I recently had a conversation with a gentleman whose daughter had severed all communication with him over an email misunderstanding. His daughter had very narrowly misinterpreted his words in a family email in a derogatory way. He understood how his words could be misunderstood but it was devastating that his own daughter would choose to act so uncharitably toward him. His attempts to assert a correct understanding of his email were met with obstinace and eventual estrangement. Tragically, his daughter seemed to have made up her mind as soon as she read the email and rashly misinterpreted his words.
St. Peter wrote, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16). Indeed, even the written word of God is subject to misinterpretation. Thousands of Christian denominations exist due in part to varying interpretations of Scripture. Fortunately, Jesus instituted the magisterium of the Catholic Church to guide us in biblical understanding.
If God’s word is subject to misinterpretation, how much more so must be our own words! Who hasn’t sent an email or a text message only to have the recipient take his comments the wrong way? We all think our words are clear enough when we send them, but, on further reflection, we can sometimes see how they might be misunderstood. This can be a frustrating and even hurtful experience: “How could you think that’s what I meant?”
Typed messages are especially susceptible to misinterpretation because they must be read apart from the writer’s other forms of expression that would otherwise help convey their intended meaning. Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and other such communication devices are lost in cyberspace. Emoticons can help but they are a poor substitute for the real thing.
Knowing that our own words can be so easily misinterpreted, we must each humbly admit that our own interpretations of others’ words might not always be accurate, either. It would be nice if we each had our own personal magisterium to help us correctly interpret others’ words, but we don’t. We do, however, have teaching from the magisterium of the Catholic Church that I think can be helpful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2478; quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola) instructs as follows:
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
This is a very sensible step-by-step approach. It begins by charitably attempting to understand another person favorably. We should not be quick to interpret others’ words in a derogatory way. Tragically, failure to observe just this first step has led to the needless destruction of countless relationships, including that of the gentlemen and his daughter introduced above.
If we are unable to understand someone in a favorable way, the next step is to ask him about it. Allow him the opportunity to explain what he means. He might shed light on how to understand him favorably. This doesn’t mean that we have to agree with him; the goal is to keep the relationship on charitable terms.
If charity was not intended, fraternal correction is in order. Personally attempt to lovingly restore charity. If this doesn’t work, attempt other measures for the sake of his salvation. This approach to fraternal correction is consistent with Jesus’ teaching (Matt. 18:15-17):
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
While fraternal correction will certainly be necessary in some cases, I suspect that in most cases, if we begin with our own honest attempt to understand others favorably (the first step mentioned above), potential problems will be averted before we have had a chance to instigate them.