Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

On the sacrifice of telling the truth

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 15, 2024

Surprisingly, one of the biggest sacrifices we can make nowadays is to tell the truth. I don’t mean to tell the truth about the faults of others, of course, but rather to tell the truth about Catholic faith and morals outside that safe circle of the few family members and acquaintances who share our values. Faithful Catholics rarely find themselves in public situations in which a clear statement of the truth about Christ, the Church or morality is likely to be well-received. Consequently, when others assert incredibly stupid or deliberately negative things about God, the Church or morality as known through both Divine Revelation and the natural law, our most common response is likely to be silence.

Not everyone is so reticent. I was in line at the prescription counter of a drug store today, and the fellow ahead of me kept telling me about himself—how independent and self-reliant he was, how messed up the world is, and how if anything went wrong with normal services or the economy, he could fend for himself and even live off the rats in the dumpsters if he had to, because he had his trusty knife. When he left, he wished everyone else in the line “the kind of day you deserve”.

I might have really liked him, but despite being at least in his 50s, he wore his baseball cap indoors, with ladies present…and, horror of horrors, with the visor to the back. We didn’t discuss the ethics of harvesting rats, which might have made an interesting question of the natural law, since I was too busy burying my nose in my phone to avoid eye contact. Actually, I was trying to get Phil Lawler on speed dial to ask for smart things to say. But with that uncanny situational awareness Phil always demonstrates, he didn’t pick up.

Character courage

There may be a moral here somewhere. My vigorous queue-mate gave some evidence of believing the modern world is pretty messed up, what with our craven dependence on social norms, social services and (perhaps by implication) political correctness, since he clearly didn’t think people could think and act for themselves. In fact, he mentioned that 99% of people, if they were suddenly put back in time a hundred years, would not be able to survive, partly because they had never learned to think anything or do anything for themselves. Like slaughter and eat rats. By contrast, he thought and learned for himself…which, I must suppose, is why he had his hat on backwards.

Now for this man, sticking out in a crowd was easy and enjoyable, but more for being a character, I suspect, than for being a character reference. He rather played the role of a large and loud character joke. The problem is that we can be a “character” or even a “Catholic character” without as much courage as it takes to be a “Catholic character reference”, which is to say a judge of character and of what it takes to be a good and even noble character. That’s a burden we all share: It is one thing to be a mere crank; it is another to be spiritually challenging—by which I mean dangerous—to those who are at once self-absorbed and culture-bound.

Nor is it easy to see the best way to cope with being the odd man out. In one of the appendices to St. John Henry Newman’s autobiographical Apologia pro vita sua—the purpose of which was to defend himself against the charges of falseness, trickery, and dishonesty which were levelled against him when he finally converted to Rome—Newman considers what was then referred to as “the economy” in the early Church, in which it was common to protect the deeper details of the Christian mysteries when speaking with non-Catholics, so as to answer questions initially in terms they could understand, and to avoid challenging people with doctrinal details which might seem initially fantastic and absurd. This was one interpretation of the saying of Christ recounted in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you” (Mt 7:6). The term “economy”, as discussed by Newman, referred to economy of speech, as part of the larger topic of what actually constitutes the sin of lying.

Actually, Newman considers many sides of the question of Catholic veracity in these appendices, because it was the common opinion of Anglican England in the nineteenth century that Catholics were devious and dishonest people, at least in their clergy, even to the point of admiring such men as St. Alphonsus Liguori who, in his writings, had much to say philosophically and theologically about things like mental reservation. In the course of all this, Newman offers a wonderful anecdote concerning St. Athanasius, who was in a boat being rowed desperately away from officials bent on capturing and killing him, and who astonished his rowers by instructing them to turn back to meet his persecutors. As they approached, his enemies called out, “Is Athanasius near?” and Athanasius told the rowers to reply, “He is very close!” Whereupon his pursuers rowed on at double speed, and the boat which carried Athanasius calmly put into shore, where the saint could be hidden among friends.

I trust all is clear

Of course, Athanasius was widely known by those with whom he interacted most frequently as a strong believer in and defender of Christ and the Catholic Faith. And so must we be known among our family and friends and at least a great many of our other acquaintances and co-workers, unless there is some pressing reason for reticence in specific cases. But this does not mean that we must be like the man in my pharmacy line, shouting out all manner of declarations to all within earshot.

