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.