June / July 2018 - Vol. 98
Bible an maze by Kevin Carden
Rediscovering the Truth and Living By It
by Servais Pincaers

Rediscovering the Truth
A challenging task faces us today: to get in touch with our natural desire for truth and to restore to the word "truth” its pristine force. Under the influence of nominalism, truth in philosophy has become abstract and conceptual; in the sciences, depersonalized and constricted. We have confused it with the ideas, formulas, and words we use to express it, and which we think encapsulate it. We are left with mere reflections and imitations.

This is extremely regrettable, especially in ethics. Since it is ordered to action, ethics cannot exist or function if it brackets the human subject, the person who acts. The human dimension of moral truth must therefore be retrieved.

Through personal experience we once more see the principal intellectual virtues as human qualities needed for our grasp and enjoyment of truth. Such are wisdom, the capacity for universal, synthetic judgment; understanding, the ability to penetrate to the heart of things; and knowledge, the power of comprehension and discovery in the various fields of study.

The ethicist, and everyone else as well, will have a special interest in the virtue of prudence, which cries out for rediscovery perhaps more than any other. Prudence is a quality, a perfection of the practical reason and the will together; it combines a penetrating discernment, sharpened by active experience, with the decisiveness of the courageous, disciplined person.

When faith intervenes, these virtues receive a new dimension, something like an instinct for divine truth, enhanced by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which perfects the intellectual gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel.

Rights and Duties in Regard to Truth
The inclination to truth lays the natural foundation for our right to receive all we need in developing our minds - instruction, provided by our family or society. Corresponding to this right is our basic responsibility to seek the truth and to cultivate our minds, particularly in the realm of ethics, which concerns people more directly. The obligation to seek the truth is an interior one. It is one aspect of our desire for truth and shows its claim on us. Part of the necessary "discipline" needed if the virtues culminating in prudence are to be formed within us, it requires us to learn moral precepts, to consider carefully the circumstances of our actions, and to maintain our understanding and love of truth. We might wonder whether, over recent centuries, the development of a love for truth and knowledge has been neglected. Perhaps we have been satisfied with mere information on the text and tenor of the law.

As we saw with regard to our sense of the good, our inclination to truth carries us beyond the question of rights and responsibilities to a steady progress in our knowledge of the truth, particularly at the moral and spiritual level. Concern for this should be stronger than ever among Christians and in theology, under the impulse of faith, which seeks to comprehend the object of its love. The Augustinian formula "faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum) is at the origin of sacred science. This progress does not consist so much in the accumulation of learning and information as in the deepening of fundamental truths and in the enrichment and maturation of the mind, which give it its power and breadth.

The Question of Truth Today
The question of truth is not merely philosophic or scientific. It has a history and has assumed new forms, which affect ordinary people as well as scholars.

Paradoxically, the development of modern sciences, which has extended human knowledge beyond all imagination, has boomeranged in a general relativism in all areas of learning and even in the perception of truth. The temptation to determinism in regard to scientific truth has been followed by the temptation to relativity in all branches of science and truth. Truth has become dependent on the thinker. It is bound up with his history, milieu, culture, interests, and social or political pressures. We say, therefore, "To each his truth,” which amounts to a frank admission that there is no truth any more.

The issue is intensified and becomes dramatic when we see a political regime based on an ideology identifying truth with political or economic expediency, imposing upon an entire people a network of lies, which enmeshes their lives and all their activities. Russian dissidents understood this clearly when they proposed as a first rule in their struggle for freedom never to lie to themselves and never to become part of the logic of the system by consenting to its lies, even in trifling matters.10

The problem of truth is not restricted to Eastern regimes. We find it in sometimes more insidious forms in the West, in the measure in which our society allows itself to be dominated by considerations of utility and technology, in the fascination with production, in consumerism. Again, there is the pressure of public opinion and popular thought patterns, as Solzhenitsin mentioned in his lecture at Harvard.11

Even Catholic ethicists have sometimes yielded too far to the utilitarian and technological mentality of our age. It seems to me this is the case with so-called "proportionalism" or "consequentialism.” The moral quality of an action is evaluated on the basis of the comparison or proportion of its "pre-moral" advantages and disadvantages and its good or evil consequences, immediate or ultimate. Obviously such a comparison must be made in the evaluation of an action, but it remains external. It does not penetrate to the moral level, the interior of the human person, where the demands of truth and goodness prevail with their universal dimension. Such a concept of morality runs the risk of reducing the good to what is calculated as most useful. We are on the downward slope, heading for the diminution of our sense of truth. Losing this, we shall lose the essence of human integrity and morality. 12

Love of Truth for Its Own Sake, and Objectivity
The fact that love of truth carries us beyond the realm of the useful or of material interests such as pleasure is decisive. Truth insists on being loved, sought and served for its own sake, to the point of setting aside self-interest, even risking life itself if need be.13 Its nature is therefore disinterested; yet it interests us in the highest degree and attracts us powerfully, for there is no true good without it. Love of truth is an integral part of the human personality and assures its dignity. As persons we are beings-for-the-truth; if the spirit of lying takes possession of us, we suffer an interior wound. We are no longer free if in our hearts we do not love and seek the truth. Inevitably, we become the slaves of causes, passions, or ideas which lead us to deceitfulness. Without love of truth, we lose our last foothold, the foundation on which to build a personal life.

