Our Right to the Truth
By John A. Hardon, S.J.
Never before in the history of the human race has there been more need for knowledge of the truth. Why can we say this? Because so many people, especially in "developed" countries, are so restless, so unsettled that a whole science has come into existence to provide people with some semblance of peace of mind.
Peace of mind is the experience of possessing the truth. Millions are living in a dream world of unreality. Inevitably they cannot be at peace because they are out of contact with reality, whereas truth is conformity of the mind with reality. In the words of St. Augustine, "That is true which is."
All of this is a prelude to what I wish to share with you, that we have a right to the truth because God wants us to be at peace.
The title of the present article, "Our Right to the Truth," has two basic implications: We have a right to the truth because, without the truth, we cannot be at peace in this life, nor reach our heavenly destiny in the life to come. But others also have a right to the truth, and this places a heavy obligation on us to share the truth that we possess. I would go so far as to say that the most fundamental duty we have in life is to love others by giving them what others have given to us, namely, a knowledge of the truth.
What Is Truth
This is the question that Pilate asked of Christ during the Savior's Passion, "What is truth?"(John 18:38). To appreciate the significance of Pilate's unanswered query, we must see what occasioned his asking the question. Jesus had just said that His kingdom is not of this world. At which Pilate inquired, "You are then a king?" The answer he received is the foundation of Christianity:
Yes, I am a king. I was born for this. I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice (John 18:37-38).
We began by asking, "What is truth?" The philosophers have a standard definition, truth is agreement of the intellect with reality. Since there are three kinds of such agreement, there are three kinds of truth.
When Pilate asked Jesus, "What is truth?" he did not receive a direct answer because Jesus had already told him. Christ is the truth, on all three levels of its meaning.
Our Right to the Truth
The focus of our reflections is on why we have a right to the truth. We have a right to the truth because we have the duty to save our souls. That is why God became man, to enable us to reach heaven. Christ, we repeat, is the Truth. By our obedience to Him, we attain our eternal destiny.
Immediately the question arises: Where are we to find this truth? We find it in the teaching of the Church, which Christ founded precisely to enlighten the human race until the end of time. In the words of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church is the "expert in humanity." She is an expert in humanity because she is the divinely authorized guide for the moral conduct of the human race.
Her moral teaching is intended not only for professed members of the Catholic Church. It is intended also for those who are not Catholic or even Christian. Provided they are in good faith, the Church's moral doctrine is intended for all the members of the human family. After all, God wants everyone to be saved. And the Catholic Church is the universal sacrament of salvation.
We might wonder why anyone would even raise the question of why we have a right to the truth. The question is not academic but painfully realistic. Every basic area of Christian moral teaching is now on trial.
There is a flood of errors in our day, which either distort or deny the whole spectrum of Christian morality. It is no longer a question of limited or occasional dissent. It is a systematic calling of Catholic moral doctrine into question on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions.
We are asking ourselves why we have a right to the truth. We have a right to the truth because there is so much untruth being taught, promoted, and defended in nominally Catholic sectors of modern society.
Do those who question the Church's historic moral doctrine have a basis for their teaching? Yes, the basis for their teaching is separating human freedom from its essential and necessary relationship to the truth. For example, they reject:
Can we be even more specific? There are those who claim that the commandments of God are basically irrelevant to the daily decisions of individuals and societies. Others say it is possible to love God and one's neighbor without obeying the Ten Commandments. They further assert that there is no necessary and unbreakable bond between faith and morality; in fact, that faith alone is enough for being a Catholic.
One result has been the rise of what is called moral pluralism, which means divergence in moral conduct and independence of the Church's teaching while still professing to be a Catholic Christian.
When Pope John Paul published his encyclical on The Splendor of Truth he made it clear to whom he was addressing this document. It was directly addressed to the bishops of the Catholic Church who share with the Bishop of Rome the responsibility of safeguarding sound teaching.
By implication, therefore, who finally has the responsibility for preserving and professing the truth, without which there cannot be any sound, indeed, any sane morality? It is the Bishop of Rome and the successors of the apostles in union with the Vicar of Christ.
Our theme for this article is the right that we have to the truth. By implication, the members of the hierarchy united with the Pope have the duty, I would say their gravest duty before God, to teach this truth at no matter what cost to themselves.
Sometime ago I was in conversation with Cardinal John O'Connor of New York. We were describing the widespread confusion in so many Catholic circles in our day, and the pressures on the Church to conform to the secularized society especially in the Western world. I suggested to the Cardinal that what the Church needs is bishops like St. John Fisher who was martyred by Henry VIII because, as bishop of Rochester in England, he refused to follow Henry in rejecting the papal primacy. Cardinal O'Connor agreed, but he added, "Sometimes I envy St. John Fisher. He refused to obey the king, was put in prison, beheaded, and became a martyr. As archbishop of New York, I am being martyred every day by the media for standing firm on the moral teachings of the Catholic Church and my loyalty to the Holy Father."
