The appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court last October brought to light two distinctly different friendships.

One was between Barrett and a late Justice of the Court, Antonin Scalia, a fellow Catholic of serious belief and practice. Barrett was mentored by Scalia during her time as law clerk, and was strongly influenced by his legacy of constitutional interpretation.

A more surprising friendship was that between Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a secular Jew, who died in September 2020 and whom Barrett succeeded on the Supreme Court. Their friendship rested on a deep divergence of worldviews. While they differed markedly on legal judgments, they maintained a relationship of respect and camaraderie.

Scalia and Ginsburg differed fundamentally on the subject of abortion. Scalia was dedicated to his Catholic belief in the sanctity of unborn life, while Ginsburg championed abortion as a woman’s right. Despite such disagreements; they were close friends, sharing various interests such as the opera, and enjoying the company of each other’s family.

After Ginsburg’s death, Scalia’s son Eugene commented on the nature of their friendship:

“What we can learn from the Justices — beyond how to be a friend — is how to welcome debate and differences. The two Justices had central roles in addressing some of the most divisive issues of the day, including cases on abortion, same sex marriage and who would be President. Not for a moment did one think the other should be condemned or ostracized.

“More than that, they believed that what they were doing — arriving at their own opinions thoughtfully and advancing them vigorously — was essential to the national good. With less debate, their friendship would have been diminished, and so, they believed, would our democracy?”

Such friendships are much less likely in present-day society.

The polarising nature of social and political movements, such as the so-called “cancel culture”, is banishing the freedom to form friendships in the midst of disagreements. It is now hard to argue on key social and political issues without the exchange becoming derailed by personal abuse. Intellectual judgments (“I think what you say is untrue”) are being swamped by moral pronouncements (“I think you are an evil person”).

No longer does the English author Sir Arnold Lunn’s definition of the “true liberal” apply, as someone “who protests against the persecution of conservatives;” nor the comment of the late Australian Labor parliamentarian, Fred Daly, who said he never made an enemy he could not be friends with.

Chesterton used to caution against allowing an argument to degenerate into a quarrel.

The purpose of an argument is to clarify the truth, and when a quarrel intervenes, it blocks the opportunity for enlightenment. “Perhaps the principal objection to a quarrel,” as Chesterton put it in a typical paradox, “is that it interrupts an argument”. In his autobiography, he reflected on his relationship with his younger brother Cecil. “l am glad to think,” he wrote, “that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarrelled.”

When Chesterton visited America in 1930 and spent several weeks lecturing on literature at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, a fellow lecturer recalled how he was never patronising in his attitude when he argued. While he was quick to disagree, he was “always respecting your meaning and clarifying it”.

Chesterton won praise for his lifelong friendships with public figures whose views he opposed. Perhaps the most notable was George Bernard Shaw. “I have argued with him, said Chesterton, “on almost every subject in the world: and we have always been on opposite sides, without affectation or animosity… It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.”

Chesterton defended such causes as the natural family, the independence of private property, and a patriotic love of one’s nation, against Shaw’s preference for the power of the State, international government, and the evolution of a superior humanity. Throughout these endless disagreements, they remained devoted friends. Chesterton praised Shaw for his “fair-mindedness and intellectual geniality”, while Shaw, who was personally wealthy, gave practical help by sponsoring public debates when Chesterton was financially strapped.

A sweet completion of their friendship occurred after their deaths — in 1990, when the British Library in London acquired the Chesterton papers. Most of the funding came from the estate of George Bernard Shaw.

A further clue to their friendship is that Chesterton may have sensed in Shaw an unfulfilled search — that beneath his disdain of religious faith lay a deep spiritual yearning, as revealed in the letters he exchanged with an enclosed Benedictine nun, Dame Laurentia McLachlan, of Stanbrook Abbey in Yorkshire.

“When we are next touring in your neighbourhood, Shaw once wrote to her, “l shall again shake your bars and look longingly at the freedom on the other side of them.”

This may be part of the secret of a friendship founded on differences — that one person can sense in the other a hidden need that only friendship can begin to satisfy. A spiritual affinity is struck, which becomes the means of deepening a friendship, and leading, not just to communication, but to communion. The result is not to dispel disagreements so much not just to transcend them.

Another friendship that Chesterton forged — equally unlikely — was that with H.G. Wells. It, too, seemed to thrive on differences. Wells’s scientific utopias and passion for a world state did not fit with Chesterton’s ingrained realism and love of the local, But Wells admired Chesterton’s gracious and courteous character and unwavering fairness of mind, while Chesterton praised Wells’s prodigious imagination and the vast variety of his works.

As with Shaw, Chesterton was conscious of Wells’s spiritual longings. He looked beneath the mask of utopian hopefulness that was worn by Wells and sensed a searching heart rather than an objecting mind.

The spirit of their friendship was captured in a private letter which Wells wrote to Chesterton in 1933:

“If after all my Atheology turns out wrong and your Theology right, I feel I shall always be able to pass into Heaven (if I want to) as a friend of GKC’s. Bless you.”

Karl Schmude is a founding fellow of Campion College in Sydney and formerly university librarian of the University of New England. He is president of the Australian Chesterton Society.