ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
Catholic News Agency
September 15, 2015
Alas, rare are those among us that have never been offended by our fellow men. The most fortunate are usually those who are in the background and keep a very low profile. They do not challenge anyone, and are thereby fairly protected from nasty and offensive remarks, many of which are triggered either by rivalry, or by jealousy, or by a radical incompatibility of temperament.
Whatever the reason may be, remarks, whether cynical, or unkind, or wounding, or aiming at ridiculing another person, are rightly experienced as painful and offensive.
In our complex human life, there are events and situations that can be differently interpreted; but there are also Weltanschauungen (world-views) that radically clash. In the narrow context of this article, I will concentrate exclusively on the fact that certain words aim at wounding the adversary, and are not directly related to the disagreement at stake.
Such words clearly aim at shooting arrows at one’s adversary with the definite intention of “wounding” him. I recall someone telling me that, “Thanks to my sensitivity, I know exactly where others are most vulnerable, and therefore know where to direct my arrows.” The attitude of those who pride themselves of having this “talent” is definitely immoral for it is loaded with poison.
One thing is to disagree with another’s views–something inevitable on this earth–another is to intend to offend. The gamut of possibility is very large: one can ridicule another person’s physical appearance, one can ridicule his background and parentage, one can ridicule his so-called talents or lack of talents. Whatever has a poisonous note is radically incompatible with love of neighbor and should be condemned.
As briefly mentioned above, there are, however, radically different kinds of disagreements: many of them refer to prudential judgments such as those related to financial, military, economic, or purely political decisions. It is conceivable that each position has some merit, and it is wise to choose the most prudent one. Some people are wiser, more far sighted, or are better informed than others. One should beware however to be motivated by one’s “unbaptized” emotions and irrational reactions.
These cases should be sharply distinguished from those clearly related to moral issues and in such cases, the views we should defend are those dictated by the moral law–of universal validity–or for Catholics, by the magisterium of the holy Church. How many Catholics, alas, forget that they and they alone are blessed by a magisterium that is being guided by God’s authority, and so they are guaranteed that they possess the truth. This certainty is an unfathomable gift. Anyone who defends a position which tramples upon the natural law, must be opposed with every possible means. Any candidate to the presidency who officially endorses abortion–the murder of the innocents–or sees homosexuality as simply another “lifestyle,” and for this “reason” defends the rights of homosexuals to get married, is to be thrown out of court without further discussion for he is in fact sapping the very foundation of any sound society.
But whatever problem we face, there is always a danger that, in the course of a discussion, one of the opponents–often times the one defending the illegitimate position–turns to insults, hoping thereby to throw his opponent off his horse.
What is of crucial interest for us is to examine the responses given by saints to offenses and to learn from them. They joyfully follow their Master, a man of sorrow, who was rejected, offended, insulted, slapped in the face, and crucified. Only those quietly hiding in unknown monasteries, are usually protected from such treatments, even though it is naïve to assume that the evil one who hates these places consecrated to God does not try to find a back entrance. To have a religious vocation does not mean that one is a saint; it only means that he sincerely intends to strive for holiness.
The first question that we should raise is the following: Should one “let” oneself be offended? That is, allow the wounding words to truly affect us, and make us lose our peace? Or should we wear a “holy protective armor,” which immediately deflects the arrows, and turns one’s attention away from oneself to the moral stain that the offender brings on his own soul?
Are saints “insensitive” just as there are people who have very thick skin, and therefore do not feel offenses? The answer is a radical “no.” Holiness certainly does not make one insensitive, but on the contrary, it cures us from self-pity and self-centeredness. The saint, or the one sincerely striving for holiness will, as soon as the poisonous arrow has wounded his heart, “baptize it by charity,” and will turn his attention to the grave offense of God which every poisonous word necessarily implies. Moreover, he should be grieved for the offender who is animated by hatred and a spirit of revenge. This attitude protects one from letting the offense wound his soul. The offender, on the other hand, has stained his soul, and unless he begs both God and his neighbor for forgiveness, he is the one that angels pity. It cannot be repeated enough: man is his own worst enemy. No other human being–vicious as his actions may be–can harm one as gravely as one can harm oneself.
The inner gesture of deflecting a painful blow received into an act of charity is one of the great lessons that saints teach us. I once was told the story of a saint, who following the example of St. John the Baptist, kept warning a sinner that he was harming his soul. As in this case, the sinner was not a powerful man; he could not possibly order that this man’s head be chopped up. Instead, he gave him a brutal slap in the face. The latter’s response was: “Hit me as much as you please, but stop offending God and harming your own beloved soul.” The latter touched by grace, asked him for forgiveness, and changed what is today called his “lifestyle.” Love of neighbor had conquered–a love which is possible only if one makes a holy detour through our Savior, a man of sorrow.
That men often disagree is necessarily linked to our earthly situation. Some human situations are so complex that they inevitably lead to conflict of opinion. Without claiming any competence on this topic, let us mention one: immigration. The very moment the word is mentioned, people’s blood pressure will immediately rise. One can concentrate on the dangers involved: for example, that opening borders is to invite undesirable characters to enter the United States—whether drug dealers or criminals. The problem is already a serious threat to the country. That this has happened is a threat and a legitimate concern. Others are conscious of the fact that there are laws which brutally tear families apart: father in one country, mother in another, children not knowing there they belong. In many cases, one must choose the lesser evil. Alas, this is often the case when the citizens of a free country go to the polls. There are obviously clear cases when making a decision is dictated by moral factors: any person with any moral sense and intelligence could not possibly vote for a Hitler, even if the other candidate is far from being satisfactory.
There are clear cases when one’s choice is morally dictated. When a candidate endorses abortion, homosexuality, or homosexual marriages: “No” is the only proper response—for the endorsement of immorality is a poison of such danger that it menaces the very survival of a country. But in such cases, it is alas, often the case that the real issue is clouded by arguments that “sound” convincing, such as, “A woman has a right to decide what she will do with her own body,” as if one’s body–a gift–was a piece of property acquired through one’s own labor, or “any love is legitimate and should be protected”—failing to mention that the word “love” implies a sincere concern about the welfare of another and this is why any homosexual practice, in fact, denies the dignity of the human person in endorsing attitudes which while “normal” on the animals level, sin against the dignity of persons.
Let me go back to my theme: it should be stated emphatically that certain disagreements are not only legitimate and even morally obligatory, but this does not justify shifting from an intellectual debate to personal insults.
Disagreements about ideas are one thing. But how often does it degenerate into personal attacks? The issue is then blurred by a note of rancor which totally obscures the real question. More than once this occurs when one of the two parties is being clearly defeated, and then turns to insults.
Cover Art: The Preaching of St. John the Baptist by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566.