St Thomas More is the only member of the English bar to be canonised (so far, and I'm not holding my breath for the next one...) So happy feast day to all lawyers.
St John Fisher, of course, was the only bishop to stand resolutely against Henry Vlll. Here's how the Universalis entry ends:
He was the only bishop to oppose Henry VIII’s actions, on the grounds that they were a repudiation of papal authority, but even so he avoided direct confrontation with the other bishops, not holding himself up as a hero or boasting of his coming martyrdom: I condemn no other man’s conscience: their conscience may save them, and mine must save me. We should remember, in all the controversies in which we engage, to treat our opponents as if they were acting in good faith, even if they seem to us to be acting out of spite or self-interest.That brings me to something I was planning to blog about anyway.
Time and again, I see people falling out, both in real life and especially on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, because they disagree.
Just yesterday @sitsio tweeted: 'I've had 1 person I thought a 'friend' go off on a rant & de-friend me 4 this blog. It's a fine line between teaching & alienating.'
And that is more typical than abnormal.
But notice what has happened there: friendship and agreement have been conflated, so that when one goes the other follows.
That strikes me as profoundly problematic.
If we are to engage intelligently with important issues, we need to learn how to disagree and stay friends, or more importantly, stay in charity with each other.
Instead, we all too often seem to have a working assumption that anyone who disagrees with me is either insane or evil, and probably both.
That is why St John Fisher's example is so important, as summarised above: 'We should remember, in all the controversies in which we engage, to treat our opponents as if they were acting in good faith, even if they seem to us to be acting out of spite or self-interest.'
If we can learn to disagree without abusing each other, without over-doing the rhetoric to the point where the other is bound to take offence, without assuming evil-intent on the part of the other, and then seeking evidence to 'prove' that (at least to our own satisfaction), and without seeking and taking offence ourselves... if we can do that, then there is the possibility that we and others may learn from disagreements.
To put it another way, relationship does not have to be predicated on agreement.
So when we disagree, if I make the effort to continue to respect you, to trust you in so far as I reasonably can, to assume that your intentions are good, to treat you with respect and courtesy, I lose nothing, in terms of our disagreement. That does not involve conceding an inch of the intellectual substance, but rather increases the likelihood of my being heard.
Whereas if I indulge in bombast, sarcasm, point-scoring, abuse, patronising and so on, if I play to the gallery to 'prove' (to my satisfaction at least) how morally and intellectually superior I am, then the likelihood of either of us benefiting from the exchange is reduced dramatically.
So why do we so often do the latter rather than the former? Could it be that our egos get in the way? Is it just bad habits learned from the prevailing culture? Or is it, at root, fragility and pride?
That's not to say there is no place for rhetoric, or for confronting wrong ideas head on - but that we need to be very careful of both our intentions and our means: to attack the ideas, not the person, to strive for veritas, certainly, but recognise that cannot finally be at the expense of caritas.