Conversations in Contentious Times

by Marina McCoy


Marina McCoy is Associate Professor of Philosophy, specializing in ancient philosophy and literature with a particular emphasis on Plato, the sophists, and rhetoric. Her most recent book, Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy (Oxford) was published in October 2013.


We live in politically contentious times. On the one hand, our society seems to be moving toward an increased insularity where we surround ourselves with like-minded people. On the other hand, we see in the news instances where words are combative, or physical violence takes the place of words. Thinkers within the Catholic tradition, however, provide us with some useful alternative way of proceeding, ones that neither wall us off from one another, nor insist on speech that only dominates agonistically.


Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., in his essay “Overcoming Discord in the Church,” says that before we can undertake the work of dialogue, we must first do some interior work to prepare. We can begin with the Biblical words, “Do not be afraid.” Radcliffe reminds us that because God is active in history, we can be reassured that the Church will not fall apart simply by the open discussion of ideas. God is its guarantee. He argues that to look at another person without fear is to grant the other person recognition: “Recognizing the other person is more than just seeing that they exist and that they hold various opinions. It is recognizing them as fellow seekers, people who also are searching for God, in their own way. They too are on a journey.”


To engage in conversation with others in the Church fruitfully, then, we might begin by recognizing that the other person is seeking God, on a path where he or she has not yet arrived at the final destination. I also have to recognize that the same is true of me. I also live as one who is still “on the way,” still growing in my understanding of the truth of God and my identity in God, and how to live out that truth in the concreteness of this particular human community. Recollecting this image of being on a journey together might help us to be kind to one another. We may not yet have arrived, but just because we have not yet arrived does not mean that we are not on the way.



Ignatius of Loyola also offers us a simple but powerful recommendation: “Every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false” (Spiritual Exercises, 22). Of course, Ignatius also took seriously the Magisterium of the Church as a teaching body. So, how is this still good advice?


One reason is that we need others in order to grow in our understanding of God. Even all the cumulative insights of Catholic teaching that have been written have still not unfolded for us the fullness of who God is. God is always greater. God is always more. The four Gospels present multiple accounts of Jesus, for example, emphasizing different words that Jesus said from the Cross: “It is finished.” “I thirst.” “Forgive them.” “My God, my God....” If even Jesus did not think that the meaning of his Passion could be captured in one word, then don’t we also need to open ourselves to multiple ways of naming, framing, and expressing the reality of our faith?


Second, to put a good interpretation on another’s words is already to enact the work of charitable love. St. Paul reminds us that love is patient (1 Cor. 13:4). Love endures when knowledge passes away (1 Cor. 13:8). Paul writes these words in the context of developing a metaphor of the Church as akin to a body with many parts that depend upon one another. No one in the Church is self-sufficient, not even the Pope. When I listen to another person and seek truth in what she says, I am already living out the truth of love, a love that recognizes the presence of God in the whole and not only in one part of the body of the Church.


The Holy Spirit works through time, and through human history. No single conversation has to solve everything. We are journeying with one another. And we don’t travel alone, but rather with one who meets us on the road, and continues to reveal himself in our midst. 

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