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Truth, Freedom, and Sincerity | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. | Ignatius Insight | February 25, 2010

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"Your country (England) is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet ... the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed.... Fidelity to the Gospel in no way restricts the freedom of others—on the contrary, it serves their freedom by offering them the truth." -- Benedict XVI, "Ad Limina Address to Bishops of England and Wales." (February 1, 2010. L'Osservatore Romano, English, February 3, 2010)


Notions of charity, truth, law, compassion, equality, tolerance, virtue, sincerity, friendship, justice, and benevolence are so muddled in recent thought that we find these noble aspirations and realities to be analyzed in such a way as to deny each other's validity. Intelligence, of course, means to sort the essence of each notion out and properly relate it to the others, if possible. All these terms have valid origins in reason and revelation. Freedom or liberty has many meanings. It can mean freedom of the will, freedom under law, freedom to do whatever I want, or freedom to do what I ought or what God directs me to do.

Some people obviously are more virtuous than others. Therefore, they are not simply "equal" in how we regard them. But if we insist on equality, we have to ignore the often higher sense in which we are not equal. Aristotle says that all revolution and controversy arises from perceptions of justice and equality. Everybody that is equal in some things thinks he is equal in everything; those who are unequal in some things want to be unequal in all things.

The essence of civilization is how we balance these two very valid but different conceptions. We may demand "in justice" that everyone be our friend, since this is what a certain understanding of "equality" demands. But it cannot happen. Justice to be justice, as Aristotle taught, needs to recognize both equal and unequal and to know the difference. Friend of everybody, friend of nobody, as an old saying went.

Years ago (in 1976), for another example, I wrote an essay entitled, "On Sincerity: The Most Dangerous Virtue" (It is found in my oddly-titled "English Book," The Praise of 'Sons of Bitches'). There, I did not intend to suggest that we should not be sincere in our dealings or that it was not a virtue of sorts. The point was that we want people to be sincere with us. We want them to tell us the truth in what they say and do. We do not want them to dissemble. But sincerity itself is no necessary indication about whether what one is sincere about is true or false, right or wrong.

Thus, I am content to admit that Hitler was "sincere" in his views, as was Lenin, and as are many of the current suicide bombers. Usually the more "sincere" such types are, the more dangerous they are to the rest of us. This is why we cannot be nave in our understanding of the whole range of human nature.

In part, this fact of sincere fanatics is why modern relativists want to make any religious belief, "sincerely" held, to be the greatest danger to society. The dubious theory is that only the doubters are not fanatic. The only problem with this view is that such relativism is itself "sincerely" held. It usually is as fanatically held as the ones that the same relativists call absolutists. Believing in nothing and believing in something still requires us to ask about the truth of what is believed. And if we deny that there is a truth, we really have no objective grounds for disagreeing with anything at all.

We also say, "I am sincerely sorry that I offended you." In recent years, the press has been filled with many expressions of "sincere sorrow" from Bill Clinton to John Edwards to Tiger Woods. The fact is that we confuse sincerity with truth. Confession, to recall, requires that we have "sincere" sorrow and a promise that we do not repeat what we did that was wrong. Many a theology, however, maintains that this sincerity is all we need. Hence, there is no need of Church or sacrament.

The first thing that real "sincerity" requires, however, is something more than itself. We must know what it is we are sincere about. We must know whether that object of our sincerity is true or not, worthy or not. Multiculturalism and ecumenism, consequently, cannot stand by themselves as independent criteria that presuppose only themselves.

Otherwise, we quickly find ourselves accepting whatever the culture or religion approves, no matter what it is. The word "culture" itself needs clarification. When John Paul II talked of a "culture of death," he was talking about a series of laws and attitudes that were wrong. To accept such a "culture" on the grounds of equality with other "cultures" is to ignore the position of truth within the culture.


In his talk to the English and Welsh Bishops, the Holy Father pointed out that many of the things we are asked to be "equal" about—things that have been put into law—are against the natural law. Once we place an ideology of "equality" over natural law, we find quickly enough that natural law disappears in the name of equality. The distinction of virtue and vice disappears because we cannot distinguish which is which. This disappearance is what the Pope was referring to.

The Pope says that the English are famous for their protection of "equality of opportunity," not just equality. Equality of opportunity quickly and logically produces myriads of natural inequalities. Some people work more intelligently, or longer, or more diligently than others. Human talent in any area of excellence is not distributed "equally." And it is a good thing it isn't, for this difference of desire, talent, and work make a common good possible and necessary.

