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Friday, June 5, 2009

Stating the Truth with Charity

As Catholics, we have received the promise by Our Lord Jesus Christ that the Church contains the fullness of His truth, revealed to us through the Scriptures, Tradition, and the Magisterial teachings of the bishops in union with the Pope. As a priest, this is an area of great comfort to me, as I know that when I teach what the Church proclaims, I am teaching the Gospel that Christ gave to us.

There is a danger in this comforting promise of revealed truth, a danger that the anonymous nature of the Internet makes it more easy to fall into. This danger is being so sure of the truth that one loses all charity.

I was reminded of this last night as part of a discussion on Fr. John Zuhlsdorf's Z-Chat. The discussion was on modesty in dress, especially when attending Mass. We were trying to figure out a charitable way to encourage modesty, and were finding several good ways (parish provides blankets or robes, priest or ushers politely explain the necessity of modesty, etc.) when one participant kept "stirring the pot". She kept repeating that "Padre Pio would immediately have those dressed immodestly escorted out of the church," and was unwilling to consider any other option. Several of the moderators privately warned her of her behavior, which as being disruptive and arrogant. Finally, we had no choice but to remove her from the discussion, as she had left any sense of civility behind.

Now, was there anything wrong with what she said? No, she was right on. In the case of a woman who refuses to cover up after being warned about immodest dress, the appropriate action would be to ask her to leave. It might sound rude or prudish, but gross immodesty by women has a grave effect on men, and would represent a near occasion of sin for most men. In charity to the members of the congregation, it would be best for someone who is dressed immodestly to come back when they are dressed appropriately if they refuse to cover up when asked.

The problem the moderators had with this chat participant was the tone presented by her comments. Throughout the discussion, she became arrogant and belligerent. When asked to tone down her attitude, she would immediately fire back, "Show me what I said wrong?" She refused to admit that she had done anything wrong, but placed the blame at others.

I tell this story because it shows how not to state the truth. She was completely, 100% correct about the teachings of the Church, but there was no charity in her statements. Her viewpoint was that she was right, everyone else who disagreed was wrong, and since they're wrong, she had to force them to agree with her. This attitude will not spread the Gospel message of Christ, it will chase people away from it.

So, how do we spread the Gospel with charity? Is it possible to tell the truth in a way that won't turn someone away without watering it down? The answer to the second question is an unqualified 'yes'. Yes, it is very much possible to spread the truth without unnecessarily making someone angry or upset. The first step is coming to realization that we might have the truth presented by Christ, but we are imperfect beings that will get things wrong. We might not understand as well as we think. We might misrepresent the teachings through bad choices of words. We might allow our personal biases or failings to inadvertently color the teachings of the Church. However it happens, we cannot think for one second that we have any sense of infallibility.

Once we realize our own fallibility, we can be more open to understanding where the other person is coming from. They may be open to what we have to say, if we present it gently and with respect. If we cram it down their throats, they'll respond in kind. In physics, there is a principle: every action has an equal, but opposite, reaction. The same applies in conversations with others. If you're rude and arrogant, you'll get the same reaction. If you're kind and respectful, while not watering down the truth, you may find them more open to the discussion and learning from the truth. It's not a hard and fast rule as emotions frequently get involved, but "sugar catches more flies than vinegar". You get better results from presenting the truth with respect.

Going along with the fallibility of us mere mortals, it helps to have a healthy level of humility. Be ready to apologize for anything but the truth. If your tone makes them upset, take a deep breath and honestly apologize. If you use a bad choice of words or example, apologize for that. Don't apologize for the teachings of the Church, but be willing to apologize for anything you say or do that makes it more difficult for the truth to come through.

Throughout our conversations, we need to remember that not everyone is open to the Gospel at the moment you may be talking with them. You may seem to get nowhere and walk away discouraged, but if you keep a level head and treat the other person with respect, it will make a difference. Conversion story after conversion story of those who came home to the Catholic Church emphasize that there were frequently Catholics who spoke the truth with respect and love. The convert didn't agree at first, maybe even argued strongly against the Church, but over time the truth presented with love won them over.

We also need to live the Gospel if we're going to bring it to others. If we talk about how Jesus loves us and wants us to love our neighbors, but don't show that same love others in our daily lives, we will be rightfully written off as hypocrites. To love our neighbor means to desire the best for them, and we need to do this even to the point of total self-giving. Our example says far more than our words.

We live in a culture that is truly hungering for the truth, but needs to be led to it. Just as someone who is starving for food will choke if you try to shove a steak his throat, those to whom we proclaim the truth will choke on it if we present it with arrogance and self-righteousness.

16 comments:

Brother Charles said...

Amen. That was a tough discussion, and, if the Spirit wills, I hope everyone who was there last night gets to your post.

