The Ignatian Presupposition
“… it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager
to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.
Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it.
If the meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love;
if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which,
by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.”
Adapted from the Spiritual Exercises  by Katherine Dyckman, Mary Garvin, and Elizabeth Liebert in The Spiritual Exercises Reclaimed
How many times have you felt that something you said or did was misunderstood by someone else? And, not only misunderstood, but interpreted in such negative way that it had nothing to do with what you really meant or intended? It’s enough to make you start to question the other person’s motives, even questioning their good will towards you.
At the beginning of the book, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, Ignatius gives an instruction to the one who is guiding the retreatant and the one who is making the Exercises about how they are to relate to one another. We’ve come to call this instruction, the “Ignatian Presupposition.” A version of this Presupposition is printed in the box on the left. Essentially, it asks the guide and retreatant to 1) give the other the benefit of the doubt; 2) ask clarifying questions when unsure about the position of the other; 3) correct the other with love, when necessary; and 4) search for mutually acceptable solutions.
Sounds like this approach would help the relationship along, right? Fortunately, there’s no need to confine this way of proceeding to the experience of the Spiritual Exercises retreat. The Presupposition is a fundamental attitude towards others, choosing to see their God-given goodness before anything else. It is not an invitation to others to walk all over us or an excuse to ignore evidence of a malicious intent. Practicing the Presupposition expresses a desire to find common ground so as to work together to further the flourishing of the reign of God.
Some parishioners may be familiar with the blue cards printed with the Presupposition that are given out at some parish meetings and activities. As a parish community we are endeavoring to deepen our practice of the Presupposition in our daily lives. The parish’s Ignatian Spirituality & Jesuit Identity Committee offers a training on the use of the Presupposition to interested parish committees and groups. Please contact Catherine Heinhold at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to schedule a training.
A note on good intentions and harm
Good intentions do not absolve a person from any harm they may have caused.
The Presupposition does not seek to get a person off the hook for responsibility for their actions or the impact of their actions. We presume good intent to avoid demonizing the other and to remain open to relationship. When we are not sure about intent or about the content of what was said, we move to step 2, asking clarifying questions. It’s possible that we may discover malintent (in which case we might take steps to protect ourselves, while never forgetting the God-given dignity of the other person). On the other hand, what we hope for is dialogue and learning – which depends on the good will of both parties.
Sometimes we hear, “My intent was good so you shouldn’t be offended.” It is a misuse of the Presupposition to tell someone else how to feel. When offense if caused, we seek to understand through clarifying questions.
Commentary on the Presupposition
“Of the many gifts that St. Ignatius left us, few are as effective at cutting through mistaken judgments about others as his “Presupposition.” This little gem comes at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, and is a foundation of Ignatian spirituality…When we encounter someone who sees an issue differently than we do, the human response is to assume the person is foolish, ignorant, or perhaps even just mean. According to Ignatius, when we encounter someone we disagree with, what Christ would have us do is to check our emotions, and “presuppose” good intentions on the part of the other.” (Paul Hogan, Jesuit High School, Portland)
“While most people would agree with [the Presupposition] in principle, we often do just the opposite. We expect others to judge us according to our intentions, but we judge others according to their actions. In other words, we say to ourselves, My intention was good. Why don’t they see this? But when it comes to other people, we often fail to give them the benefit of the doubt. We say, ‘Look what they did!’ …The Presupposition steers you away from anger and so provides the other person with the emotional space needed to meet you on more peaceful territory.” (Fr. James Martin, S.J., The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, 235-6).
“Note that Ignatius isn’t saying that we should play Mister Nice Guy and ignore mistakes and false beliefs. Error should be corrected—but “with all kindness.” But before we start correcting other people, we need to do something else, and that is to do everything we can to understand how the other person understands the proposition that bothers us so much. This is the part that’s so often skipped. We think we already know why someone is spouting dangerous nonsense: they’re ignorant, or selfish, or afraid to admit the truth. They’re bad.” (https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/when-you-think-someone-is-wrong/)
“Finding God in those around us can be related to finding the good in a person or situation. Assuming the best, or seeking out the best, even when the temptation may be to focus on the negative (or the potential negative) is certainly a challenge. But perhaps it will help to remember that being blind to the potential good in a situation only prevents us from accepting and cherishing all that God offers us.” (https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatius-presupposition-intent-social-media-comment/)
“You note that this is not simply a proposal of Christian charity in our discourse. It is a theory of knowledge, applicable to all, Christian or not; specific to the Christian only insofar as it is a practical living-out, in its openness to the other, of Christian faith. If I am to win all the arguments, know it all beforehand, my mind has already shut down. The proposition of the other, of course, refers to what is truly important in the other’s perception, experience, conviction. It is not as if there were no truth criterion. If I am to learn, I must approach the other’s proposition with openness. Winning an argument will get me nowhere and I will lose the light that the other’s perception could give me. But the other will learn also, coming to an understanding of his own proposition that will enrich it and lead deeper into truth.” (Professor Raymond Helmick, S.J., Boston College, 2011)