I had my third baby in the spring, during the first phase of our area’s government-mandated shutdowns. As with my previous two children, I often found myself tiredly scrolling through social media during countless midnight nursing sessions. And everywhere I looked, I saw discord. Strangers on the internet “crushed” each other with one-liners, ignored or belittled those with whom they disagreed, and twisted the meaning of words to suit their argument’s ends. But I also saw members of local church communities getting into heated arguments that were exacerbated by the email writers’ inability to see each other and hash out their ideological disagreements in person. “Is civil discourse completely dead?” I wondered to myself.
It’s easy to think that if we just say the right thing at the right time our interlocutor will see the error of their thinking and agree with our side of the argument, or that if we pummel our interlocutor with the harsh and unadulterated truth that they will be overwhelmed and converted like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. The ability for everyone to have a voice in the public square via social media and to be able to interact with virtually anyone, at virtually any time, on virtually any topic, has warped our society’s self-control about when, and how, and about what to offer an opinion.
Appropriately for this topic of charitable dialogue, today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian and one of the greatest minds the Catholic Church has ever known. He was exemplary in his efforts to understand and articulate opposing viewpoints and to be thorough and charitable in his defense of faith through reason. Each broad topic he addresses in the Summa Theologiae, his magnum opus, is broken into more specific questions, which are broken into even more specific questions called articles, and for each of these articles Aquinas offers well-thought-out objections before he states his own thesis and then replies to each individual objection. What a difference from our modern culture that is steeped in out-of-context sound bites, Twitter smackdowns, unnecessary generalizations, and logical fallacies!
If our calling as followers of Christ is to reflect Christ for others and to evangelize, we ought to be intentional about how we may be the face of God for someone else. If I am the only Christian someone is going to encounter that day—be it in line at the grocery store or on a Facebook comment section—how would I want that experience to be? Sometimes I need to remind myself that no matter how willfully defiant my child is being, no matter how obtuse my acquaintance’s social media post is, that they are unconditionally loved by God, and I am called to love them too.
Personally, I have learned not to engage at all in a potential argument on social media. And when I do have disagreements with others, like St. Thomas Aquinas, I try to make sure that I understand the scope of my opponent’s reasoning and what he or she is actually trying to argue before I respond. It is possible to be charitable toward and understanding of others without abandoning the Truth or condemning everyone around us.
Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that the virtual world of the internet and social media is best when used to support our lives and relationships in the real world, not as a replacement for them. As we continue into this new year of 2021, I encourage you to think about how you can charitably engage with those you may not agree with. May we look to the model of St. Thomas Aquinas as we seek to evangelize today’s culture with love.