It's true what you say about the internet and how it is often a poor venue for such debates. I occasionally receive emails from people who seem to be trying to lure me into some kind of theological or scriptural debate. Thanks to gmail's "canned responses" I have a saved email that I send them, explaining that I don't find email a helpful medium for discussing such things, and the person might to be better to contact his pastor or consult the Catechism or (if they are in the States) the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults.

Thanks for the post!

CUAguy said...

Father,

Thanks for your post on this. I hope that everyone who reads this can get a little something from it. Ultimately, it was a hard decision that had to be made.

I really like the paragraph about our fallibility. The one thing that I think is that with the medium that was used, it was, and always will be hard to communicate ideas clearly, especially since some of us, me especially, can't always express themselves clearly when speaking.

Thanks for your thoughts about last night.

Aristotle A. Esguerra said...

"Just as someone who is starving for food will choke if you try to shove a steak his throat, those to whom we proclaim the truth will choke on it if we present it with arrogance and self-righteousness."

Well stated. If only the lesson were understood and lived by more of us.

Not being privy to the direct discussion, I can't comment on it. But it reminds me enough about my blustery, righteous early days in blogging about the state of church music that doubtless turned readers against the information I shared—and inasmuch as it was direct Church teaching, the Church herself.

It also reminded me of a realization I made four years ago about arguing for my understanding of the Church's point of view:

"Believe me, I'm an aesthetic snob. However, I will not ram my preferred style of music down anyone’s throat so that they associate the sublimity of the music with my aesthetic terrorism, and be forever turned off of it because of my attitude...Your marketing must be as beautiful and sincere as the product you’re selling...even if it is rejected by your audience. Nay, especially if it is rejected by your audience."

Everything I've read regarding your approach in the chatroom has been positive. That you live St. Paul's exhortation is a very hopeful sign for the people you encounter—not that it makes anything easier for you!...

Anonymous said...

The point of fraternal correction I thought was to point out what is wrong. It's not uncharitable to say something is objectively a better way. Also, I should point out, that one priest said in the chat (*and this was the point that the priests were defending) that it was good for a woman to come into a Mass dressed in a bikini. Because I said that such a woman should be escorted out, so not to be scandal to the rest for various reasons, and to instruct the woman in the gravity of the circumstance, and to honor God first and foremost, you write a lengthy blog about how I am "arrogant" and a "hypocrat".

Anonymous said...

I could say same thing of you for holding and reaffirming what you believe to be correct, but THAT would be uncharitable.

Anonymous said...

Or if I published what was said to me in private... that would be uncharitable, wouldn't it? I think also joking at other people's expense and calling them names (nerd, arrogant, comparing them to the Pharasees) is unpriestly, and always uncharitbale.

Anonymous said...

That chat room was bullying someone else before I intervened attempting to be a mediator. It is not a good place for a pious-hearted person. You did me and the other guy, and anyone else you've done this to, a favor. But I wanted to make sure I knew who you were so I found your blog.

Father Cory Sticha said...

"subtuum" (I use your handle from the chat room as I don't have your real name),

Welcome to my blog! Please know that you are always welcome here.

The point of fraternal correction I thought was to point out what is wrong. It's not uncharitable to say something is objectively a better way.

I'd encourage you to read the first paragraph after I explain what happened last night. I said, "She was completely, 100% correct about the teachings of the Church, but there was no charity in her statements." I stand by that. You were 100% correct, but being 100% correct is not enough. We must never engage fraternal correction in a way that is harsh or unnecessarily antagonistic. We must find a way to tell the truth, without watering it down, that will allow the other person to be open.

Father Cory Sticha said...

Because I said that such a woman should be escorted out, so not to be scandal to the rest for various reasons, and to instruct the woman in the gravity of the circumstance, and to honor God first and foremost, you write a lengthy blog about how I am "arrogant" and a "hypocrat".

You completely missed the point of this post and why you were kicked out of the chat room last night. It wasn't because you disagreed with Fr. Charles and myself. Not at all. We agreed with you on that, maybe not the exact approach you would take, but we agreed with you.

What upset Fr. Charles, myself and the other moderators was the tone you presented to us. I don't know how much exposure you have to Internet chat and discussion forums, but one has to be very careful about how your words come across. You came into this chat room, apparently for the first time, and became very aggressive and harsh in your statements. You judged that we were attacking the other participant, who apparently didn't feel the same way as he left on good terms, and jumped in on us. You repeatedly condemned us, saying "awful people" and "shame on you". You also took the entire conversation completely out of context. At no point did a priest say "that it was good for a woman to come into a Mass dressed in a bikini." In fact, we specifically discussed other options, such as having robes or blankets for the women to wear in order to be modestly covered.

Father Cory Sticha said...

I could say same thing of you for holding and reaffirming what you believe to be correct, but THAT would be uncharitable.

Why? We agree that women should not come to Mass dressed immodestly. The only difference is that you wanted them escorted out immediately with a rebuke, while Fr. Charles and I were looking for options to educate without chasing them away from the Church. That is what I believe, and that is what I was trying to tell you during the chat.

