Carved in stone above the courtyard entry to our Congregation’s founding educational institution are the words (in Latin on one side and English on the other): to give truth is the greatest charity. For the six years I taught at that school, it was not lost on me that this is a radical and controversial statement in our world today. When we think of charity, we think of acts done to serve the poor, such as the corporal works of mercy. If we think of charity in speech, many associate this with attitudes and words of non-confrontational tolerance. But I dare to say that few people spontaneously think of truth and charity as necessarily linked. Yet this is central to the message and the very Person of Jesus Christ, who not only taught that God is love (1 Jn 4:8), but that he, as God incarnate, is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6).
We might ask why truth has fallen into disrepute. It goes beyond the scope and limits of this article to explore in depth the effects of the Enlightenment that have led some to doubt whether there even is truth, especially concerning knowable universal ethical goods. Because this article aims to address the pastoral approach to the truth, it seems worth our time to explore a few reasons at the applied level that people perceive a divorce between truth and charity.
Challenges to Wedding Truth and Charity
Why is giving truth one of (if not the) highest forms of charity? Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (Jn 8:32). Few would argue against the fact that today we all want to be free, but because freedom has often been interpreted as the license to choose among all possible alternatives, regardless of the impact on the person and on others, freedom itself needs to be revisited in the light of truth.
Theologically we can say that the gift of freedom is given to us by our Creator who made us in his own image, capable of knowing the truth of what is good and therefore of choosing what is good, ultimately choosing to love. According to the great Thomist Servais Pinckaers, the voluntarist overemphasis on the will resulted in a concept of “freedom of indifference” that is merely the ability to choose between two contraries proceeding from the will alone. From this perspective, each choice is independent, with no unifying end in view. Law is not only external to our freedom, but it also limits our freedom through obligation imposed from outside.