Equality, moreover, must include the possibility of not succeeding. If on grounds of compassion or sympathy we keep in existence by public policy things that no longer work or work well, we are not really helping anyone. We are, ultimately, equal in order that we might be different. Even in divine things, the ranks of angels and saints differ and vary. To force everyone to be "equal" in every way is basically a totalitarian principle.

We have "equal opportunity" but not equal results of how and whether we use the opportunities given to us. And when our failure to have something lies in ourselves, we cannot claim that we have a right to it whether we do the correct thing or not. At some level, equality theory denies free will and its results.

Compassion, like sincerity, is another word that is easily pressed into service for the denial of truth. Compassion means that we try to "suffer with" someone. That is, we try to see or imagine the other's situation so that he does not suffer alone. Yet, we deal with the suffering of animals differently from the suffering of human beings. Once we begin to think they are the same, we have to treat both the same. In fact, the whole political and "scientific" elevation of homosexuality to "normalcy" has been accomplished in the name of compassion now become a "right," with some support of equality, however radically different homosexual life is.

It is now considered to be against the natural law to maintain that anything at all is wrong with homosexuality, or euthanasia, or abortion. We not only want to "tolerate" this view—that is, distinguish between the act and the person—but we want to establish that no problem of good and evil is at work. We end up being compassionate toward both the sinner and the sin. In the end, we logically deny the sin in order that we can tell the sinner he has done nothing wrong. All are, therefore, equal.

This view of equality and compassion, in England and elsewhere, is put into civil law and court decisions. The civil law now prosecutes those who say that this disorder is a disorder. The biblical, scientific, and philosophical statements to the contrary barely survive against the onslaught of civil equality and political tolerance. Thus, little discussion is given to the issue itself. We discuss "rights" and the lack of "sympathy." We speak of the "injustice" of maintaining that it is not right to do whatever it is we want to do if we have a law allowing us to do whatever it is. All emphasis is concentrated on the lack of compassion of those who see any objective truth problem with the results of the practice, whatever it is.


In an Address to the Roman Rota on January 29, 2010, Benedict XVI, speaking of Canon or Church law, stated: "Canon law is at times undervalued, as if it were a mere technical instrument at the service of any given subjective interest, even one that is not founded on truth." Law in principle seeks as well as possible to base itself on the truth of the situation, on what is just here.

Obviously, the same concern about civil laws not being founded on truth is everywhere present. Many constitutions, including our own, were set in place in order to present a check on rule not based on truth. Checks and balances, separation of powers, federalism, and two houses of a legislature, all were institutionalized by men who realized the danger of law not founded on truth. When these limiting institutions ossify or are ignored or interpreted away, we have a regime without limits from any source but what it wants.

In a talk on the Feast of Thomas Aquinas (January 28, 2010), Benedict returned to a theme that we often find in his works: "As I have stated several times, today's culture is strongly influenced both by a vision dominated by relativism and subjectivism, as well as by methods and attitudes that are often superficial and even banal, to the detriment of serious research and reflection, and consequently, of dialogue, confrontation and interpersonal communications." Thus, if we return to our original concern, we find that it is quite possible morally and politically to corrupt every idea of our noble purpose both in this world and the next if we insist that truth is relative and subjective.

This position means that no objective order of things can be found about which we can agree. We all become isolated in our own subjectivity. No one has to or can agree with anyone else on any grounds but sympathy or compassion. In such a world, "equality of opportunity" becomes the equality of doing whatever we want. We insist that the public order has no other purpose but to support us to do what we want. Since there is no truth, this latter "what we want" becomes the only truth. The only sin is to affirm that this view is false and destructive to everyone concerned, even those who rejoice in doing whatever is it that they want.

Benedict concludes his remarks to the English bishops by saying that "Fidelity to the Gospel in no way restricts the freedom of others—on the contrary is serves their freedom by offering them the truth." We are not free if we do not live in truth. The slavery to sin is much worse than political slavery, which is bad enough. We cannot be what we are except in the truth of what we are. When we exercise our "right" to do what we want, when we sympathize with lives of disorder, we lock ourselves and others into a world of self-centeredness in which the only law that counts is the one we give ourselves, whatever it is.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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