Truth or Charity?
ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
Alice von Hildebrand
One of the most burning topics today is the relationship existing between "truth" and "charity." I shall defend the thesis that they are so closely linked that they cannot be severed. It is, however, fashionable today to establish a dichotomy between them. "Tolerance" and "compassion" are politically correct. The word "truth" jars modern ears: it is redolent of authoritarianism. Many of my students were clearly allergic to the very word. How right our Holy Father was when he spoke of "dictatorial relativism." Unfortunately, a democratic majority can also be "dictatorial." In the 19th century, the megalomaniac, Auguste Comte, had already proclaimed, "everything is relative, except the statement itself."
Before coming to the core of this article—the bond existing between truth and charity—a few remarks are called for. It would be a mistake to believe that up to recent times men were always receptive toward truth, and in this context, I am referring to moral and religious truth. In his last work—The Laws—Plato wrote that men "prefer themselves to the truth" (V, 732). Obviously, they are not tempted to prefer themselves to "neutral" truths, and I mean by "neutral" those which have no bearing on the way we should live. In my long career, I have never met anyone opposed to geometrical conclusions. My students usually would defend the thesis that these command universal agreement because they are "factual" and therefore "certain," whereas philosophical views are only "opinions"—and why should one opinion be better than another? It sounds convincing enough, but the real reason is quite different: namely, that geometrical truths do not affect us personally; they do not dictate how we should live. It would be odd, indeed, if someone had a nervous breakdown upon finding out that the sum of the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles. But I had a student who declared—very emotionally and with tragic honesty—that the worst thing that could happen to him would be to discover that he had an immortal soul—because then "I would be accountable for my way of living." Needless to say, my chances of convincing him that he was mistaken were non-existent: one never sees what one does not want to see. The question is not “is an argument convincing?" but rather, whether one is willing to be convinced by its validity.
On the other hand, deep down men have a longing for truth. Let us recall St. Augustine at age nineteen reading Cicero's Hortensius and exclaiming: "O truth, truth, how did the very marrow of my bones yearn for thee when I heard them utter your name ... " (Confessions, III, 4). Man is full of contradictions, and oftentimes there is a battle in his soul between this thirst for truth, and simultaneously the fear of having to follow its dictates: "not yet today; tomorrow," exclaimed Augustine shortly before his conversion. How many of us can be certain that we will have a tomorrow?
The "unsavory" word "truth" is today replaced by "interesting," "new," "challenging," ''modern," "up to date." In C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, the master devil recommends his pupil to eliminate the word "truth" altogether and replace it by the words just mentioned. The psychological recipe works.
In a book written shortly before his death, Jacques Maritain deplored the contemporary "indifference to truth" (De I'Eglise du Christ, 1970). This is grave indeed for man's personal life, for his moral life, and most of all for his religious life. Among all the religious founders, Christ is the only one who said I AM THE TRUTH. Neither Buddha, nor Moses, nor Moharmned have dared utter such words. This assertion can only be validly pronounced by God himself. This is why Roman Catholics gratefully accept the official teachings of Holy Church, because Christ gave the keys of the Church to St. Peter, and She alone has the fullness of revelation. St. Paul warned us that truth will become unpalatable to many: "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching" (2 Tim. 4). Kierkegaard wrote in his Journals: "Every man is more or less afraid of the truth.". This is why self-knowledge is so difficult to attain. It is fearful to see oneself in the light of God. "Who, O lord, is innocent?" "Who can sustain the divine sight?"
The unpopularity of the Roman Catholic Church is partially due to the fact that She claimed, from her very birth, that She is the one true Church—a claim which is viewed as scandalously arrogant. What about other "points of view"? Why this pretentious claim that She alone has the fullness of divine revelation?
Up to Vatican II, this holy claim was loudly proclaimed. Today, it is seldom—if ever—asserted from the pulpit. This assertion is definitely against the Zeitgeist which advocates "broadness of views," "open-mindedness" and what my husband dubbed “ecumenitis.” Truth is considered "divisive" whereas the word "opinion" brings men together. A very orthodox Jewish colleague of mine defined ecumenism (as understood by most) as the meeting of an atheistic Jew with a fallen away Roman Catholic, and their pleasant discovery "that they have much in common."
According to some interpretations of Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has finally caught up with the time, which is opposed to any claim to the full possession of revealed truth. The reasoning behind this view is: How are we to attain peace in a world torn by religious conflicts? Is it not more reasonable to say that all religions are ways to God, and that truth being relative, each one of them has a message valid for certain cultures at a certain time? Man "having come of age" realizes that to accept the validity of all positions is the way to universal harmony and peace: no more religious wars, no more bickering over hair splitting distinctions that no one cares about anyway. A new, broad road is opened to us: the new age of universal peace. One thing is obvious: the word "truth" has to be eliminated altogether; for this short word is a mine of potential conflicts.
Is that "true" ecumenism? Does it require the elimination of the key word of human existence—Truth—in the name of tolerance and charity?
