A while back I had a—let us say, spirited—exchange with Alexia Kelley, the Executive Director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Ms. Kelley’s organization had published a statement calling for civility when Catholics disagree with each other about public policy, and I argued that the statement was in fact being used to deter pro-life Catholics from criticizing pro-choice Catholic politicians.
Now, over at Catholic World News, Diogenes offers reflections, generally consistent with my own:
I’m struck by how often Catholic controversialists admonish each other with some variation on the dictum, “in all things, charity.” I think what they are really calling for is not charity, but magnanimity and graciousness. Attractive as these qualities are, they are symptoms of charity rather than its criteria, and the confusion can work unintended mischief.
In all things, charity. No argument. Charity is not proposed to us as an invitation or an ideal but given as a command—a divine command—and we’ll all have to answer to God for our failures therein. When charity becomes a weapon in polemics, however, our theology has jumped the rails. Sometimes controversialists lob the charity grenade at their opponents in order to preempt a hostile come-back; this is what I call the “olive branch in the eye” maneuver. But even apart from cynical and manipulative intentions, the appeal to charity is inapt when made by someone with no true stake in the dispute, and it sometimes calls to mind the sanctimonious indifference mentioned in St. James (2:15f) “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day, and you say, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well’ . . . what good is it?” . . .
The gauge of authentic benevolence is not courtesy in the face of hostility, where the issue at stake is peripheral. We need to examine the case where the whole purpose and meaning of a man’s life is overthrown by the position espoused by his opponents, and especially where his opponents are on the brink of success. In such circumstances 16th century Christians took up pikes and battle-axes against their Christian adversaries—all sides with the enthusiastic blessing of their clergy. If today’s blogger forbears to take an axe to his opponent but indulges in unlovely sarcasm at his expense, we can admit that he fails in graciousness, but are we certain that he fails in charity?
I admit that, over the years, I have had a few interlocutors who, I thought, deserved a poke with a pike, but thus far I’ve always managed to settle for a poke with joke.