We, therefore, return to the logical question. Who has the main divine responsibility to satisfy the right, which the faithful have to the truth? It is the successors of the apostles in union with the successor of St. Peter. The letter of St. Paul to Timothy says this in the most uncompromising words:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus...preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the future will come when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to satisfy their own likings and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry"(II Timothy 4:1-5).
These words of the Apostle to the Gentiles could have been written today. Our Holy Father never tires exhorting the bishops:
"Dearly beloved brothers, you have here a special mission within your churches. You are beyond all others, the ones primarily responsible for catechesis, the catechists par excellence. Together with the Pope in the spirit of episcopal collegiality, you too have charge of catechesis throughout the Church; accept therefore what I say to you from my heart"(Catechesi Tradendae, no. 63).
After the bishops, on whom do the laity mainly depend to fulfill their right to the truth? Once again, the pope could not be more explicit. He tells priests, no matter what their priestly duties may be, that they are to "neglect nothing with a view to a well-organized and well-oriented catechetical effort"(Ibid., no. 64).
So the Vicar of Christ goes on. Men and women religious, lay catechists; in the parish, in the family, at school, within organizations ― the faith is to be nurtured and sustained by those who have the true faith.
The key in all this catechetical apostolate is the adjective "true." It must be the faith which Christ, Incarnate Truth, became man to teach the world, and entrusted to the Church He founded in order to continue teaching until the end of time.
Given the widespread secularization of modern culture, it is not surprising that the popes should be so strongly encouraging family religious instruction in our day. They tell us that this instruction at home is "irreplaceable." It places on the parents "the gravest obligation" of educating their children in the Catholic faith, undiluted, unambiguous and uncompromising with the philosophy of the world.
It is in this context that family catechesis must precede, accompany, and enrich all other forms of religious instruction. But there is one proviso. We all have a right to the truth, and certainly to the truth, which Christ wants His followers to proclaim to the world.
Are there countries or regions within countries where the parents see no choice except to give their children organized religious instruction at home? Yes there are. Within a year, to the day, of his election to the papacy, the present pontiff declared that, "in places where anti-religious legislation endeavors even to prevent education in the faith, and in places where widespread unbelief or invasive secularism makes real religious growth practically impossible, 'the church of the home' remains the one place where children and young people can receive an authentic catechesis." Home-schooling or home education has become widespread in the United States. It is also widely criticized and even ostracized by organized educationists. But many parents sincerely believe that their "right to the truth" justifies and even requires that they pay the heavy price of educating their own children, especially in the unchangeable truths of the Catholic Faith.
The Basic Truth to Which We Have a Right
With all that we have been saying, is there one basic truth to which every human being has a right? Yes. It is the crucial truth that our human freedom depends on God.
Is there one basic error among those who are exalting human freedom? Yes, it is the error of divorcing human freedom from dependence on God. This is practical atheism, as identified by the Second Vatican Council. Each person's conscience is given the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment. Here the subjective conscience becomes ruler in moral matters apart from the mind and will of God.
What happens to conscience? Conscience then becomes the final judge for each person of what is right or wrong independent of the objective laws of God. As a result, there is a radical conflict between moral law and conscience, between nature and freedom. The objective moral law is ignored or rejected in favor of the subjective moral judgment of each person for himself.
This is what happened in 1968 when Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae. In one country after another, Catholics were told to follow their conscience, where conscience had already been redefined as each individual's personal choice on whether to practice or not practice contraception.
This is also the root cause of the massive murder of millions of unborn children in one nominally civilized country after another. Abortionists and their victims have one sacred word which they have canonized. It is "choice," where the human will chooses what it wants, because it wants it, even contrary to the truth which is the manifest will of God.
Martyrs For The Truth
Just before His Ascension, Christ promised His disciples, "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and even to the very ends of the earth"(Acts 1:8).
In the original Greek of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke has our Lord telling the disciples, "You shall be martyrs for me."
Even as we talk about having a right to the truth, we should remind ourselves of the price we shall have to pay to obtain this truth, and to live this truth. The price is nothing less than being ready to die for the truth.
How we need to hear what some "moralists" are saying about the Church's teaching on sexual and conjugal ethics. They are claiming that each person is to decide for himself what is right or wrong regarding contraception, direct sterilization, homosexuality, masturbation, pre-marital sexual relations, and artificial insemination. The net result of this moral iconoclasm is to reject the constant moral teaching of the Church's magisterium.
We who believe that the Church founded by Christ is the mother and teacher of the human race have no illusions. If we are to be faithful to the Divine Master, we must condemn what so many ethicists are teaching. We must say that their teaching is contrary to the truth about man and his freedom. We must say it contradicts the two thousand years of Catholic moral doctrine.
But then we must be ready for the consequences. Our Holy Father raises the question whether it is ever lawful to sacrifice one's life. He answers, yes, it is not only lawful but may be imperative to give up one's own life out of love for one's neighbor or as a witness to the truth.
Some of us may be privileged to die a martyr's death. But all of us who believe must be ready to live a martyr's life by witnessing to the truth. This Truth, we know, is Jesus Christ who is the only Way that we can reach that eternal Life for which we were made.