How to Argue Without Being a . . . Male Donkey.


June 15, 2012 by mattfradd


In 1 Peter 3:15, our first Pope writes:

“but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

In this article I will suggest 5 ways to “do it with gentleness and respect.”

1. Listen. Really listen.

Have you ever been in an argument with someone who wasn’t listening? At best, he was waiting for your lips to stop moving so he could unleash another set of reasons why you were wrong and he was right.

Don’t be that person. Listen to your opponent. Ask him questions. Be interested in him. Generally speaking, individuals don’t hold to a belief that they know to be in defiance of the truth. They have their reasons for believing it, reasons with which, though you can’t agree, you can sympathize.

I once had a Protestant tell me that Catholicism was arrogant because it claimed alone to possess the fullness of truth. Instead of responding with an argument as to why the Catholic Church is not arrogant, I simply said, “I see where you’re coming from. If Jesus Christ did not, in fact, establish the Catholic Church, and if the Magisterium is not infallible on matters of faith and morals, then I would agree with you.”

Showing your opponent that you are genuinely interested in his reasons for believing a particular thing will demonstrate that you are not there to “win a debate” but rather to converse with a brother.

2. What would it take?

Before launching into an argument with a non-Catholic, you might find it helpful to ask, “What would it take for you to become Catholic?” You might even show him what you mean by answering what it would take for you to leave the Catholic Church.

Many times I’ve said to Protestants, “If you could show me one Catholic teaching that sacred Scripture rejects, or if you could show me from history that Jesus Christ did not establish the Catholic Church, or if you could point me to a pope’s infallible teaching that contradicts a previous or subsequent pope’s infallible teaching, then I would leave the Catholic Church.”

Your Protestant friend might respond by saying, “If you could show me a Scripture passage in which Jesus taught the Catholic belief of transubstantiation, then I would become Catholic.” Or he might say, “If you could show me that the earliest Christians after the times of the Apostles were Catholic and not ’Bible Christians,’ then I’d convert.”

If your Protestant friend allows you to respond, you will be able to direct your arguments accordingly and your discussion could become a prime opportunity to evangelize.

3. One topic at a time

A Protestant friend once asked me, “Why do you call your priests ‘father’ when Jesus, in Matthew 23:9, explicitly commands his followers not to call any man on earth ‘father?”

When I pointed out to my friend that St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 4:14-15, claims for himself the title “father” in the spiritual sense, and then asked my friend whether he was willing to admit either that his interpretation of Matthew 23:9 was incorrect or accuse St. Paul of sin, he asked, “Why do you Catholics worship statues?”

Non-Catholics often reject many tenets and practices of the Catholic faith. Therefore, it’s important that you stick to one topic at a time so as not to only partially address each objection without ever coming to a conclusion.

In this particular instance, I replied to my Protestant friend, “We can address your concerns about statues at another time, but if it’s alright with you, I’d rather you answer my initial question before we change topics. Then I’d be happy to share with you from the Bible why Catholics use statues.”

4. It’s alright not to know

Once I debated a Protestant minister who, when I offered texts such as 2 Peter 2:20 and Hebrews 6:4-8 to show that, according to the Bible, one can lose his salvation, said something to the effect of, “You know, you’ve got a good point. Would you mind if I spent some time in the Word, prayed about this, and got back to you next week?”

It was evident to me that this was a truly humble man who was concerned not about winning a debate but with the truth and following Christ. Though he did not change his mind on the matter, I gained a lot respect for him, and it taught me that confessing that you don’t know something is not a sign of weakness but of humility.

If a non-Catholic asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, tell him you don’t know. Don’t wing it, and don’t offer your best guess. Instead, humble yourself and simply say, “You know, that’s a good question. I’m not entirely sure what the answer is, but let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”

Just be sure that, if you do promise to get back to the person with an answer, you actually do it.

5. Prayer

Recognize that the Holy Spirit, not you, converts hearts. Follow the advice of Peter who, before charging us to “always be prepared to make a defense,” tells us to “reverence Christ as Lord” (1 Pet. 3:15). Pray not only for the person you are speaking with, that he may come to believe the truth of the Catholic Church, but pray also for yourself, that you would be humble, loving, attentive, and respectful.

Remember that, as Fulton J. Sheen put it, it’s entirely possible to win the argument and lose the soul.

Get my new DVD How to Win an Argument Without Losing a Soul.