I think also joking at other people's expense and calling them names (nerd, arrogant, comparing them to the Pharasees) is unpriestly, and always uncharitbale.

This was on an Internet chat room. Many there, myself included, go to have a light-hearted discussion where occasional items of a serious nature are brought up. Yes, joking is going to occur. That's the nature of the medium and why people are there. Besides, our home is in Heaven, we don't need to take this one too seriously. I still encourage you to read up on St. Philip Neri, and I would add St. Don Bosco as well. Both used very frivolous means to teach very serious matters to great effect.

I would also like to point out that you were upset that priests weren't challenging these women for their immodest dress, yet got upset when a priest challenged you on your arrogant tone and Pharisaical attitude. You can't have it both ways. As a priest, I should either challenge improper attitudes or not.

Father Cory Sticha said...

That chat room was bullying someone else before I intervened attempting to be a mediator.

Perhaps you should have spent a little more time watching before jumping in "as Self-Appointed Moderator of this discussion". (Your exact words from the chat log.) That was your judgment from the beginning, and you let it color your judgment of myself, Fr. Charles and the others in the chat room. That is unjust and uncharitable.

I wanted to make sure I knew who you were so I found your blog.

You found me. I don't hide behind a pseudonym, nor do I feel it necessary.

I'm not perfect, but tried with all charity to reason with you. I'm sorry that the discussion didn't go the way you would have preferred, but I make no apologies for what was said.

Please know that you are welcome here at the blog at any time. May God's blessing be upon you!

jennywren said...

Hi Fr. Cory,

Glad to find your blog and glad to see a post about last night's discussion. I was very disturbed by it and have thought about it much since then. I have always been the "ultraconservative" in the room and the one unyielding in my insistence in the "right" way at no cost and that "love of neighbor" sometimes includes harsh Truth. After last night, I see the damage this attitude has.
One phrase kept coming to my mind....."you may win the battle with being 'right' but you will lose the soul for Christ."
Another phrase that keeps coming to my mind is "there's a ditch on each side of the road and just like you have your ultraliberal- hippy-womynpriests-clown mass goers, you also have those people in ditch on the other side of the road that are so extreme and rigid in their views that they no longer have influence in society. Remember our Lord reached out to sinners and forgave them. He did not sin himself in that world in an effort to fit in, but he was enough "in" the world to have an influence. And, well, yes, He was God, so that helped a bit. :)
I smile when I'm reading all of this, because I am usually the one in Subtuum's position, so to see the other side of the argument (for this normally bullheaded woman) was enlightening. Subtuum was correct in her desire for modest dress, but her attitude brings great potential for losing souls for Christ. And, unfortunately, by the looks of her comments here on your blog, she maintains this stance. Prayers are needed!
Thank you, Fr. Cory for answering the call to be a Priest! Thank you for all that you do. I, for one, was so glad you were in there last night.

jennywren said...

P.S. As a woman, I felt "bullied" for my gender until Fr. Cory and the other priest stepped in. There was no bullying going on on their end....it was "defense" of broad generalizations and rude language. I am still shaking my head in disbelief at the uncharitable language and attitude! This is not how you win souls! I'm praying for all involved!

makemeaspark said...

I would just like to point out that it is not gossip or uncharitable to discuss an anonymous person, when that person's reputation could not possibly be harmed.

Fr. Cory has a real Pastors heart and is very patient and kind. He would be an excellent resource for thoughtful discussion.

Father Cory Sticha said...

Thanks to all of you for your kind comments of support. Please keep "subtuum" in your prayers, and keep me in them as well. We both need them so that the Gospel may continue to be spread throughout the world.

ductapeguy said...

Thank you Father Cory for thoughtfully and prayerfully reflecting upon what must have been an uncomfortable situation.

I'd like to elaborate upon an element that you touched briefly upon. Misunderstandings and strong emotions may sometimes flare up on internet and text chats because of the imperfections of the medium. Plain text (even with emoticons) cannot convey the nuances and inflections of the spoken word. Further, because people see their computers as part of their inner sanctum, or in the case of podcasts may listen right inside their ears, one may easily be drawn to strong emotions where it would not occur in face to face discourse. In fact there is a term on the internet, that describes how normal, rational people can turn quite unreasonable on the net. You can google John Gabriel's Greater Internet D***wad Theory.

If I find I'm getting hot under the collar over an internet discussion or forum, I give myself until tomorrow to respond. Usually time allows me to sort out the important issues from the emotions.

Most of all, as you eloquently stated need to treat others charitably and respectfully, as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is not to say that we compromise the Gospel but that we charitably, humbly and sometimes quietly stand up for it. I only pray that I can bear this kind of witness.

In the spirit of this discussion, and of standing behind what you say, I'm Sean McGaughey from the Catholic Roundup podcast.
Thank you Father Cory for sharing some of your ministry online.