Last year I wrote a post arguing for a link between civility and truth; the reason we should speak with civility in the blogosphere or anywhere else is because doing so helps us to find the truth. Understanding this connection helps us to spot those rare occasions in which a false civility actually stands in the way of the truth.
After observing some of the contentious turns discussion on Whosoever Desires has taken this month, I thought a return to this theme might be in order. St. Ignatius had a few thoughts on the subject, many of which are as useful today as they were 400 years ago.
First, a bit of background. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises are a manual for giving retreats, which the saint composed over many years based on his experiences of prayer and spiritual conversation. The first part of the manual contains “annotations” or instructions for the person conducting the retreat. “Annotation 22” is one of the best known; in fact, it’s quoted in the Catechism (#2478)—which suggests that its implications for Christian life go well beyond retreats.
In seeking to understand what Ignatius meant, a good place to start is with what Ignatius said, so here it is, Annotation 22 in full:
To assure better cooperation between the one who is giving the Exercises and the exercitant, and more beneficial results for both, it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false. If an orthodox construction cannot be put on a proposition, the one who made it should be asked how he understands it. If he is in error, he should be corrected with all kindness. If this does not suffice, all appropriate means should be used to bring him to a correct interpretation, and so to defend the proposition from error.
I insist on quoting the annotation in full because I’ve found that when it’s brought up in discussions people tend to make one of two opposite errors: they turn into either an “Orthodoxy Policeman” or “Mr. Nice.” A full reading of Annotation 22 shows that Ignatius realized both of these extremes could be harmful.
First, the Orthodoxy Policeman. While less common in our Church and general culture, this character pops up more frequently on the blogosphere. The Orthodoxy Policeman has a quota of speeding tickets he needs to issue and relishes catching offenders. He actually finds the detection of heresy a fun game and derives a certain perverse satisfaction when he notices the whiff of heterodoxy in the air.
The great error of Officer Orthodoxy, of course, is that he forgets that Christianity aims for conversion, not victory. Apologetics should bring sinners to a better appropriation of the truth and a deeper relationship with Jesus. If Officer O. sees someone driving the wrong way onto an on-ramp, he should try to get him to turn his car around instead of just calculating how big his fine should be.
None of this is to say that orthodoxy is not important. Indeed, if one’s beliefs are false, then one’s relationship with “God” will be a form of idolatry, a relationship ultimately with oneself. The whole point of Annotation 22, in fact, is to suggest the best method for defending orthodoxy. There’s not a hint of relativism in Ignatius’ words, no all-you-really-need-is-love platitudes. Ignatius prescribes all appropriate means to correct false opinion. If love is divorced from truth, it’s not really love.
Ignatius’ attitude toward the value of orthodoxy may strike some of us as uncomfortably un-modern. The reason we react this way is because most of us tend to want to be Mr. Nice. Mr. Nice just wants to get along and thinks that doctrine is divisive and oh-so-passé.
We all want to be liked, and telling someone he or she is wrong is usually not much fun for anyone involved. Notice, however, that Ignatius says that correcting someone in error is something we should do. But because he knows how difficult a thing it is to be corrected, he insists it must be done with all kindness.
I was once in a pastoral situation in which an old man I had just met unloaded all of his animosity toward the Catholic Church on me—the usual diatribe I’m sure we’ve all heard. At the end of the “conversation,” however, he said, “Well, I’m sure you’re a nice person.”
Mr. Nice might be satisfied with such an outcome, but I realized it was a disaster. It would have been far better for him—and for me—if I had walked out of that room with him thinking that I personally was a royal jerk but having his relationship with the Church still intact. His salvation, after all, has a lot more to do with his relationship to the Church than his relationship to me. Mr. Nice, at his worst, confuses the two.
In offering these two caricatures, Officer Orthodoxy and Mr. Nice, I don’t mean to suggest that the right course of action is somehow splitting the difference between them—being a little nice and a little orthodox. Instead, I think the relationship between these two values—niceness and orthodoxy—is that the former is to be used in the service of the latter, that civility is good because it serves the truth. The Gospels contain more than a few passages in which Jesus uses language that wouldn’t get him nominated as Rabbi Congeniality. We have to assume, however, that when Jesus calls Peter “Satan” or the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” he is ultimately acting out of love, that the possibility of forgiveness is implicit in the rebuke.
If I can close with my own little addendum, Annotation 22.1, it’s this: stay away from motives. If you find yourself attacking somebody’s motives, you are almost certainly violating Annotation 22.
Attributing presumed motives to others shifts the discussion away from the issue and onto the person—and thus shifts it away from the question of truth as well. Moreover, attributing motives to others always strikes a false note for me because knowing someone’s motives requires knowing their internal psychological states, a rather dubious proposition. This was brought home to me a few weeks ago in the discussion of Bishop Olmsted’s decision regarding the occasions when Communion is to be distributed under both kinds. I couldn’t help but shake my head when some of my fellow bloggers argued that his decision was really about grabbing power. Notice how this is quite a different argument than saying that his decision was wrong. I don’t mean to be overly harsh, but since for the first several days of the discussion everyone involved consistently misspelled the Bishop’s name, I really doubt that they had any special knowledge of his internal decision-making process.
I would grant a few exceptions when the discussion of opponents’ motives is necessary (in predicting future actions, for example), but on the whole a shift in the direction of “You’re only saying that because…” usually signals that one has run out of reasons for one’s own position.
And that’s a recipe for losing both charity and truth.