Tips for Disagreeing With Others

I am going to point out the giant elephant in the room--we live in a divided Church.


I know, I know, it's shocking. But let's be real. The shocking part is not that the Church is divided--this is a reality that we have faced from her very beginning (cf. Galatians 2:7-14). However, when someone is actually willing to acknowledge this fact and challenge it - it makes us uncomfortable. Far too often we are content with turning away from disagreement because it is simply easier to not acknowledge it than deal with the potential fallout.


I had an experience in one of my classes recently where a contentious issue in liturgy was discussed. The make-up of the class is pretty diverse: there are men and women, lay and religious, so called "traditionalists" and "progressives" (though I hesitate to use these terms because I think they are so limited--but that is a discussion for another time). None of us walked away from the class feeling as though the issue had been solved.  However, most of us walked away with a greater appreciation for those with whom we disagreed.


How do we actually engage those with whom we disagree, and not resort to factionalism and animosity? I have a few tips:

1) Always presume the goodwill of the other.

While it may be easier to paint those with whom I disagree as "out of touch" or "uninformed," the reality is that most people come to their decisions about things based on personal experiences that they have had. Thomas Aquinas notes that human beings are always seeking the good.1 In other words, most people (unless they have serious psychological problems) always strive toward ends which are good, and thus make decisions that hopefully will help them to achieve that good. Granted: we fall short and do not always choose the proper means to our desired end (this is the basis of sinning), but most people generally have good intentions.


As a result, we Christians are called to presume that the person wills the good in practice. This is in part because we can never know for sure what a person's intentions are--and God is the ultimate judge both of our intentions and chosen actions: "For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things."2


2. Never Deny, Seldom Affirm, and Always Distinguish

Never Deny: This is an old Dominican adage that I learned from my Novice Master (Fr. Bob Keller, O.P.). It is based on the Catholic principle that truth can never contradict truth.3 One thing that drives me up a wall about post-modernism is the statement, "Well, that may be YOUR truth...." Principles are either true or false; they are not subjective.


Seldom Affirm: On the other hand, I must abandon the pretense that I know everything. Such a pretense is based out of the vice of pride. I can, at the same time, hold firm in something that I know to be true, while also acknowledging something that is true about another person's belief. Doing so will not somehow negate my position. In fact, if I am confident that my belief is true, then I should have no fear of acknowledging the truth of another's statement.


Always Distinguish: I can acknowledge the truthful part of what a person is saying, without having to accept their entire statement. Thomas Aquinas is an exemplar for this. In the Summa Theologiae he craftily distinguishes those parts of arguments which are true and those which are false. In this way we can arrive more fully at knowing the Truth, who as we know is a person: Jesus Christ.4


3. Charity must always prevail

As Saint Paul tells the Corinthians: "At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love."5


If my relationship with God is not disposing me to be charitable with others, then I need to re-examine the quality of that relationship. If disagreeing with someone makes me resentful toward others, then I need to look inwardly at my own heart. I need to be open to God's work of conversion, and be honest about the areas in which I resist that conversion.


4. Above all: Separate the person from their opinion

I need to acknowledge that when I look at another, I am looking at someone made in the Image of God. The Catechism says this very eloquently: "All [human beings] are called to the same end: God himself. There is a certain resemblance between the unity of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God."6


Acknowledging the Imageo Dei in others obliges that I distinguish people from their opinions. This is very difficult, however because it is a behavior not modeled well in public.  Consider our politicians for example.  A better place to search for a close approximation to the behavior we seek is often our families. We all acknowledge that many of our families have some degree of dysfunction, yet we continue to love those members of our families with whom we disagree.



The bottom line is that conflict is difficult, and none of us like it. Yet, Christ calls us to love and charity:


"Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."7