There is a rhetorical question out there, derived from the military, which goes: Is this the hill you want to die on? The meaning of the question was “Is this objective worth the cost?” (i.e. is this objective worth dying over?). The question has a wider usage now, but the basic meaning is the same: Is this fight worth the effort? It’s certainly a question we need to ask ourselves, keeping in mind the ultimate goals of our life on Earth. It’s especially worth asking ourselves as we seek to understand whether a task is a part of our life as a Christian or a distraction from it.
The world is full of disputes, and the Christian has to determine whether a dispute is one about his Christian values or about one’s preferences over how they would like things to be. When it comes to the former, the Christian of course needs to take a stand for his beliefs. But if it does not concern the Christian values dieectfy or actually reflects a worldly or aesthetic concern, then the Christian needs to consider well the importance—or lack thereof—when it comes to making a dispute over it. They especially need to consider this well when they are willing to indict those who disagree with their views.
Now, this is not to say that we should be indifferent about real problems. When The Faith is being attacked, we need to respond (though in a manner which is moral and compatible with our faith), and when we have been wronged in a secular matter, we have the right to seek redress. But sometimes the situations we get worked up about is neither an attack on the faith or a redress of grievances. Rather, we want people to acknowledge our ideas as authentic, and attack people who disagree with our opinions.
Consider Social Justice. We as Catholics cannot ignore our obligations in this matter. But some conservatives equate the term with “Socialism” and reject the teaching that is at odds with their political preferences. On the other hand, some liberals think that Social Justice means the embracing of liberal policies on government regulation or taxation. Both end up attacking people who disagree with them as not behaving in a Christian manner. The Pope is labeled a Marxist, and bishops are accused of going against the teaching of Christ. But in reality, they are picking a battle that is senseless to fight. Catholic Social Teaching does not bind us to one political platform. It tells us what sort of things we must acknowledge and avoid, calling us to work together to find a solution that actually helps people.
Or consider the issue of gun violence in America. Of course it is deplorable, especially when it comes to the issue of mass shootings. The Church condemns such things. However, the issue of gun ownership in relationship to gun violence is not as cut and dried as some would lead you to believe. The Church allows for self-defense (see the Catechism ¶ 2263-2264). However, it also recognizes that the state has the responsibility to ensure the safety of the citizens, which may prevent a laissez faire approach to firearms. The people who invoke the authority of the Church to say total banning of firearms is required or to say that infringing on the right to own a bazooka is required are both staking out a position that is not defensible in the name of the Church. A Google search on the subject finds many opinion pieces on the subject (pro- and anti-gun). But the actual statements made by those in authority within the Church do not stake out either position. Consider the 2012 USCCB statement on the subject. It does not demand the total disarmament some Catholic bloggers are calling for. It calls for reasonable restrictions aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of those who would abuse them. Yes, it is not well defined, allowing people to have disputes on what a “reasonable” restriction is. Also of interest is a Vatican statement [*] on small arms trafficking:
Unfortunately, however, it is impossible to ban all kinds of small arms and light weapons. "In a world marked by evil ... the right of legitimate defence by means of arms exists. This right can become a serious duty for those who are responsible for the lives of others, for the common good of the family or of the civil community. This right alone can justify the possession or transfer of arms". (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, "The International Arms Trade: an Ethical Reflection" in Origins 8 (24), 7 July 1994, p. 144).
This is not an absolute right, since there are specific conditions placed on the licitness of the production, possession and acquisition of arms. Nonetheless, in our meeting today the topic is fairly limited. Here we are discussing illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. This is, in a manner of speaking, a negative statement of the fundamental question of the legitimacy of the international arms trade.
In other words, there can be a legitimate use of small arms for self defense, but not an absolute right. Like the discussion of Social Justice, the Church does not say that one political position is endorsed. Rather she calls on people to work together to find a solution using the teaching of the Church as a basis.
I could mention many other issues of political and economic concern that people stake out as a hill to die on, and I’m sure that in each case the person who supports a certain position would label me as being unchristian and a tool for the other side for not supporting their position. But, that would miss the point. I don’t write this to endorse a specific position (liberal or conservative) on Social Justice or Gun ownership. Rather I write this to point out that the hill to die on is the Church position, and we should be working together to find a good solution.
The “hill to die on,” the things we fight about to defend should be the actual Catholic teaching. In such a case, defending that “hill” done according to Our Lord’s commands may lead people to hate us (see John 15:18-21), but we cannot yield here. However, the things where we can have legitimate differences of opinion as Catholics should not be that hill where we leave people hating us because of our own behavior (see 1 Peter 2:19-20).
So keep this in mind as we discuss issues in blogs or on Facebook. Defend the faith with charity, but don’t fight flame wars over things where there are legitimate grounds for difference of opinion.
[*] Being an address to the United Nations, this document is of course not a magisterial document. But it does raise a point on how the Church views self defense and firearms.