Do not argue about a matter which does not concern you, nor sit with sinners when they judge a case. Sirach 11:9
True or false: Because of their great holiness, saints never get into arguments with other people — least of all other saints.
False. This perfect harmony will be true for all followers of Christ when they arrive in Heaven, and it should be true here on earth, but because of human weakness, it isn’t — not even for the holiest people. Indeed, saints have even been known to argue (sometimes charitably, sometimes less so) with other saints.
St. Paul describes how he publicly rebuked St. Peter for going back on an earlier agreement that Gentile converts to Christianity should be treated equally with those of a Jewish background (Gal. 2:11-14). Paul was never one to shy away from controversy; having been commissioned by God to preach the Gospel, the message of truth and life, he wouldn’t allow anything to interfere with the fulfillment of this responsibility. We can admire this sort of forceful determination in a just and holy cause; as it happens, however, not all disputes involving saints had such an honorable motivation.
The great scholars St. Jerome and St. Augustine had a deep respect for each other’s learning and intelligence, but they didn’t seem to like each other personally, as their correspondence (especially Jerome’s) makes clear. Jerome had a habit of equating disagreement with his writings with disloyalty to the Church.
Other disputes among saints involved St. Finnian of Moville and the great Irish missionary St. Columba, who argued fiercely over whether Columba had the right to copy a manuscript belonging to Finnian; and the eighth-century abbot St. Sturm and the bishop St. Lull, who conducted a long dispute regarding proper jurisdiction over Sturm’s abbey.
An argument over a seemingly less important issue involved the twelfth-century English hermit St. Bartholomew of Farne and a fellow monk named Thomas. The subject of their disagreement: how much food to eat each day. It seems that Thomas couldn’t get by with as little nourishment as Bartholomew, and when he wondered whether Bartholomew was secretly supplementing his own rations, the saint — greatly offended at being accused of hypocrisy — went off in a huff. Thomas apologized, but it wasn’t until a year later that reconciliation occurred (and only after the local bishop ordered St. Bartholomew to return).
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9), and Christians are called to live in this spirit. Sadly, many, including some saints, have at times failed to respond to this call. Quarreling comes easily and naturally to many of us — but it contradicts the message of the Gospel and undermines our membership in God’s family.
To overcome argumentativeness, we must first, in the words of St. Vincent de Paul, “love our neighbor as being made in the image of God and as an object of His love.” We would not dare speak disrespectfully to Jesus Himself, so we must remind ourselves that He dwells in other people — even those with whom we’re angry.
St. John Vianney says, if we wish to avoid being hypocritical in God’s eyes, we must have “universal charity for everyone — for the good and the bad, for the poor and the rich, and for all those who do us harm as much as for those who do us good.” This doesn’t mean we should never disagree with people, but that we should consider carefully the circumstances and means of doing so.
St. Louis of France advises us, “In order to avoid discord, never contradict anyone except in case of sin or some other danger to a neighbor, and when it is necessary to contradict others, do it with tact and not with temper.” Error must be opposed with truth, but in a loving way. According to St. John of Kanty, “Fight all false opinions, but let your weapons be patience, sweetness, and love. Roughness is bad for your own soul and spoils the best cause.”
Sometimes people are merely looking for an excuse to argue with us. In such cases, we must remain charitable. Calmly and patiently stating our position — more than once, if necessary — will usually be more effective than engaging in an argument; as the saints knew, a strong and peaceful spirit serves us well.
Many saints have been involved in mediating conflicts and serving as calming influences. At times, their peacemaking roles were in matters as broad and important as a religious controversy, as when St. Robert Bellarmine attempted to sway minds through gentleness rather than harsh invective. At other times, they involved simpler matters, as when a youthful St. Dominic Savio ended a fight between two boys by insisting that they direct their aggression at him, instead of at each other. An important part of peacemaking is promoting racial harmony, and one patron saint of such an effort might be Bl. Pierre Toussaint, a nineteenth-century black family servant in New York City; he personally encountered much racism, but helped spread the Gospel by always responding with gentleness and charity. This is the ultimate Christian response: not only to turn the other cheek, but to work for peace while upholding the truth in a spirit of genuine love and compassion.
Reflections from the Saints
“Tolerance is an important part of charity. Without it, it is difficult for two persons to get on together. Moreover, tolerance is the bond of all friendship and unites people in heart and opinion and action, not only with each other, but in unity with our Lord, so that they may really be at peace.”—St. Vincent de Paul
“Some may say that it is unreasonable to be courteous and gentle with a reckless person who insults you for no reason at all. But Francis de Sales replies, ‘We must practice meekness, not only with reason, but against reason.’ . . . We must do what St. Francis de Sales did: ‘I have made a pact with my tongue,’ he wrote, ‘not to speak when my heart is disturbed.’”— St. Alphonsus Liguori
“Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”— St. Anthony
Something You Might Try
In the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, Jesus says, “Love of me and [love] of neighbor are one and the same thing, and, so far as the soul loves me, she loves her neighbor, because love toward him issues from me.” Thus, when you’re tempted to quarrel with someone, remind yourself that it’s actually Jesus Himself who stands before you.
Arguments and disagreements are sometimes necessary, but before engaging in them, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this issue important enough to argue over?
- Is this the best time and setting to discuss the matter, or might the other person be more receptive and agreeable at a later time or in a different location?
- If someone were approaching me to argue over this point, what approach would I want him or her to use? What would I consider respectful?
- Is there someone who can serve as a mediator or who can help me make my point calmly and fairly?
- Am I looking at this argument in terms of winning and losing, or am I truly seeking a “win/win” situation?
Giving careful thought to these and similar questions before expressing disagreement can make it much easier to prevent or resolve arguments.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems. It is available as a paperback or an ebook from Sophia Institute Press or your local Catholic bookstore.
Other saintly resources from Fr. Joseph Esper can be found here on Catholic Exchange, such as in the article “Learning to Forgive Through the Saints.”