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.
Pursuing Freedom for Excellence
This view is utterly opposed to that of the Gospels and of the Thomistic tradition, a view of freedom which Pinckaers describes as “freedom for excellence.” This freedom is the ability to act with excellence that proceeds from the reason and the will in correspondence with the natural longing for truth, goodness, and happiness. This freedom for excellence does not see each act as an isolated assertion of will, but rather seeks unity in one’s actions according to their ordering towards a final end, an ultimate good. From this perspective, law is not an external imposition; rather, when it is legitimate, it has a formative role in leading a person to grow in freedom, aided by the strength of virtue and the grace of the Holy Spirit.
While this discussion may seem highly theoretical, it has practical consequences in every choice we make. Many of us spend years in educational settings, so we can think about the difference between a student who chooses to study or not based on whether a certain teacher or professor will require that the knowledge be used for academic credit or grades. A voluntaristic approach, one shaped by the freedom of indifference, would say that each reading assignment is an individual choice based on the imposition of the will of the professor and the student’s desire for a certain practical, limited outcome. I want an A, and the professor requires that I write a paper, so I follow the law in order to achieve the A. If the grade would be given without my exerting this effort, I would probably choose not to do the assignment. Therefore, (on “Rate my professor”) I rank the professor the highest who requires the least so that I am free to use my time as I choose.
We can look at the same scenario from the point of view of freedom for excellence. I have a higher good that is the end I seek and in light of which I make my choices. In my education, this is to grow in knowledge and wisdom. By doing the readings and writing the papers to the best of my ability, I am hoping to grow. The requirements of the course, assuming it is a well-ordered course, are not simply an imposition of someone else’s will on mine but an invitation to engage freely in a process that should help me to achieve my end. The virtue of studiousness, the virtue that strengthens my will to commit my time and energy to the program of studies I have chosen, makes me more free not less. This is because virtue, by its nature, is “nothing else than the good use of free-will,” as St. Thomas writes. Virtue orders the will rightly to its true ends, as he further attests: “In us love is set in order by virtue.” So the virtuous student loves not merely the gain of prestige or surface rewards of study but the knowledge of truth that leads to wiser living. The virtue of studiousness, as a strength of the soul, helps a person overcome what St. Thomas calls the “trouble of learning” and, therefore, frees one to pursue with more ease and more joy the goal the intellect seeks by nature.
Truth That Sets Us Free
If a person could accept or even begin to understand the difference between these two worldviews, it is possible to recover a sense of truth as at the service of human freedom rather than as the enemy of human freedom. But since many people are not yet at the point of consciously pursuing an ultimate good that unifies their perspective on all the choices they make, we and the Church herself have to consider how truth is handed on. There is an objective answer to the ultimate good for which we were created, and which should unify all the choices of our lives, but many people are living from the level of perceived and partial goods. If the Church and individual believers want to educate and form people in freedom, we must consider how objective truth meets subjective response in the interpersonal encounter.
If we believe that there is objective reality and that there is an ultimate good towards which we can act, then to withhold the truth or directly to lie is not loving. If we know a person has a serious allergy to nuts and we hide the fact that a dessert has nuts in its ingredients simply to keep the person from feeling excluded a dinner party, it is easy to see that this is a failure in love. When we look to Jesus and to the prophets in Sacred Scripture, they never told people that ways of acting which hurt them were good. Jesus did say to people whom he healed that they needed to go forth and sin no more, and John the Baptist did point out, even at the price of his life, that an unlawful marriage is not acceptable. Withholding truth or speaking an outright lie is not loving, but it is also possible to say that there is a way of giving the truth that is not as loving as it should be, and this is where those of us who work in handing on truth, especially the moral teachings of our Church, can have pause for reflection.
The Tragedy of Unloving Truth
What could possibly compromise the loving nature of imparting truth? The Church traditionally teaches that the goodness of a moral act depends on the act’s object, intention, and circumstances. The object in speaking truth is good, so the first problem may be at the level of intention.
If my intention flows from my own pride, this may very well compromise the goodness of the act of saying what is true. If I speak the truth in order to prove myself right out of triumphalistic vanity or to humiliate another person before others, then what is an objectively good act becomes vicious. When the elders of Jesus’ time caught a couple in adultery, everything about their way of exposing the act showed their failure to love. In addition to the fact that they condemned only the woman and not the man, we are told that their whole purpose in bringing the woman before Jesus was to catch him in a trap (Jn 8:3-6). If we point out the problematic moral nature of a person’s actions in a way that is for our own self-justification, without regard for the person involved, or merely as a political pawn to further an agenda, even if our observation is grounded in an objective moral truth, we can fail woefully in love. It is essential to consider when speaking or writing about important moral issues that we examine our own hearts and be sure that our motive is to bring about the good rather than to assert a sense of personal superiority or detract from another’s reputation.
When it comes to the circumstances of speaking the truth about the good, having given due consideration to our intention in speaking, there is still an important discernment of when, where, and how such speaking should occur. This is the context in which Pope Francis’ constant call for pastoral accompaniment can be considered. Pastoral accompaniment should not be equated with withholding or falsifying the truth, but it should be associated with prayerful and thoughtful discernment of where, when, and how the truth is given. St. Thomas Aquinas asserts the virtue of prudence as essential in the spiritual life because it is the virtue that enables us to discern the right way to act toward a good; it is right reason regarding action. Prudence, St. Thomas writes, perfects not only broad principles of acting well but also how to act in particular cases: “It is necessary for the prudent man to know both the universal principles of reason, and the singulars about which actions are concerned.” And, as with all the virtues, prudence is not perfected merely by repetition of acts or by life experience but by a gift of the Holy Spirit. The gift of counsel perfects prudence, giving the Holy Spirit’s richness. Since we need to make judgements not only in light of this-worldly ends but also eternal ends, St. Thomas writes, “Hence in the research of counsel, man requires to be directed by God who comprehends all things: and this is done through the gift of counsel, whereby man is directed as though counseled by God, just as, in human affairs, those who are unable to take counsel for themselves, seek counsel from those who are wiser.”