The prayer of Christ "that all may be one" is a wish that all of us should take to heart: "It is beautiful indeed when brothers live in unity" (“quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum" Ps. 133). It should be our ardent prayer. But it is sheer illusion to believe that true unity can be achieved if truth is eliminated.
The amazing and glorious Christian message—realized in the Incarnation—is that God is both Truth and Love. Christ claimed that He was the Truth; St. John tells us that God is Love. No other religion has united Truth and Love as two essential perfections of God himself. They are two facets of the glorious supernatural reality which flows out of the Miracle of God's love: the Incarnation. To sever one of these divine attributes from the other is to create a split in the Divine Person. How can our ardent love for our brothers be better expressed than in our burning desire to share with them the plenitude of Truth found in him who is Love and has the Church as his Bride? To "love" others without this ardent wish to have them find the plenitude of Truth is to misunderstand the nature of love. To create a dichotomy between Truth and Love which are one in Christ is to lose sight of the supernatural and fall back into a humanitarianism—a poor human substitute for divine love—a "love" stripped of its supernatural perfume. Those who through God's grace would gladly give their lives for the One True Church ardently desire that all men—without exception—would accept Christ as God and the Holy Catholic Church as His Holy Bride. But how should they communicate this message? No doubt, because men are imperfect; they can, in spite of their good intentions, create obstacles to the reception of their true message. What are the virtues that a true apostle should possess? What are the dangers lurking in the apostolate?
Let me mention some of the most obvious ones. The greatest caricature of a true missionary spirit is the shocking and grotesque attitude of those who try to force truth upon others. To proclaim with a club in hand that "God is love" is pathetically comical. This is an abomination which has, alas, taken place in history, rich in every possible type of abuse. He who wishes to help another to see a truth should approach him with loving reverence, and carefully avoid an "arrogant triumphalism," an attitude which betrays the pride of the one who has the truth. Truth makes one humble, not proud. Such a person behaves very much as if truth were his own possession which he generously offers to others. The very essence of fanaticism is to view truth as one's own possession and resent the fact that others do not accept it. It is taken as a personal offense. Cardinal Newman wrote that: "Others are so intemperate and intractable that there is no greater calamity for a good cause than that they should get hold of it" (Idea of a University). We must dread a poisoned zeal—the evil zeal referred to by St. Benedict in his Rule (72). This zeal is animated by the eagerness to conquer through one's own strength, so that one can receive full credit for the victory. This danger has been admirably diagnosed by Kierkegaard in his book Purity of Heart. How many so-called apostles re-formulate the words of St. John the Baptist according to their own vanity: Instead of saying, "May he increase and I diminish," they choose to say: "May he increase and I with him." How crucial it is for the true apostle to meditate on St. Luke's Gospel reminding us that when we have fulfilled our duty, we should remember that we are useless servants. "Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam" (“Not to us Lord, not to us, but to Your Name be the Glory”) (Ps. 113) should be words in the heart and on the lips of every true apostle. God does not need us, and when he calls us to collaborate with him, we should beg him that he would—for a brief moment—put our faults in bracket so that they would not create an obstacle to the beloved soul in search of truth.
Another widespread danger is what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls "a lack of discretion"—a virtue of key importance in the apostolate and often forgotten or very little respected. Solomon proclaimed that there is time for speaking, and a time for silence. There should always be a time for prayer. There is a right moment, and there is a wrong moment; to decide how soon grace should blossom in another soul is to put roadblocks to conversion. To pick up a fruit before it is ripe is to ruin it.
There must be a reverent listening into another person's soul to know the moment when truth should be communicated. But how does this square with St. Paul's command: we should preach the truth "in season and out of season"? These words coming from the mouth of an apostle must be taken seriously. Never should our loving concern about our neighbor be relegated to the background of our preoccupations, but one can communicate the divine message in various ways: one of them is by ardent but silent prayer. Another one is by the "apostolate of being"—the gentle radiation of peace and joy which is the secret of the saint. Another one is by the spoken or written word when this word is the fruit of grace. It was Plato who wrote, "We must dare speak the truth when truth is our theme." The words that first stand out are "we must dare," implying clearly that to utter certain unpalatable truths is dangerous. The second is that Plato tells us that there is a time when truth is the theme, and must be addressed openly and there are moments in which it must be kept in one's heart because the right moment has not come. We must patiently wait for the right signal which can be perceived when we are recollected, and the hearer is willing to listen.