10 thoughts on “How to Argue Without Being a . . . Male Donkey.

  1. brettsalkeld says:

    Hey Matt,
    Have you ever looked into what the Church teaches about ecumenical dialogue? (I’d start with Unitatis Redintegratio and Ut Unum Sint.) It starts with the premise that you’re not out to win an argument, but to really understand one another. Only after you really understand one another can you determine whether you actually disagree. And only then can you try to tackle which view has more to recommend it. It’s a slow process, but it almost never leads to winning an argument while losing a soul. Things aren’t framed in terms of winning and losing, but in terms of a common search for truth. Within such a framework many people find it much easier to carefully scrutinize their own position than when they feel on the defensive.

  2. Joshua says:

    Unitatis Redintegratio is a heretical document that, right at the start, implies that the Catholic Church is not the true Church. That every man longs for a truly universal Church which may or may not exist at all! It then talks about how there is salvation in other “great” religions. This is directly contrary to the past infallible teaching that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church, which exists and is the sole Spouse of God. It talks about more of what we must find in common with them rather than to understand where they are wrong. If you know they are Protestant or Muslim or Jewish or Pagan or Atheist then there can be no common ground to discover. Since they deny or disobey one aspect of the Catholic Church, or even the nature of God, then they are guilty of denying and disobeying everything. Ecumenism is heresy.

    • brettsalkeld says:

      If ecumenism is a heresy and the documents of Vatican II heretical, the the chair of Peter is empty. But I’m not too worried. You don’t give much indication of having read it.

      • John says:

        Who said the chair of Peter is empty? I believe Joshua stated that ecumenism is heresy. This is true, and has been shown to cause mass loss of Faith of Catholics the world over. Ecumenism minimizes Catholic Identity and brings all other religions as “just another path to salvation”. It borders oftentimes on relativism and kills the faith. Our Lord instituted “One Holy Catholic Church” not many churches, yet ecumenism kills our Faith by equalizing them all. One can also be critical of the Religious Freedom documents of the Second Vatican Council without being a sedevacantist. Modernism abounds in (what’s left) of the Church today. All one needs to do is look at the Catholic landscape since the council and ask, “are these the fruits of Vatican II”?

      • There is often a massive difference between what Vatican Ii and the post-conciliar magisterium teach and the false understandings sometimes promulgated in their name. Ecumenism done right does none of the things you suggest. There is not hint of relativism in Unitatis Redintegratio or Ut Unum Sint. And it is hard to even imagine that someone would accuse Joseph Ratzinger of relativism in his writings, many of which are ecumenical in nature. But, again, there is no indication that the person making the accusations has actually read the documents in question. If you want to argue that ecumenism per se, and not just ecumenism as falsely understood and practiced, leads to relativism, I’m afraid you’ll have to quote something from the magisterium that tends in that direction to make your case.

        In any case, your suggestion that loss of Catholic identity and faith is directly related to ecumenism is merely asserted, not demonstrated, and whether that is fully the case, partially the case or not at all the case actually has nothing to do with ecumenism being “a heresy,” which was the context in which you made the assertion. That a given teaching causes some to lose faith because they misunderstand it does not make the teaching a heresy. How would you respond to a “progressive Catholic” who made that same argument about women’s ordination or artificial birth control?

  3. mattfradd says:

    Unitatis Redintegratio is not a heretical document. You say, “right at the start, implies that the Catholic Church is not the true Church.” To accuse you of being incorrect would be an understatement. The Very first paragraph states:

    “Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided.(1) Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.”

    Please learn some moderation.

  4. Rachel James says:

    Excelent words of wisdom there, not that I would expect anything else 😉 This blog has made me think about myself. I need to be more diplomatic when being confronted by our Protestant brothers as well as athiests. I did well in a “debate” once with a Satanist and remained calm and diplomatic but that was down to the Holy Spirit, it had nothing to do with me at all. When I forget to allow the Holy Spirit to guide me Im a bad tempered fire cracker and its not something I would recomend or find admirable. I admire people who can hold it together in ways which Matt has demonstrated and I love the Fulton Sheen quote.

  5. Hi…

    What do you think about this ?
    I receive a post recently about the bible…
    This guy says the “canon” of Catholic Bible is wrong, and that can be proved.

  6. […] For 5 tips on how to be gentle and reverent, see my article, How to Argue Without Being a . . . Male Donkey […]

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