During this Jubilee of Mercy, the faithful not only are invited to open our hearts and receive God’s mercy, but we also are called to give mercy. That is, we are charged with extending Christ’s mercy to others in more effectual ways. Oftentimes, however, it seems extending mercy to strangers to us is far easier than extending mercy to those closest to us. That’s especially true when we’re trying to discuss life issues with friends and family who might not believe the teachings of the Church.
When we address hot-button issues — like abortion, contraception and euthanasia — with someone with whom we have an intimate connection, it can be the occasion of a real flare-up. We care about the issues, and we care about the person, and we want the two to coincide. So, we tend to become headstrong and go in with guns blazing.
“Truth is black and white, but people are gray,” said Joan Watson, the director of adult formation for the Diocese of Nashville, Tennessee, as well as a blogger and speaker. “And many times, you try to have these difficult conversations without first trying to understand their lives, their hurdles and their crosses. It’s not that there isn’t a truth, or that we don’t preach the truth, but it’s about how we preach the truth. We must walk the fine line of preaching the truth (not watering it down) but preaching the truth in love. That means finding ways to bring that truth to the wounded people in our lives and to teach them in ways that they can understand without shutting them down.”
Knowledge is key
Before we can share Church teaching with others, we must first understand it ourselves, Watson explained. It’s important to educate ourselves about the reasons behind Church teaching on life issues and recognize that they are beautiful, healthy, reasonable and life-changing.
“I think one of the first steps is educating ourselves on the ‘why’ of Church teaching. We will never win arguments just saying ‘because the Church says so,’” she said.
The best way to approach a potentially heated conversation is to first make sure that we are calm, kind and merciful. Then, we need to be sure to ask guiding questions so that we can understand this person’s point of view. We shouldn’t fear hearing the other side of the issue. In fact, that lets the other person know that we care more about them than about winning the argument.
“Our goal is to speak the truth when we have the chance to do so,” said Marcel LeJeune, a Catholic author, speaker and campus minister. “We don’t have control over others. God leaves such things up to our free will, and he respects it so much that he will even let us choose not to believe in him or love him. So, as followers of God, we, too, need to respect free will. Propose, but never impose our viewpoint. This will help us to maintain the proper perspective. Mercy is love for those that don’t necessarily deserve it. This is the state of all humanity before God — we all are in need of mercy.”
Sometimes, we’re caught in a situation in which the same difficult topic continues to come up. Take, for example the situation of a recent high school graduate, Sophia (not her real name), who stayed with an aunt and uncle for three months. During that time, an elderly neighbor who suffered poor health and constant pain expressed her wish to “walk into nature” as some indigenous peoples do in order to wait for death to come. That prompted an extended conversation about euthanasia. Sophia’s aunt, who is agnostic, felt that the neighbor had every right to euthanize herself.
“I understand how there can be a somewhat romantic notion about choosing how and when we go, but I know that our God is a God of mercy and love and knows what is best for us,” Sophia said. “So, knowing what I know and being sure about it, our conversation was less about trying to convince each other of what was right and wrong and more about our different belief structures.”
Her aunt wouldn’t tell Sophia blatantly that she was wrong, but she clearly didn’t agree. Rather, she acquiesced to Sophia’s right to have her own “truth.”
“The conversation ended, as most of our conversations do, with us agreeing to disagree. While I don’t agree with her beliefs, I do respect her and was not going to elevate the discussion to an argument. If anything, after our conversation, I could see more clearly that what I had been taught about euthanasia was definitely the truth and had greater understanding of the arguments for it, which will only help me defend life in the future,” she said.
Listen with mercy
If at all possible, avoid agreeing to disagree, advised Dr. Greg Popcak, director of CatholicCounselors.com. That can be difficult to do, but there are ways to work around it.
First, take the focus off the issue itself and place it on the person before you. Ultimately, Popcak said, religious and ideological debates are all personal.
“They’ve been disguised as an intellectual debate, but it’s all personal and emotional,” he said. “In order to make any kind of progress, you need to get them to open up to you about what their stake in it is. They won’t open up to you unless you show that you are genuinely interested in their story.”
As long as we see the issue as simply a matter of reason or if we’ve framed it solely in terms of getting them to accept the facts and truth, we’ll end up at an impasse or squabble. They’re holding their position for personal reason, and it will be to our advantage to find out what that personal reason is.
“As long as we see them as a project, they’re going to reject whatever we have to say because nobody wants to be a project,” Popcak said. “Refocus on their story. Maybe they won’t tell us their story, and if they can’t, then we need to back off and tell them that we don’t think we can have an honest conversation with them. ... They’re holding onto this for some personal reason, for an emotional reason that they think benefits them. And it’s our job to figure that out.”
No matter what approach we take or what topic we discuss, we must always be mindful that we represent the Church and the mercy of Christ. At times, we may be the only “Church” that the other person encounters.
“I believe that there are times to speak up and there are times to be quiet and pray,” said Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, Catholic author, speaker and EWTN TV host.
“When we are compelled and inspired to speak up and offer Church teaching on hot-button issues, we should be sure that we are steady and calm and that we don’t negatively react to the other person’s possible attack on us or on the Church. Jesus wants us to speak lovingly and firmly.
“The statement, ‘They’ll know we are Christians by our love’ (Jn 13:35) should always be the rule. Otherwise, we will be turning people away from God and his Church.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.