I like the saying — I have not been able to pin down who originally said it — that truth is truth even if no one believes it.
|Deacon Kyle Eller
I think it’s a concept we particularly need to grasp as Americans, living in a society founded on the idea of representative democracy, or more broadly on the notion that the “voice of the people” ought to play a decisive, or at least very important, role in how they’re governed. Of course, there’s much that is praiseworthy in those ideas, with aspects of it grounded in Christian beliefs about human dignity and authentic freedom, as well as care for social cohesion and other pragmatic considerations. Probably it’s even true that sometimes we’re wiser collectively than any of us is individually.
But obviously one can take the notion too far. If 51% of Americans, or for that matter 100% of them, decided that 2 + 2 = 3, would that make it so? Of course not. Our history also makes painfully clear that sometimes morally reprehensible policies have had enough popular support to receive approval in our laws. The most obvious example is that nowadays, thanks be to God, Americans virtually unanimously consider slavery to be a moral horror. But for so many long years it (and the equally horrible racist ideas undergirding it) was the law of the land and broadly accepted as good and right.
The “voice of the people” is not the voice of God. It’s not infallible — not by a long shot. It can and frequently does go very, very wrong.
So that’s important and useful to keep in mind when we’re bombarded with poll numbers and propaganda and undue emphasis on what the trendy currents of thought are. It’s extremely important for Catholics to remember this in a world where unbelief and even contempt for our faith has grown dramatically in a short time.
Sometimes the truth is unpopular, and being people of the truth means being willing to accept holding a minority view.
But I think there’s a less pithy and even less popular variation of this principle that also urgently needs our appreciation, which I’ll put this way: “Truth is truth even when unpleasant people believe it and the people I like don’t.”
The point is that in our polarized world we often face a temptation to deny truth based on the company we may have to keep in holding to the truth. Sometimes holding to the truth makes us want to keep those who agree with us at arm’s length and let others know we’re not “one of them.”
I think this point first crystallized for me during the build-up and beginning of the Iraq War, nearly two decades ago now. Considering it in the light of Catholic just war teaching, I quickly came to the firm personal conclusion that there was no “just cause” for war in Iraq, a view that was apparently held by Pope St. John Paul II and the future Pope Benedict XVI, and is now widely held.
But at the time, in the United States, most of the mainstream of American politics, right and left, had united around that war, and many conservative Catholics, in particular, were falling over themselves (and in my view sometimes embarassing themselves) coming up with justifications for it.
By contrast, much (not all) of the opposition to the war seemed to me a little … “out there.” Many of them were on the political fringes, people with aggressive and perhaps quirky agendas I couldn’t fully share, sometimes people embroiled in conspiracy theories.
This was uncomfortable for me. I was working for a secular newspaper then. I wrote about the war a fair bit, and I remember wishing those who agreed with me about it could just “rein it in” some. At the time I imagined that opposition to the war would be more effective if it was more sensible and temperate and grounded.
In retrospect, I know I was naive about both hopes. More reasonable opposition likely wouldn’t have made any difference in the public debate, which was being driven by powerful forces, and trying to tone down elements of the antiwar movement that revel in being counterculture would also have taken something bordering on divine intervention. But I tried, and I stayed with my conviction despite the company it put me in.
In the succeeding years, I’ve noticed many people confronting similar temptations. Sometimes it’s people who have distanced themselves from or outright rejected a pro-life stance, not because some argument has convinced them that the pro-life argument isn’t true but because they equate the pro-life movement with ideologies or particular politicians or political parties or religious dispositions they cannot tolerate.
Sometimes it goes the other way. I sometimes encounter conservative Catholics who almost visibly shut down when you start discussing the church’s teaching on economic questions or immigration or just war or the care for creation. Often the verbal dismissal is just to apply a political label — one that may not even be accurate — to the teaching, and it’s as if that label has done all the work of actually examining the idea on its merits and considering it. It’s a conversation-ender.
For many people, it seems as if they can no longer imagine (or at least admit) that someone of the opposing party or ideology could be right about anything, or that their own could be wrong about anything.
This seems to have grown worse over the years, as polarization has hardened. Encountering it always saddens me. Not only is it a serious error in reasoning, for Catholics it can be much worse. It can close us off to the call of God himself and our own deeper conversion to him.
Over the years I have learned that, just as it was years ago with the war, humbly encouraging a more thoughtful approach to these situations is at best an uphill battle.
But still, it’s worth observing: Truth is truth even when unpleasant people believe it and the people I like don’t.
Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].