The demotion of truth
I recall listening to a lecture given by a university president, and it was clear to me that he was more interested in impressing his listeners with his virtue than enlightening them about his subject, which was the War Between the States. When he had presented his thesis to his mentor, he was told that there are many theories about the Civil War, and it may be that they are all wrong. The president rejoiced in this notion because of its spacious liberality. We can all be researchers without suffering the embarrassment of being more wrong than anyone else.
I thought, in my apparent naiveté, that the Civil War actually took place and that the primary interest of a good researcher lay in discovering the truth of what happened. The truth of the matter, however, seemed to evaporate, yielding to the politically correct notion that we can all be tolerant of each other because nobody is right anyway. The truth is elusive. What is important is liberality, tolerance and a pluralism of ideas. A university president, I thought, should be made of sterner stuff.
My president would not have been as confident as he was if it were not for the fact that he knew that liberalism was in the air. He was not going to boast that his thesis was any better than anyone else’s. He was not going to impose his views on anyone. Nonetheless, he did make a concerted effort to convince the members of his audience of his liberality. I left the lecture hall disgruntled. Truth had been demoted; self-aggrandizement had been promoted.
There is a Latin adage about which most people are familiar: De gustibus non disputandum est (Concerning matters of taste, there is no dispute). The corollary adage, with which relatively few are familiar, is: De veritate disputandum est (Concerning matters of truth, there must be dispute). Truth is real. Its discovery confers broad benefits, including freeing us from the darkness of ignorance. We should not be complacent about our ignorance. We should dare to make the personal and collective journey toward truth. We are derelict if we do not, being content with but the illusion of liberality.
Pride is the most deadly of the Seven Deadly Sins. It is also the easiest to conceal from oneself. It manifests itself chiefly in three ways: 1) presumption, by which we attempt to do things beyond our strength; 2) ambition, by which we have an inordinate love of honors; 3) vanity, by which we crave the esteem of others. Vanity, in turn, is divided into three vices: boasting, ostentation and hypocrisy. The person who says, “I may be a lot of things, but I am not a hypocrite,” is really boasting, and therefore guilty of pride. The person who declines mentioning that he discovered any aspect of truth may believe himself to be humble, but is really craving the approval of others. Sundry vices ensnare us in the net of pride in so many subtle ways.
On the other hand, we need not be boastful if we state something that we know to be true. We know that truth is not of our own making. Its apprehension should stir in us a sense of gratitude, as well as humility. “It is truth, not ignorance,” as Jacques Maritain has stated, “which makes us humble, and gives us the sense of what remains unknown in our very knowledge.” Moreover, in sharing the truth with others, we are not seeking their praise, but attempting to enlighten their minds. It sometimes requires courage to tell the truth. It never requires courage to hide from it.
There are some Catholic apologists who believe that they would frighten students away if they presented them with the undiluted truth of what the Church teaches. But the essential attractiveness of the Church lies precisely in its truth which has, as Pope St. John Paul II avers, a certain luminescence or “splendor.”
C. S. Lewis was an immensely successful apologist for Christianity without having to dilute it. The British philosopher and selfpublicist C. E. M. Joad read C. S. Lewis. Although Joad was, at the time, an atheist, he praised Lewis, stating that “Mr. Lewis possesses the rare gift of making righteousness readable.” Joad, influenced by what he referred to as the “network of minds energising each other,” published The Recovery of Belief in which he stated his reasons for accepting the Christian faith.
Bishop Fulton Sheen’s success in bringing people into the Church is legendary. In no way did he adulterate the truth to make it appear more palatable. It is the truth, not its shadow, which makes us free. By contrast, the skepticism announced by Pontius Pilate—“What is truth”— does not epitomize the man of tolerance, but one who betrays truth.
DR. DONALD DEMARCO is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University (Waterloo, Ontario), adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College (Cromwell, CT), and regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His books, including latest work, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad, are available through Amazon.com.