Arguing for the sake of uniting
April 18, 2019
Last month I wrote about practicing the virtue of gratitude to foster fraternity. This got me thinking about the July Fourth holiday, which by the time you read this will have already passed, and about fraternity and the virtue of patriotism.
Father Thomas Gilby, OP, once wrote that “civilization is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue the community becomes a political community.”
That might sound negative, but I suspect that’s because we’ve forgotten how to argue properly. Argument is an art and a practice that, when done well, can lead to fraternity. Famously, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson argued constantly. But while their arguments may have damaged their personal friendship, they were both clear about the other’s patriotism.
Patriotism is a love of country and of our ideas and ideals. It is a virtue that ought to be fostered. It is often listed under the larger virtue of justice. In that context, it is defined as paying due respect to one’s country and is manifested through a willingness to serve.
Patriotism can be taken too far. We are not perfect, but then no society is, and to be patriotic is not to pretend otherwise.
What’s more, patriotism is a form of the very fraternity the church tells us is necessary for a just society. And patriotic fraternity ought to help give us the respect for each other that can foster the right kind of argument, the argument that, as Father Gilby put it, becomes dialog out of which civilization is born.
This has become more and more difficult today, as what passes for argument is actually group-think. For too many, the only thing necessary in an argument is to know to what group the other belongs. If one has spent any time on YouTube, one will find videos of talking heads “arguing.” But the descriptions of the videos often have one named person “destroying” a nameless member of an opposing group. This is all too typical today.
More distressing is that this sort of group-think politics has seeped into the church. And it happens on both sides of the political spectrum. Some time ago on Twitter a prominent cleric condemned to hell any member of Congress who voted for a bill he did not like. He did not provide countervailing arguments, even though they exist. All he wanted his followers to know was that this group deserved damnation. None of this advances the common good.
But these failures do not mean that the church bars us from arguing. The Christian life requires us always to stand for the truth, and when we disagree with others, argument is inevitable. Our Lord certainly argued with the Pharisees and Sadducees. But as Christians we ought to do so in a manner that involves back and forth, give and take, where the aim is truth and not “destroying” the other.
That takes practice, of course. Our passions can get in the way. It helps not to presume to know the motivations of other people before you talk to them. It helps to listen more than speak. This is why it is wise at times to unplug. And this is why we should cherish those public rituals like the Fourth of July holiday to focus on our love of country, on our duty to each other and to service.
Doing so helps to remind us that when we do argue, it ought to be for the sake of a fraternity that binds us together. Remembering our shared ideals emphasizes the “common” in the common good. And that’s a good thing.
Deacon Omar Gutierrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.