In Gratitude for Healthy Debate

by Annalise Deal


Freshman year, I attended the student activities fair with two intentions in mind: to join a student newspaper, and to find groups where I could develop my faith. As God would have it, an enthusiastic student approached me near the campus ministry tables with the offer of writing for the Catholic newspaper. I immediately let him know I was Episcopalian, but he insisted The Torch existed to address issues of faith more broadly—so I joined.

My first months at The Torch were a steep learning curve. I intended to study theology but having gone to public school for my whole life, I knew almost nothing about the Catholic church. Torchmeetings were what led me to Google the names of many popes to figure out what century they lived in, and read the entire Wikipedia page on St. Ignatius of Loyola. However, Torch meetings also became the first place where I was challenged on many of the views I had seldom questioned growing up in a liberal, Episcopal church in Northern California.


For example, prior to arriving at BC, I felt called to ordination to the priesthood, but on the Torch staff, many of my colleagues believed that priestly ordination was an exclusively male vocation. Thus, I found myself challenged to examine and defend my own position on women’s ordination within Christianity more broadly. Over the four years I’ve been on this staff, I’ve debated my Catholic and Orthodox colleagues on everything from physician aid in dying to transubstantiation to University policies on contraception. In each of these debates—regardless of how heated they got—I was met by my colleagues with deep respect.


Those who know me, are likely not surprised by the fact that much of my time at The Torch has been characterized by debate. I am, admittedly, a highly argumentative person, but not because I like to disagree with people. To me, healthy debate and argumentation means getting to the root of a disagreement, which often allows me to see the other person’s side more clearly. For example, debating the assumption of the Virgin Mary’s body into heaven (I say no, most Catholics say yes) led me to realize that our fundamental disagreement pertained not to Mary but to my adoption of Martin Luther’s sola scriptura as the primary basis of faith, compared to Catholics’ co-emphasis on tradition.


In a world where the 24/7 news cycle is dominated by bickering and political fragmentation, it seems to me we have entirely lost the capacity for healthy debate. Yet Jesus instructs us to love our friends and our enemies and everyone in between, which means treating them with a fundamental respect. By making space for healthy disagreement, my colleagues at The Torch have demonstrated Christ’s love to me in a unique way. We have all mutually been challenged to accept and befriend others who have sometimes dramatically different views on faith.


The staff of The Torch are certainly not the first group of Christians to have had disagreements among ourselves. In Philippians 2, Paul addresses divisions saying, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (Phil. 2:1-2).


Of course, being truly “like-minded” is a challenge. Divisions will always arise between people and certainly after two thousand years of splintering, Christians continue to disagree today. However, though we may not always succeed in being “like-minded” we can succeed in “having the same love” and “being one in spirit”—that is one in the Holy Spirit, who binds us together as the mystical body of Christ.


Paul goes on to say: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (v. 3) Even in situations in which we disagree, Paul instructs us to value one another just as Christ values us. This means it is not enough to simply say “everyone is entitled to an opinion,” but then treat dissenting opinions with harshness and ridicule. The call for complete humility means giving respect to those who are different from us in gender, political party, church denomination, or any other source of division.


Boston College is not unique in its dominantly liberal student body, and thus public discourse consists mostly in preaching to the choir while constructive conversation amongst dissenting peers feels limited. My time at The Torch has led me to encounter conservative and traditional Catholic students with whom I would not otherwise cross paths, and this has been extremely valuable. As a student of theology, I have often grown more rapidly in Torch meetings than in the classroom, but I have not left feeling defeated. Rather, I have gained a deep sense of awe for the magnificent diversity of the Church. I have gotten to know the actual people who make up its branches, so that I cannot make broad generalizations about their intentions or their shortcomings. I have become friends with and felt love for people precisely becausethey challenge me, and I will forever be grateful to them for all I have learned.


My debates with my colleagues at The Torch has not led me to identity crises, but they have changed me. In most ways, I am still the same liberal, feminist, theologically progressive Christian woman that I was when I arrived at BC, and I continue to discern my vocation to the priesthood. However, I believe that these debates and conversations with friends have also led me to become more knowledgeable about scripture and the Church, empathize with unfamiliar worldviews, have deeper respect for the sacredness of life despite suffering, and ultimately more clearly discern the movement of the Spirit in my own life and in the world. Rather than dragging me down or damaging my ego, the friendships I have formed at The Torch have edified my faith and spurred me on to be a better Christian. I am leaving my four years here more hopeful than ever that conversation and even friendship between dissenting people is not only possible, but is a valuable tool for cultivating a more loving, empathetic, and respectful world.


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