Tuesday, June 25, 2019

To Speak the Truth

Throughout Church history, different factions have challenged the authority of the Church, arguing that she has gone wrong in some manner. Were it only a case of arguing whether the interpretation of a passage in Scripture should be A or B, or whether a discipline should be changed, it would be much simpler to discern the truth about claims.

But these challenger factions—secular or religious—don’t limit themselves to assertions about what they think should be. They have to accuse the Church of making declarations or taking actions with a malicious purpose, usually a purpose that targets whoever the demagogues want support from. 

Some of these accusations are based on misrepresenting real scandals that some in the Church did commit. Some are based on fears of what might follow from the implementation of a teaching. In either case, these are generally portrayed as if the whole magisterium intended, decreed, and knowingly gave its blessing to the evils done by some. 

For example, Hippolytus, to justify his schism, argued that Pope Callixtus was enabling contraception and abortion by lifting prohibitions against slaves and free women marrying. The abuse was possible, yes. But no faithful Catholic would have made use of it. Those who would do this probably would have done it without the change. Martin Luther began with the corruption that did exist in Rome and appealed to the resentment of the German nobility towards the political power of the Pope, as a means of attacking the Pope’s religious authority.

Other claims are simply falsehoods in which those who began them either grossly misunderstood Church teaching or were willing to speak falsely in order to promote opposition towards the Church. Either they said that the Church said or did something she did not, or accused her of failing to do something that she did. 

An example of this would be John Calvin falsely claiming that the Church taught we were saved by our own efforts, not by God’s grace. He spent a lot of time “refuting” challenges to his denial of free will by equating Church teaching as Pelagianism...which was never taught by the Church in the first place. Or we can point to the modern attacks against Church teaching on abortion, contraception and homosexual acts. The common attacks are that the Church is hostile to women and people with same sex attraction... things far from our actual reasons for the teaching.

This is why I think Aristotle’s definition of truth is so important. If we believe that we must do X and oppose Y, we must speak truthfully in defending X and refuting Y. Otherwise we are using falsehoods. Here, I think I should make a distinction. A lie is a deliberate act of speaking falsely, but a lie is not the only way of speaking falsely. One can sincerely believe that a falsehood is true (the anti-Catholics often seem to sincerely repeat propaganda dating from the 16th century). One can assume that their personal interpretation of the writings of—or more likely, an excerpt from—an antagonist are correct (as many anti-Catholics and anti-Francis Catholics do, using a small quote without reading it in context) and establish a false “they believe...” accusation.

But sincerely believing an error about somebody’s alleged wrongdoing is not the same thing as invincible ignorance. If I say all of Group X supports an evil, I have an obligation to investigate to see whether what I believe is true. Am I correct that they understand a passage the way I think they do? Am I getting my information from primary sources, or hearsay? Have I interpreted a passage in a way Group X never intended? So long as learning the truth is possible, we can’t settle for what we think we know when an accusation could be rash judgment or calumny.

And, if we must make sure we speak truly in those cases, how much more is the wrongdoing to use evil means to achieve what we think is a good end? If we want to “embellish” the truth to convince people to join our cause because we think it will benefit them, we are doing what God forbids (cf. Romans 3:8).

Ultimately, when we want to point out a wrongdoing as proof of a universal statement or accuse someone of teaching error, we have an obligation to investigate whether what we think is actually true. We must say of what is  that it is and we must say of what is not that it is not. If we’re not sure, we must not accuse until we are sure. Otherwise, we bear false witness.

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