Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Ratzinger on great consequences of small lies

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jun 26, 2005

"I do not hesitate to claim that the lack of truth is the major disease of our age," said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, speaking on the subject of "Preparation for Priestly Ministry." This lecture, published as the concluding chapter of A New Song for the Lord (1997), was reprinted in the Australian journal The Priest in November 2002. Herewith a strikingly perspicuous excerpt:

People are often uncomfortable with the truth; it is probably the best guide to selflessness and true freedom. Let us take the example of Pilate. He knows very well that this accused Jesus is innocent and that according to the law he should acquit him. He wants to do this, too. But then this truth comes into conflict with his position; it threatens to cause him trouble or even the loss of his job. Unrest could occur; he could appear in an unfavourable light before the emperor, and so on. So he chooses rather to sacrifice the truth, which does not scream or defend itself, even though its betrayal leaves him with a dull sense of failure.

This situation is repeated in history again and again. Let us recall just one positive example: St Thomas More. How natural it appeared to concede supremacy over the Church to the king! There is no explicit dogma that clearly forbade this. All the bishops had already done it -- why should he, the layman, risk his life and cast his family into ruin? Even if he did not want to save his own neck, ought he not, when considering the hierarchy of values, at least give his family priority over his stubborn insistence on his conscience? Such cases show macroscopically, so to speak, what happens again and again in our lives in miniature. I could get myself out of trouble if I made a small concession to the untruth. Or the other way around: accepting the consequences of the truth would cause me immense trouble. How often does that happen? And how often do we fail!

The situation St Thomas More had to face is constantly present when translated into everyday life. Lots of people say that, so why shouldn't I as well? Why should I disturb the peace of the group? Why should I make a fool of myself? Isn't the peace of the community more important than my know-it-all attitude? As a result, group conformity turns into a tyranny opposing the truth.

George Bernanos, who was haunted by the mystery of the priestly vocation and the tragedies of its failure, dramatically portrayed this danger in the character of Bishop Expelette in L'imposture. This popular bishop had been an academic; he is educated and kind and always knows how to say just what fits the situation and what the educated expect from a bishop in this position: "The courage of this shrewd priest, however, deceives no one but himself. His intellectual cowardice is immense ... No one is less lovable than one who only lives to be loved. Such souls, so clever as to change according to the taste of each and every one, are only mirrors." In his analysis Bernanos gets to the bottom of this failure: "'I belong to my times', he repeats, and this with the expression of a man who is testifying on behalf of himself ... But he has never taken into account that each time he says this he denies the eternal character which was imprinted on him."

In describing and diagnosing this disease, Cardinal Ratzinger shows himself a master pathologist. Let's pray that Pope Benedict proves an equally adept and tireless physician.

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