Hollywood families (at least in their writers’ imagination) seem to have warm and fuzzy family Christmas dinners. Mine are more complex. Somehow, the relative morality of another family member invariably becomes a topic of conversation. Over the years, I have developed terms of engagement I consider essential to a healthy, productive holiday conversation about morality. For those of you determined to maintain your own Christmas cheer at the family dinner table this year, I will relay what I have learned. Consider it a “Christmas Spirit Survival Guide.”
Working with Catholic religious communities has taught me two ways to encounter others: I can espouse core Christian beliefs in a welcoming manner or I can advocate those same beliefs in a way that alienates people. Becoming an agent of welcome requires adherence to a few core principles: respect other people, listen to what they have to say, educate yourself, and be candid about your own struggles.
Respect other people
The most basic rules of respect are obvious. Unfortunately, they often need repeating. There is no room in a spiritually-rooted debate over morality for name-calling, brow-beating, physical or emotional intimidation, or mocking or ostracizing those with different views. If your personal feeling about someone you consider to be violating your moral code of conduct (or disagreeing with you) veers to anger, you are probably crossing the line and hating the sinner — not just the perceived sin.
A former Sister of Life shared with me her encounters with different kinds of abortion clinic protests. She said she was moved by witnessing the number of women intending to enter an abortion clinic opting to speak with protesters quietly praying the rosary. In contrast, those protests that were loud and included accusations of “baby-killer,” only drove the women away, causing them to hurry into the clinic or seek an alternate entrance. Respect breeds respect. Berating breeds contempt.
Listen to what others have to say
Genuinely listening is equally important, especially if the other person is directly affected by the moral issue at hand. Try to understand why someone might have reached a conclusion different from your own. Knowing someone’s perspective is invaluable as a tool for formulating your own response or, in some cases, postulating alternatives.
A childhood friend of mine moved to Europe after divorcing her husband. She later called to tell me she was planning on re-marrying. I spent considerable time formulating arguments about why she should annul her first marriage so she could remarry in the church. Visiting her that summer, I took every opportunity I could to bring up the possibility of an annulment.
On the last night, finally giving up, I asked nothing more than what she had learned from her first marriage. After an hour, she broke down and revealed to me she was a victim of domestic violence and threats (including after the marriage), and was terrified of contact with her ex-husband (hence, the move to Europe.) By listening, instead of trying to force a plan of action, I was able to understand her fears. With permission, after I returned to the U.S. I contacted diocesan representatives to explore the possibility of a one-party annulment, a process that is ongoing. The point is that I realized how easy it had been to condemn (or teeter on condemning) without understanding. With understanding, which is only possible by creating a safe space for dialogue, it is possible to be part of a healing process rather than inflicting more wounds.
Broadening your scope of understanding shows you care enough to be widely informed rather than just a talking head for one side or the other. There is no shortage of information on the internet from a wide range of sources. Most importantly, find out where beliefs intersect, and where they diverge. The argument is in the disagreement, but if you at least recognize common ground (and minimize sources of contention) you are in a better position to reach each other.
On the opposing sides concerning moral appropriateness of gay relationships, for example, many people would be surprised to know the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (in formulating “Always our Children”) and mainstream medical, psychological and psychiatric organizations are in fundamental agreement that homosexuality is not a choice and not something that can be changed. There remains a lot of room for discussion, but these points alleviate the need to spend time discussing heated aspects of the issue on which there is general consensus. By showing you have sought information from opposing sources or sides, you gain credibility as well as understanding.
Be candid about your own struggles
Pointing out (and hammering) the sins of others to ameliorate our own perceived moral failures is one of the greatest dangers to our own spiritual well-being. Exempting yourself from scrutiny while pointing fingers at everyone else is hypocritical and compromises your professed sincerity.
I have an aunt who refused to attend my cousin’s Protestant wedding. She adamantly vocalized her disapproval in front of my cousin and others. In her view, marriage by a Catholic without the church’s blessing was no marriage — the equivalent of living together without marriage. Fed up, my cousin confronted her. How could my aunt reconcile being a proponent (and former user) of birth control while using her version of church teaching to justify disapproving her niece’s wedding? Whatever the merits of either argument, there is wisdom in the biblical admonition to confront one’s own “beam in the eye” before analyzing someone else’s morality. Otherwise, we subject ourselves to being exposed and dismissed. (For those who might think they are outside the realm of disobeying magisterial teachings on sexuality, remember that sex outside of marriage, contraception, divorce, remarriage, masturbation and homosexuality all fall within the same range of church teachings on human sexuality.)
This year, I encourage everyone to consider these terms of engagement and preserve their own “Christmas spirit.” If someone in the family gets the best of you nonetheless, there’s always eggnog.
Originally published 12/21/10.