Love of truth goes hand in hand with a sense of objectivity. Not the cold, impersonal objectivity of the positivist sciences, but the human sense of the reality of persons and things, which opens the door of their interiority to us. Once we accept their difference from ourselves, objectivity lays the foundation for the love of friendship. Through this profound objectivity, truth reveals itself to love.

Love and truth are thus naturally linked in the most personal action and encounter each other at the heart of freedom. Education in freedom will be at the same time education in truth and love. Thus all the moral values and virtues will be illumined and penetrated by our love of truth.

Contemplative Dimension and Universality
The truth understood in this way is by its very nature contemplative which in no way prevents it from being strongly active and practical. This is why theology, which is the work of truth, will be chiefly contemplative, according to St. Thomas. Yet this contemplation contains within itself all the force of love, which it feeds by showing it its chief Object. Love is strengthened by knowledge of the beloved and therefore seeks to know it better. So theology is oriented to the vision of God, in which perfect happiness is found, according to revelation. St. Thomas indicates this succinctly when he refers to "the natural inclination to the truth about God." Here the desire for truth coincides with the desire for God, who is the source and end of all truth.

The natural inclination to truth has therefore a universal bearing on morality, as it has in all areas of knowledge. We could even say that it forms the very sense of the universal in us. Thus all truth, even the humblest, possesses as it were a halo, a radiation of universality. The universality of moral laws is based precisely on their truth, in conformity with human nature, which, in respect to its understanding, was created for truth. In this connection, it is indispensable to restore to morality its contemplative dimension.

10. See further, in testimony of Soljenitzyn's truth and justice, Vaclaw Havel's book, Il potere dei senza potere (CSE) 1979), extolling "life in the truth” as opposed to "postcapitalist" dictatorship. He shows that the simple act of advertising propaganda in a store front leads to "a life of lies."

11. "In the West there is no censorship, but there is a sly selectiveness at work, separating ideas which are 'in' from those which are not. Although the latter are not directly quashed, they can find no authentic medium of expression in the press, in books, or in university courses. Legally, the spirit of your research is indeed free, but it is restricted on all sides by popular opinion" (Le déclin du courage (Seuil, 1978), 30).

12. See my article on "La question des actes intrinsèquement mauvais" in La Revue Thomiste 82 (1982) 181-212; 84 (1984) 618-24.

13. Here again we can quote Cicero: "And those [the Epicureans] who claim that intellectual pleasure is the motive for the pursuit of the studies I have mentioned [philosophy], do not understand that what makes this kind of study desirable is the fact that no utilitarian advantages are mixed with the joy accruing to the mind and that it is the sheer knowledge itself which delights, even though disagreements may have their place" (De finibus bonorum et malorum, 5.19).

And further on: "From these observations of mine (and I did not develop them at length as I might have, for they are obvious), from these observations, I say, it is quite clear that all the virtues, including 'honestas' (moral excellence) which springs from them and belongs to them, should be sought for their own sake."-"et virtutes omnes et honestum illud quod ex iis oritur et in iis haeret per se esse expetendum" (ibid., 5.23).

This article is excerpted from The Sources of Christian Ethics, by Servais Pincaers, English translation by Sr. Mary Noble,O.P, (c) The Catholic University of America Pess, 1995. It was originally published as Les sourcces de la morale chretienne, (c) University Press Fribourg, 1985, 1990, 1993. 
Servais Pincaers (1925-2008), from Liege, Belgium, was a Dominican priest and professor of moral theology at the University of Frioourg in Switzerland.  His most well-known work in English is The Sources of Christian Ethics (1995), which has been well received by a surprisingly varied cross-section of Christians in America and in English-speaking countries. He writes in a tone that is reconciliatory rather than polemical and he returns Christian morality (ethics) to its sources - the Gospel and the Holy Spirit. One of his more popular books, The Pursuit of Happiness: Living the Beatitudes (1998) emphasizes the gifts, virtues, and evangelical beatitudes as the heart of the Christian moral life. Stanley Hauerwas, an American Protestant theologian and ethicist, praised Pincaers work as "essential for the renewal of moral theology" and "is as important for Protestant theological ethics as it is for Catholic moral theology."

illustration of Bible and maze by (c) Kevin Carden
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