One of the greatest trials of love is dealing with people who disagree with us because it tests not only our faith, but our understanding of how the Beatitudes, Ten Commandments and the works of mercy apply toward these situations. One area that many find particularly vexing is children, spouses, and parents who disagree with us on fundamental tenets of the Faith. For instance, children who refuse to attend Church or have a sacramental marriage can cause great suffering. Often good parents feel a great deal of guilt over this, perhaps even blaming themselves. This can be the case if they have failed to educate their children in the Faith, as required by the fourth commandment, but it is often not the problem.
A major problem is that parents don’t treat their adult children with the respect due other adults, which is also covered by the fourth commandment. Once a child has reached adulthood (around eighteen-years-old for reasoning ability and life experience), the now adult child will be responsible for his own decisions and should be free to make them without undue pressure from his parents to conform to the parent’s beliefs. Although many parents feel intense guilt when their children no longer practice the Faith, this feeling is misplaced if they have taught and lived the Faith.
Indeed, if our children don’t have the opportunity to love God of their own volition, they cannot be saved. It is necessary that they experience God’s love firsthand and make the choice to act in charity toward Him and their neighbors because nothing can force another person to love because love must be self-giving to be redemptive. Instead of worrying for their souls, we should pray and trust that God will continue to reach out to them, even at the moment of death, and that He wants us to be united in paradise.
Disagreements on any issues with other adults, whether they be close family members or not, should be approached with mutual respect and understanding. This is governed by the seventh beatitude, which calls on us to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). Both sides should be open to understanding why the other has taken the position they have and what the stakes are for maintaining that position. In some cases, one person may conclude that the other person’s reasoning is better than their own and they will be converted.
This is the optimum result, but it should neither be the expectation, nor the source of sorrow if it is not achieved. In many cases, positions are formed from prior life experiences that only one of you has had and are only understandable from that vantage point. Some things are a matter of taste and experience and have no definitive right or wrong answer, which may be inconvenient at times. No one should be forced to do something they do not like, and loving people will bear inconvenience to accommodate each other.
It is also true that by discussing the matter it may become apparent that the choice has much bigger ramifications for one party than the other. Although decisions affecting both parties should be made jointly, the resolution should reflect the common good, balancing the needs and desires of each while not exploiting either. In cases where the common good remains unclear, the loving action involves conceding to the other party, especially if there is no way to settle the impasse. Ultimately, we are called to bear wrongs patiently, a spiritual work of mercy.
The worst, least productive way to resolve a disagreement is to assume you are right and ignore the dissenting view. Depending on the dynamics involved, there are very different ramifications. If yours is the minority opinion, you will find yourself isolated from the others, without the possibility of convincing the others. If yours is the majority opinion, whether it is ultimately right or wrong, you are inflicting suffering on the dissenters and probably hardening their anger against you, which is the antithesis of love.
Even more damaging is the modern tactic of punishing dissenting views with economic boycotts. This must be isolated from refusing to cooperate with evil, which is not only licit but a required moral action. The difference is intent. If a person boycotts a business in order to cause the owners and employers to suffer, that is evil, a violation of the third beatitude, which calls for us to be meek and not push our beliefs on anyone. This is much different than refusing to do business with people whose actions will cause suffering in favor of a company that avoids such evil. This is good and is to be applauded. However, this can disguise bigotry and it is never okay to cause social isolation or economic ruin out of bigotry, punishing another individual not for any evil that he has done but because he or she is different from us in some way. This fails to recognize that everyone is an individual, made perfectly and uniquely by God for his specific role in God’s plan.
Pope St. John Paul II, explained in Veritatis Splendor, that in evaluating actions, the object of the action (what the person is doing) must be good for an action to be good. The intention of the action (why it is being done) must also be good for an action to be good. However, a bad action can never be justified by a good intention. The circumstances, including the result of the action, cannot change the action from good to bad or from bad to good but can mitigate or increase responsibility for an action. In addition, actions often have undesired side effects which are not part of the moral calculus (the principle of double effect).
We can use this evaluation process (CCC, 1750-1761), which dates back to St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, to evaluate actions taken when people disagree with us. Take the action of not doing business with a person we disagree with. This is a morally neutral act because there is nothing inherently wrong with doing business with whoever you like. Motivation does matter, however. If you are motivated by a good intention, to avoid cooperating with evil, for instance, the action of boycotting a business is justified. On the other hand, if your motivation is evil; for example, to force a person to take an action they feel is unjust or if it harms someone, then the action is unjust.
It should be noted that action theory is meant to evaluate one’s own actions rather than another person’s actions. This is because of the difficulty in evaluating another person’s intentions and motivations. When people disagree with us, we can be too quick to assume bad intentions are at the root of their actions. Instead, we need to follow the example of Christ.
First of all, we should give others the benefit of the doubt on their intentions and trust in God to apply mercy and justice as appropriate. “Do not judge, lest you be judged” (Matt. 7:1). At the same time, we should follow our conscience and not cooperate with evil, assuming that others are doing the same. We should never force others to violate their conscience, even when we think they are wrong (CCC, 1782). We should, however, judge our own actions and if we feel that we have taken unjust actions, we should rectify them as appropriate (CCC, 1781). In this way we demonstrate the love of others, even those who we vehemently disagree with, always seeing them in a positive light and doing what is best for their souls.
Once an action is taken, we must move on. Following the corporal works of mercy, we must forgive all injuries and bear wrongs patiently (CCC, 2447). If the action caused us to suffer, we must love our neighbor enough to let him see the harm he has done, trusting that his conscience will engage and lead him to repentance (Matt. 5:43–48). Even in this case, we should be merciful, not seeking revenge (Matt 5:38–42). It should be enough for us if the oppression stops. It is evil to wish harm on anyone, even an oppressor (CCC, 2262).
Charity, the love of others for God’s sake, is the currency of Heaven and increasing the depth and breadth of our love bonds us more tightly to God, leading to joy.