Resolving Differences Charitably
Diego Pena, State Advocate
Like any parent, when it comes to my children’s sports teams, I am not an objective observer. I vividly recall attending one of my son’s high school basketball games with my daughter who was about nine years old at the time.
During that game, the referee made some questionable calls against my son’s team. My daughter and the parents cheering on my son’s team grumbled loudly. When the referee charged my son with a foul at a dramatic point in the game, tempers flared and my daughter turned to me and declared: “Papa, that ref has issues!”
To this day I still disagree with the ref’s call, but this story serves as a reminder that disagreements are inevitable and a part of life. Even among good families, disagreements are common. As Knights of Columbus, we are not immune from disagreements. When handled properly, disagreements can and should be amicably resolved. But handled improperly, disagreements can be divisive and destructive. Dissension, resulting from unresolved disagreements, can infect a council like a malignant cancer, and undermine that council’s fraternal soul. As Catholic gentlemen—as Knights of Columbus—when confronted with disagreement, we must work towards resolving our differences charitably and fraternally.
As State Advocate, I have seen more than my share of fraternal disputes. The causes of these disputes vary: disagreements over protocol, bylaws, council traditions, Roberts Rules, financial decisions, distributing proceeds, home associations and even trivial matters (e.g., color of table cloths and shirts!). If not settled quickly, disputes escalate rapidly, resulting in petty accusations—and sometimes personal attacks. If the disagreement spills outside the acceptable boundaries of charitable and fraternal conduct, the disagreeing parties muster supporters. Then the supporters bicker. As the opposing camps escalate their war of words—and emails—the non-combatants flee from the debate, and begin to lose interest in the council. When the disagreement is finally settled, the losing camp stops participating in council events. In the end, the council has lost. Failing to manage internal disagreements in a charitably and fraternally undermines more councils than possibly any other cause. This is precisely why we have to be charitable and fraternal in how we manage disagreements.
The way in which we manage and resolve disagreements reveals who we really are. We must master the challenge of disagreeing fraternally, and trying to resolve conflicts charitably. As Knights of Columbus, we have a moral and spiritual obligation to be charitable in all our endeavors. By necessity, this includes being charitable and fraternal in managing disagreements.
All Knights of Columbus—particularly state, district and council leaders—should always consider the Order’s principles of charity, unity and fraternity when dealing with disagreements. Most experienced mediators and counselors will tell you that praying together and eating together minimizes the potential for hard disagreements. To insure that our council meetings always begin with the proper tone, Grand Knights should ask their Chaplains to ask the Holy Spirit to bless all members present with the grace to be charitable and fraternal towards each other. Additionally, having a meal before the meeting also helps break down possible lines of disagreements—especially when everyone is encouraged to sit together as much as possible.
Another way to minimize can be found in in proper meeting management. Grand Knights should insist on enforcing meeting protocols: particularly, standing when addressing the Chair, and making the proper salutation when addressing the Grand Knight. The purpose of these salutes has never been to empower the Grand Knight, but rather to establish a charitable and fraternal tone for conducting the meetings. In addition to addressing the Grand Knight properly, council members should refer to brother knights charitably and respectfully. References to the officers should always be “Worthy Grand Knight” or our “Worthy Financial Secretary.” When referring to council members during a meeting, identifying them as “Brother John” or “Sir Knight John” is more fraternal than simply saying “John.” These salutations have at their very essence, a reminder to all of us that we are special members of a fraternal organization.
We all know it is very easy to be charitable when everyone agrees with us or when we are addressing a non-controversial matter. The real challenge lies in speaking and acting charitably and fraternally when addressing a controversial matter. The Officers’ Desk Reference reminds us that even when some of our brother Knights fail to be charitable or fraternal, it is our obligation to engage in “measured and respectful dialogue and debate.” Rather than say: “Mark is wrong about x,” it is more charitable to say: “I respectfully disagree with Brother Mark.” Rather than say: “Bill, you need to read that report,” it is more charitable to say: “Worthy Grand Knight, I would respectfully refer you back to the Treasurer’s Report.”