Christianity is unique in its claim that truth and charity are one: to communicate truth without charity is to inject some poison in it. To believe that one is "charitable" because from fear of displeasing others truth is eliminated is a betrayal of both truth and authentic charity. It is a cheap way of being popular and accepted by everybody. There is a luminous passage in the gospel, which states clearly that truth cannot be severed from love. When Christ chases a devil from a man possessed, and the man exclaims, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," Christ, to our amazement, forbids him to say so. In the light of what we have just discussed it becomes luminously clear that the Evil One, when proclaiming the key Truth of Christianity, does it without charity of which he is forever deprived: the Evil One knows the Truth but this knowledge is totally severed from love and is therefore poisoned. To proclaim truth without love is to insert a subtle poison in the nectar of truth. Conversely, to believe that there can be true charity without a passionate love for Truth and an ardent desire to share it with those who do not have it, is a false charity, stripped of its innermost core. To refrain from communicating truth out of "love" is a plain betrayal. The inseparable union of truth and charity is the very foundation of Christianity. To claim that by eliminating truth—a potential source of disagreement—we can truly love is to lie to oneself and to cheat others. The dichotomy that some well meaning Christians have established between these two pillars of our faith is a tragic human deviation which must be diagnosed as a grave betrayal of Christ's message.
Missionary zeal animated by love is essential to Roman Catholicism. But man's talent for listening "halfway" is so remarkable that today many assume that true charity eliminates a concern for truth because some truths are unpalatable. Dialogue has its value, but it should not replace a fulfillment of Christ's command: "Go and teach all nations." Teaching is not dialoguing: it is proclaiming truth in his name. But this "teaching" should be rooted in an ardent, burning love for the sheep that are living in error, or in partial error. If we benefit from the totality of revelation—found alone in its fullness in the Holy Catholic Church—it is our duty to share it: we have no right to keep to ourselves a treasure that belongs to all men. Granted that a positive relationship can be established between people of different faiths, for all of them are children of the same God, this is only a first step, aiming at destroying their deeply rooted prejudices, aiming at making them realize that we love them in Christ, and are anxious to share with them the gifts we have received. To quote Dietrich von Hildebrand: "There are only two types of men: Catholics in RE; Catholics in SPE" (“There are only two types of men: those who are already Catholics and those who are prospective Catholics”). This will be realized in heaven.
Let me repeat: Those called to the apostolate should always pray: "I am an unworthy instrument; give me the grace—when I approach strayed sheep—to put my faults in brackets for a short while, so that what comes ‘from You through me’ is not poisoned by my imperfections.” How different this is from the attitude of those who betray their faith in the erroneous belief that the elimination of truth is required by compassionate love. It is tempting and fashionable to nourish the illusion that differences between various religions are "insignificant" by comparison with what unites them and should in fact be overlooked. But is it insignificant to believe that Christ is God or to reject it? That God is a Trinity of persons or that it is not the case? Is it unimportant to believe or not to believe that Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist? Is it unimportant to accept the authority of St. Peter or to reject it? Is it unimportant to be either monotheistic or polytheistic? Is it indifferent to believe in personal immortality, or to believe that either there is no immortality or that we shall all melt in a huge unknown?
Plato wrote that the gravity of an error depends upon the object we are erring about. To confuse a mule with a horse is regrettable, but insignificant. But, he tells us, we should give our greatest and fullest attention to avoiding mistakes in the domain which matters most: God (or the gods) and his relationship to man (The Laws, VIL 803). This is precisely the domain in which the words of Kierkegaard tragically apply: "The one thing that men fear least is to be in error," and obviously he is referring to the ethical and religious sphere. I have heard ad nauseam, "what does it matter what a person believes if he feels good about it and it makes him happy?" Tolerance can be an "unsacred" veil covering indifference toward the beliefs of others. Basically, it repeats the words of Cain: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Yes, I am.
Another misconception which has gained currency is the exclusive concern with salvation. More than once, Protestants asked me whether I was saved. Upon my telling them that trusting in God's grace, I hope to go to heaven, they would look at me with pity, for they have the guarantee that they are saved.
The Church has always taught that those that are victims of "invincible" ignorance, those who have had no chance of hearing the blessed song of revelation, those who are totally ignorant of the divine message and live according to their conscience and follow the natural law, can be saved. To many Catholics today, this clearly frees them from their obligation to share Truth with their brothers. "They can be saved; why should I bother?" What they forget is that according to Catholic teaching, the glorification of God is the primary end of man; beatitude is the second. Christ said to the Samaritan woman that we should adore God "in spirit and in truth." To render to God the honor He deserves we must know who He is, and how are we to know it if it is not revealed to us?
Our model should be the missionary apostle par excellence: St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, thanks to whose heroic work the pagan world heard the divine message. From the moment of his miraculous conversion on his way to Damascus, to the moment of his holy death, while facing the greatest obstacles, such as hunger, cold, persecutions, beatings, shipwreck, and threats of death, he dedicated every moment of his life to preaching the word of God. But this did not allow him to forget for a moment his brothers in the flesh—those who had refused to hear his message. His love for them finds its expression in his epistle to the Romans in which we read the amazing words, the most ardent expression of love: "I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart" (9:2,3). And he adds the amazing words, the ultimate expression of the holy madness of love, that he would wish himself to be accursed for the sake of his brothers. It was an unbearable source of grief for him that the Chosen People rejected the One issued from their race, who is TRUTH ITSELF.
Let us pray ardently to St. Paul that he may grant us his ardor in understanding that to share the Truth is the greatest gift of true Love.