Should We Argue With Each Other?

There is a big difference between counseling the doubtful and counseling doubt.

Ilya Repin, “Duel of Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky”, 1899
Ilya Repin, “Duel of Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky”, 1899 (photo: Public Domain)

Many years from now, historians will decide how to define our present age. I wonder if ours will be known as The Age of Arguing.

In Bible passages such as those in First and Second Timothy, as well as Titus 3:9, which cautions us to “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless,” Scripture is not lacking admonitions against altercations. Judging by our common discourse, especially that which takes place online, these don’t seem to be our favorite passages.

Some might object: Aren’t we supposed to argue about some things? Aren’t we required to defend our Catholic beliefs, for instance? Of course we are. Merely debating an important point with others is not morally wrong, per se. If it were, apologetics would be impossible. Assuming charity and proper intentions, a debate may be not only praiseworthy but necessary. While defending church teaching can surely be virtuous, however, let’s be honest: if we recalled our previous ten debates or arguments, how many were about the Catholic Faith and conducted in a charitable fashion?

I would guess that of the last ten arguments that many of us have had, four were about politics, one was about sports, two were about movies, one was about food, and one was so incoherent that we don’t even remember what it was actually about. Perhaps there was one about the Catholic Faith. But in that argument, were we truly trying to evangelize, or were we engaging in “foolish controversies”? Was it conducted with charity? Was it conducted with sound logic or did involve more fallacy than logic? And on that subject, it’s helpful to recognize that charity and logic often travel together. It’s worth noting that some fallacies violate not only logic, but may constitute or lead to objective sins.

Attacking a straw man—that is, misrepresenting an opponent’s argument in order to make it easier to argue against—is dishonest. For instance, if I said that the United States should allow some immigration, it would be attacking a straw man if my opponent responded: “So you are in favor of completely open borders!” Or imagine that a mother said: “You cannot go to see that movie with your friends tonight,” and her son gave a “straw man” response: “OK, Mom! Terrific! So you’re saying that I can never go anywhere with my friends or ever see a movie again!”

Ad hominem—that is, attacking the person himself rather than addressing the argument—often constitutes a rather obvious violation of charity. For example: “John thinks free market capitalism is great. Of course, as everyone knows, John is mean.” A slight variant of this is circumstantial ad hominem—that is, attacking a person’s motivations rather than his actual argument. For example: “It’s easy to see why Steve is pro-life: Steve owns stock in a diaper company.”

Appeal to the stone—that is, attacking an idea as preposterous without including any evidence as to why it is preposterous—could constitute a sin against charity. Let’s say you are at a corporate party, and you start talking about the Shroud of Turin, and someone says: “That’s completely ridiculous!” Before you know it, others chime in: “Stick to accounting! It’s wacky to believe in some shroud! Or in the Resurrection for that matter!”

Faith and reason do not contradict; faith and fallacy often do.  

In the course of debating the Faith with non-Catholics, it’s important to illustrate to them that the Catholic Faith is authentic, reasonable, and beautiful, and that the Catholic Church is the ecclesiastical profession of God’s love. When discussing differences of opinion with fellow Catholics, first try to find areas of agreement. It’s also important to remember that though there are beliefs and behaviors that are anathema, there is a wide latitude in what we Catholics are permitted to believe. In non-dogmatic beliefs, our insistence on “winning people over” to our positions may cause people to doubt some elements of their own faith. After all, there is a big difference between counseling the doubtful and counseling doubt. Also, one person’s Catholic spirituality might differ—even greatly differ—from another’s, and that is not only wonderful, but a powerful reminder of the richness of the authentic Catholic Faith. For instance, there are Franciscans, Dominicans, and Carmelites; there are Byzantines and Latins, and all of these expressions of the Faith are things to celebrate.

If we find ourselves in arguments, we need to conduct ourselves with respect for others, even if they don’t return the favor. Argue a point, not a person.

And in all things, charity.