Indeed, unless pressed in particular instances to declare for or against Christ or the Church, it is only prudent first to establish bonds of trust and respect through our readiness to assist and serve those who constitute our natural companions through life, so they are disposed to discuss also the deeper realities of life; at the same time we ought to support as generously as possible those whose specific apostolates put them in a position to engage other persons in other situations which are beyond the ordinary scope of our affairs. As for those awkward situations in which we sometimes find ourselves, when nonsense is being bandied about and taken for granted to the detriment of the love of God and the Church and respect for the ordinances of both, we ought to consider these three alternatives:

  1. Altering a group discussion with a calm comment which will caution others that they may not talk either evil or nonsense in your presence without at least some gentle intervention concerning your own beliefs and Christian sensibilities: A good way to do this may be to mention a more appropriate way to respond to and assist someone who is contemplating the attitudes or actions under discussion, which are not favorable to their moral or spiritual well-being.
  2. Seeking out one who has spoken morally wrongly or offensively later for a private discussion in which you point out that there are other and, yes, better ways to look at the subject in question: A good way to do this may be to suggest perspectives or courses of action which are likely to bring more positive results for the person’s way of life and personal integrity, and an offer of availability if they ever want to discuss the issue further.
  3. And of course some occasions may dictate a quiet separation from such persons and groups, especially if they constitute a moral danger. In any case, it will almost certainly be noticed that you do not participate in certain kinds of discussions. But the response of others can vary from denunciation, to gentle ribbing, to private discussions with you by one or more persons who have noticed your reluctance and are drawn to know more about the reasons. We are often surprised, I think, by how many of those who may appear to be on the wrong course are actually uneasy about that course, and will be attracted to an independent figure who is immune to the power of the crowd.

Catholic identity and sensibility

To cite St. John Henry Newman again, in another place (I no longer remember where), Newman discussed the faculty of what he called “Christian memory”. Any good word or example of ours, though it may at the time be disregarded by those who hear or witness it, will typically remain in “Christian memory”, so that, when the time is ripe, the Holy Spirit can prompt the recollection, and as a result of its remembrance can start the person on the track of truth, goodness, openness to grace, and conversion. The Holy Spirit is quite capable of nurturing whatever good seeds we sow, that they may bear good fruit at the appointed time.

For this reason alone, we dare not take the coward’s way out and resort to constant dissembling when it comes to the truth of Christ. One of the strangest of the strange sects which arose in Europe at the time of the Protestant Revolt was a group which believed that the text about not casting pearls before swine was a universal injunction on believers to make no outward show of their religious convictions whatsoever. Sometimes called Nicodemists (after Nicodemus, a good man who initially visited Jesus only by night), this group of Protestants died out very quickly because, of course, they did essentially nothing to pass on their beliefs. Logically, of course, they could not even properly instruct their own children. This doctrine or habit may have been triggered by the threat of persecution or loss of status, but its theological justification was very naturally self-defeating, and it is a wonder that we can even find references to it today.

One certainty, then, is that prolonged dissembling is not an option. John the Evangelist quotes Christ as saying, “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5), but as Matthew reports in the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord also stated that his followers “are the light of the world” and that “a city on a hill cannot be hid” (Mt 5:14). In fact, in Mark’s Gospel, Our Lord asked all of us most pointedly: “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not on a stand?” (Mk 4:21). And both Matthew and Luke record the actual conclusion: Those who light a lamp put it on a stand so that “it gives light to all in the house” (Mt 5:15), “that those who enter may see the light” (Lk 11:33).

Testifying to the Light is simply telling the truth, but telling the truth in a fallen world nearly always requires personal sacrifice. Therefore, we must remember that genuine prudence is always good, and gentleness is good far more often than not, but cowardice means we do not yet trust our Savior—which is a sin to be confessed.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: till8774 - Mar. 16, 2024 1:45 PM ET USA

    That was so funny, Jeff, about trying to get Phil on the phone for some smart things to say! But serious your points about how to and when to engage others was pure gold! Thanks for the great advice! I'm