Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Truth = Sin? Sometimes.
"2 We are betrayed, all of us, into many faults; and a man who is not betrayed into faults of the tongue must be a man perfect at every point, who knows how to curb his whole body." St. James 3:2
On occasion, this blogger has heard folks make remarks to the effect that, if one speaks the truth, that is always permissible, or even, the charitable course of action.
At the outset, of course, we would note that lying, or the direct intentional telling of falsehood, is always wrong and a perversion of the power of communication; we are able to communicate for the purpose of transmitting and conveying the truth.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, regarding the commandment against bearing false witness that: "2464 The eighth commandment forbids misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. This moral prescription flows from the vocation of the holy people to bear witness to their God who is the truth and wills the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit oneself to moral uprightness: they are fundamental infidelities to God and, in this sense, they undermine the foundations of the covenant."
Since we are to be committed to the truth, does that mean that telling what is true is always charitable, or at least permissible? Put the other way, then: can telling the truth be sinful? The answer is, without question in the perspective of Christian moral theology, no and yes. We can violate charity in speaking the truth, and sin by saying what is, so far as we know, accurate.
Whispering Angel by Carracci.
How can this be? I would note two ways.
The first is the great sin of detraction. The Catechism: "2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury.278 He becomes guilty... of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them.279" [278: Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 220; 279: Cf. Sir 21:28.]
It has always been understood in Catholic moral theology that revealing the faults and failings of another without "objectively valid reason" is sinful. This is detraction. When revealing the faults of another, it is understood that there needs to be a "need to know" before it can be morally acceptable. A desire to help the one with the faults, thus bringing them to the attention of one who can help, or a desire to protect others, thus revealing knowledge of crimes, are certainly legitimate reasons to disclose another's faults. Indeed, there is a duty to disclose such faults when ignorance of the faults could be harmful to anyone. If someone has a harmless, but embarrassing, fault, it is simply not acceptable to reveal it to others for the sake of conversation. If the fault was of a serious and dangerous character, however, it should be revealed to those who have the need to know -- whether the authorities, parents, family, or associates of the person at fault.
In this first consideration, we are determined to tell the truth, but we don't tell what would damage a reputation without "objectively valid reason" even if what was told was true. The adage, "if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all" is often a good bit of advice. The "need to know" in serious cases would be the obvious exception, where the common good demands that the truth be known, even if it damages someone's reputation, and this to protect folks from real harm.
A second way in which the truth can be told, but to harmful effect, would be when it is told without any consideration for the one receiving it. Consider the truthful fraternal correction given to one who either committed a fault, or held a erroneous position, but delivered in such a harsh and direct fashion that it did nothing to encourage repentance or introspection in the one rebuked. When someone is admonished, that must be done with their good firmly in mind -- and must be delivered in a way, if at all possible, that will be helpful to them.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q. 33, deals with the question of Fraternal Correction, and when and how it should be administered. In article three, he makes a distinction:
"...correction is twofold. One is an act of charity, which seeks in a special way the recovery of an erring brother by means of a simple warning: such like correction belongs to anyone who has charity, be he subject or prelate."
"But there is another correction which is an act of justice purposing the common good, which is procured not only by warning one's brother, but also, sometimes, by punishing him, that others may, through fear, desist from sin. Such a correction belongs only to prelates, whose business it is not only to admonish, but also to correct by means of punishments."
For us layfolk, then, admonishment and correction of our brothers should be an act of charity. In that very context, St. Thomas Aquinas doesn't argue that "as long as what you say is true, go for it," but he notes in article six, regarding this type of correction in charity proper to prelate and lay alike: "when it is deemed probable that the sinner will not take the warning, and will become worse, such fraternal correction should be foregone, because the means should be regulated according to the requirements of the end."
Such direction implies that, even if what was said was the truth, it must be said with the good of the individual in mind. Our fraternal correction of the faults or erroneous beliefs of others must be given with a consideration of its impact, of its likely result, and how, then it would be received. A great many particulars might be considered: perhaps the correction would be better received if delivered by someone else; perhaps the correction should be given in a different context or at a different time. Indeed, there might be cases when "such fraternal correction should be foregone," even when the correction was nothing but a statement of the truth. Truth in content, then, is not the only measure when it comes to determining if fraternal correction is necessary or delivered well.
Of course, if one is asked to affirm as good what is evil, or if one's opinion is sought, you certainly can't deny the truth or support evil -- though you can still deliver it with tact and a charitable concern for the particular soul of the person to whom you speak.
Charity demands that we speak the truth, but that we speak it with the good of souls in mind. It is simply incorrect to think that speaking what you believe to be true, regardless of circumstances, is always charitable.
More than ever, the admonition to think before you speak, is good advice; so, too, the golden rule!