondents, I thought, were especially helpful in shifting the focus of an exchange with others from the particular conversation to the larger role or purpose. Narda Bean ( wrote:

What has helped me is what a Priest once told me, that I must strive to always demonstrate the Love of God as I may be the ONLY Bible that someone may ever read.

John Hiner, Jr. of Newark, Delaware made a similar point in a more theological way:

It is useful to remember that the actual purpose of one’s writing is to give glory to God. Even the conversion of a disputatious correspondent is a mere instance of this higher and ultimate goal.

Responding to the fact that I had cited two Scriptural passages to offer insight in my original essay, John also emphasized two of his own, in the effort to avoid sinful replies:

The two Scripture passages which support these approaches are: “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil” (Mt 5:39) and “See that no one returns evil for evil; rather, always seek what is good for each other and for all” (1Thes 5:15; cf. Rom 12:21).

I thought John also offered one of the more unique “tactics” for avoiding untoward replies. I think I’ll put this one on the top of my computer screen as a reminder:

It may be helpful to remember that no letter is between the two parties. Keeping this in mind helps me with difficult correspondence. At the General Judgment all secrets will be known. We are now surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” who know what we do and say. Even in a mundane sense, with copying and publishing to the world well within any internet user’s reach, one cannot assume that a writing will remain private.

Expecting the Unexpected

Several writers reminded me that we are inescapably fallible, and that while we ought certainly to be able to learn to avoid mortal sin, sometimes we’re going to let our human weakness show in a response, or even just say the wrong thing through no fault of our own. Trust in God is imperative.

On this score, the experience of Thomas Gillespie was reassuring. God can and does bring good out of evil. Here’s how Tom described what caused him to become serious about the Faith after a period of laxity and rebellion. It began with a discussion with a priest, during which Tom stated that there seemed to be “something inappropriately magical about the Catholic sacraments”. Things seemed to go downhill from there, or did they?

I expected a good theological conversation, a back-and-forth. Instead, the priest (who was actually a kind man) simply SNAPPED at me, “Well, if you believe that then just leave the Church.” I was shocked. He wasn’t fatherly, patient, or even particularly nice—he didn't INDULGE me. He was positively churlish. Yet at the instant that he said that, I realized I DIDN’T WANT to leave the Church. I loved the Church—it was my spiritual home. Yet I didn't really realize I felt that way until this priest abruptly showed me the exit.

Tom does not justify the priest; but he recognizes with gratitude what God did with the response. Some others who wrote in suggested that a harsh response was sometimes justified, and cited Christ’s harsh words, for example to the Pharisees, as an example. They have a point, of course, but the huge caveat is that Our Lord’s discernment of souls is infallible, and ours is not. I’d want at least to have the grace of priestly office and know a particular soul fairly well before I would risk saying I had “taken him down a peg” spiritually without sin.

But I distinguish this from legitimate anger, which is justified in some situations, as long as one’s temper is not “lost”. Legitimate anger may be forceful and even harsh, but it does not belittle or demean. Still, Tom Gillespie’s insight is crucial: God can use even our mistakes for good. That does not justify our mistakes, but it is a fine warrant for continuing the effort to do things right.

Finally, one writer, who must be anonymous, sent me a message which perhaps I am now in a better position to appreciate, since I’ve had significant help from my friends:

I appreciated your “Bless me, Father” editorial. Your tone in the past has indeed put me off quite frequently. To me, you often sound as if you are angry at the world in general and that you enjoy “sounding off”. Choosing your words carefully and keeping a positive, supportive tone is always helpful.

That is actually fairly gentle, and I can tell you one thing: I did not send off a hellish reply. Moreover, I live in hope that someday, by God’s grace, a hellish reply will no longer be hard to resist!

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: timothy.op - Aug. 19, 2011 11:48 PM ET USA

    This was both fun and fruitful! Perhaps a collective 'sharing with one another the wisdom you receive,' could become a periodic exercise?

  • Posted by: - Aug. 19, 2011 7:32 PM ET USA

    If one does a lot of writing there is a temptation to read quickly and superficially, and then respond to what one ASSUMES the person is saying--rather than the actual words. But if one does not have time to really read and understand the other person's point of view, there is not time to respond at all. As noted by some, sometimes the best response is no response--or a generic acknowledgement.