Not only must we be charitable during council meetings, but also outside the meeting particularly when exchanging emails or text messages. Sometimes, it is very tempting to “unload” on someone with whom we disagree by sending a lengthy confrontational email that emphatically illustrates “blow by blow” points, sprinkled with emphatic points in bold or italic font. An example: “IF YOU EVER DO THAT AGAIN, I WILL DO X;” “Don’t lie to us.” These messages can at times be more damaging than any words spoken at a meeting.
We must avoid the temptation to use what I call “Rubicon” language during meetings and in electronic communications. I define Rubicon language as strong words or statements from which there is no turning back. Examples of Rubicon language: declaring that someone is wrong or stupid about x, calling someone a thief, a liar, or a criminal. When these words or expressions are used, a boundary has been crossed, causing the dialogue to quickly spiral out of control making the underlying dispute even more difficult to resolve.
When confronted with these situations in meetings, the Grand Knight, District Deputy, or a conscientious Knight should make a point of order, and remind all the members gathered of their obligation to behave charitably or fraternally. Some cynics may scoff at this; however, I have personally witnessed meetings where a fraternal reminder presented charitably restored the meeting allowing it to proceed amicably. When done charitably and fraternally, these reminders can strengthen a council.
If, however, disputes remain, then Grand Knights and council officers should do everything they can to resolve the difference at the council level. Resolving disagreements and problems locally has always been a part of our Catholic tradition. This concept is known as subsidiarity, which means that problems should be addressed and resolved by persons who are closest to the issue. If council officers are unable to resolve the matters, they should consult with their District Deputy.
Sometimes, the parties may agree to have a mediator assist them in resolving their differences. Council and district leaders attempting to resolve a dispute should always be ready to recommend a Chaplain, Deacon, Diocesan Deputy, or experienced Brother Knight as a mediator. Resorting to a mediator is not a sign of weakness, but is a sign of charitable and fraternal wisdom. If a disagreement cannot be resolved at the council or district level, only then should the matter be escalated to a higher level.
Sometimes, in the heat of disagreement, one side accuses the other of engaging in misconduct that in their opinion requires removal from the Order. Like “hanging judges” in Western movies, the accusers rush hastily to trial and execution of sentence. Rubicon language is frequently used in these mad dashes to judgment. But, Knights of Columbus are held to a higher standard. Principles of due process should always guide our leadership in addressing any and all membership, fraternal and disciplinary issues. As we all recall from our basic government classes in school, due process simply means that members should be treated fairly. As Knights of Columbus, due process is inherent within our love for charity and fraternity. When a Brother Knight’s conduct is in question, give him a fraternal opportunity to be heard. The opportunity to be heard includes informal opportunities to discuss the situation, as well as a formal hearing—whether during a meeting or during a formal inquiry. For example, membership suspensions based on criminal convictions should never be decided in a council meeting without the accused being given an opportunity to explain his situation.
Complying with due process is extremely important in those situations where there may be evidence of impropriety. Rather than rush to judgment in a meeting, council leaders need to make properly reasoned reviews of the situation to insure that the accused is given the benefit of due process. In these situations, council Grand Knights and Advocates should consult with their District Deputies.
In the Gospel of Matthew, our Lord Himself advises us on how to address interpersonal conflicts: “If your brother sins (against you), no and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” (Matt. 18:15). Supreme refers to this as “fraternal correction,” and as a method of dispute resolution, fraternal correction incorporates the principles of charity, unity and fraternity—as well as the principle of subsidiary.
In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas observed that virtue prompts charitable men towards good actions and conclusions whereas “evilly disposed me are not led to virtue unless they are compelled.” As Knights of Columbus we must always default towards virtue. This means that in those times when we disagree with each other, we must work towards reaching virtuous resolutions of our internal disagreements. Thanks Brothers, for all you do.
For additional guidance on handling matters fraternally, please see the Officers’ Desk Reference.