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Truth, Freedom, and Sincerity | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. | Ignatius Insight | February 25, 2010
"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 naïve in our understanding of the whole range of
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
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
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
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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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
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
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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