The Divine Plan of Accompaniment
All of salvation history unveils a God who revealed himself gradually to a people who needed conversion on many levels. Only after delivering the Chosen People from the bondage of slavery did God reveal the Ten Commandments to Moses. Many centuries later, after a period of constant preparation, Jesus revealed the Beatitudes, a law far beyond basic human goods, a call to perfection of the interior life possible only by grace. Even after Jesus had spent three years with his closest followers, he said outright, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (Jn 16:12-13). This is essential to highlight. Apart from the grace of God, even the best explanations will not necessarily bear the fruit of conversion. This is why the Church cannot be a voice calling to conversion without being a life-giving companion via the sacraments and ongoing communion of life with those she serves. As Pope John XXIII pointed out in the very title of his 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra, the Church cannot be teacher without first being a mother.
The Church as Mother and Teacher
A key element of maternity is receptivity, and if we are willing to find in Christ himself a model of balancing truth and charity, we can see in his encounters with others a compassionate receptivity that shows us how love that is willing to suffer with the other prepares a space for openness to truth. In John 4, we read of the encounter of Jesus with the woman of Samaria whose self-conscious shame brings her to the well in the midday heat. Jesus initiates conversation with her, and when he speaks the truth of her situation, he does not do so to condemn her. It is as if he points out to her that he already knows the secret she considers the reason no one would want to speak to her. I believe he acknowledges this directly to show her that she does not need to hide and that he is speaking to her precisely because he sees more than her failure. He sees her heart and how thirsty she actually is.
In a powerful book called Broken Gods, Gregory Popcak explores how the seven deadly sins are simply distortions of the seven divine longings that are written into our very being as made in the image of God. This contemporary insight seems to build on St. Thomas’ assertions that people never seek evil as evil. Sin is a choice of an apparent good over a true good. Therefore, sin is contrary to eternal law or to reason’s grasp of the goods knowable by natural law. In the context of considering the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman, it is worth noting that Popcak speaks of lust not only as the obvious disorder of seeking sensible or emotional pleasure in a way not in keeping with reason. Rather, he looks at the internal root of the problem as the disordered pursuit of the deep longing for communion. I believe that Jesus himself shows a pastoral model with the Samaritan woman of recognizing the goodness of human desire and inviting a person to consider the true way to fulfill the longing rather than the false. He offers the woman, not a seventh empty sexual relationship but living waters of grace and the possibility of a worship that is in spirit and in truth. It is as if, in his compassionate receptivity, he takes on the thirst of the human heart (as we see on the cross) in his compassion, in order to welcome all whose false pursuits have left them thirstier than ever.
In addition to compassionate receptivity, maternity by its very nature involves a certain gestational patience, a waiting as new life develops and grows. When Rembrandt painted his famous work The Return of the Prodigal Son, he depicted the son kneeling in rags, his shoes falling off his feet, returning to the embrace of the Father. The Father bends to his son, embracing him with hands that are notably different. One hand is larger, suggesting the fatherly touch. This, in a sense, could be seen as the truth that moved the son to acknowledge that he had sinned against God and his father and that he no longer deserved to be called his son. The other hand is smaller, more maternal in appearance. The tenderness of a mother is seen in this bent figure who awaited the child’s return with patience, who welcomed the child home, and prepared a feast to celebrate being together again after the pain of separation.
This short exploration of the necessary link between truth and charity and the maternal qualities of compassionate receptivity and gestational patience points out how essential it is that the Church value and exercise the gifts of both women and men, mothers and fathers, Christ the Teacher and Christ the Divine Physician, in her pastoral outreach. I believe that it highlights the complementarity of the paternal and maternal readiness to make a gift of self that are central to the fruitfulness of both the family and the Body of Christ. If the Church is both mother and teacher, her children will flourish. The grace of the redemption was given so that we might walk in the freedom of the children of God, and this goal, even if embattled in our contemporary world, is one that has not been aborted. Christ is risen, the Spirit is poured out to lead us to the fullness of truth, and we are given grace to assist in the renewal of the face of the earth which occurs one person at a time, by the bold yet patient and compassionate giving of the truth with charity.
Sr. Mary Madeline Todd, OP is a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville. She earned her doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland, where she teaches religion and philosophy at Mount de Sales Academy.
 For a full discussion of freedom of indifference versus freedom of excellence, see Servais Pinckaers, O.P., Morality: The Catholic View (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), 65-81.
 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, Q. 55, art. 1, ad. 2.
 Ibid., I-II, Q. 55, art. 1, ad. 4.
 Ibid., II-II, Q. 166, art. 2, ad. 3.
 See Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1750-1754.
 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 47, art. 3, corpus.
 Ibid., Theologiae II-II, Q. 52, art. 1, ad. 1.
 See Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, Q. 71, art. 6, ad. 4 and 5.
 See Chapter 10 of Gregory K. Popcak, Ph.D., Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart (New York: Image, 2015).
This article originally appeared on pages 17-20 of the printed edition.
Photo credit: public domain image of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son at Wikimedia.org.