In Spain, Oct. 12 is a day that lives in infamy. On that day in 1936, the University of Salamanca was celebrating the discovery of the New World, Dia de la Hispanidad. Fascist leaders decided to use the occasion for their own purposes. A dramatic confrontation developed between General Millán-Astray, who lived by the maxim Viva la muerte! (Long live death!), and the rector of the university, Spain’s most distinguished philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno. It was a case of brute force vs. moral reasoning.

Outraged by repeated calls for force, Unamuno rose to his feet and courageously defended the superiority of reason: “This is the temple of the intellect. And I am its high priest. It is you who profane its sacred precincts. You will win, because you have more than enough brute force. But you will not convince. For to convince you need to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: reason and right in the struggle.” With that, soldiers ushered Unamuno out of the hall at gunpoint. His words cost him his post as rector, and he died of a heart attack a few weeks later. Today he is widely admired and respected. General Millán-Astray, not so much.

Cardinal James Francis Stafford has provided us with a personal testimony of another confrontation between brute force and moral reasoning. It first appeared in L’Osservatore Romano on July 25, 2008, in advance of the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth). The cardinal recalls, with great sadness, how he was badgered and abused by other clergymen who were not averse to promoting their dissent from Humanae Vitae through brute force.

A few days after the encyclical’s release, a number of Baltimore priests gathered in the rectory of St. William of York parish. Everyone present, except Father Stafford, agreed to include his name in the dissent that would be published the following day in The Baltimore Sun. There would be no discussion. Even the slightest acquaintance with the encyclical was deemed unimportant. In fact, no one in the room had read it. Father Stafford was astonished. “Violence by overt manipulation,” he wrote, “was new to the Baltimore presbyterate.”

Father Stafford was subjected to rage and verbal abuse. As the evening went on, he wrote, “The underlying ‘fraternal’ violence became more evident.” The assailants did not convince Father Stafford that their view of Humanae Vitae had any merit. But they did remind him of something broader and much more compelling: “Violence and truth don’t mix. When expressive violence of whatever sort is inflicted upon the truth, the resulting irony is lethal.” It was no small irony that the assailants were practicing an Inquisition in reverse. Father Stafford’s courage and fidelity did not desert him. “I did not become ‘ashamed of the Gospel’ that night,” he recalled, “and found ‘sweet delight in what is right.’”

On July 31, 2009, a group of people were peacefully demonstrating on behalf of traditional marriage in Warwick, R.I. One of the demonstrators reported that, while he and his colleagues were standing at a busy intersection, they were pelted with food, sprayed with mace and assaulted — not only with obscene insults but also physical violence. One of the demonstrators, undeterred by the attack, stated to the press that the assailants had “reinforced my resolve to defend traditional marriage.” Force may prevail in a few battles — but it will never win a single war for hearts and minds.

Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University.