Four aspects of truth that ground our understanding
It’s hard to figure out where to begin talking about truth, isn’t it? Depending on who you ask, the topic is too controversial or too old-fashioned, irredeemably political or utterly passé. But truth is an important concept in the Catholic tradition, and our effectiveness as catechists is compromised if we don’t know how to talk about it and model what it looks like.
As catechists, we often frame our ministry as passing on deeply held truths, but underneath the question of how to best do this lies a more fundamental question: “What do we mean by truth in the first place?” The Catholic tradition speaks to this question from four different angles, each inviting something different from us in our work as catechists.
1. Truth equips us to see the world as it actually is.
The classical definition of truth put forward by Aristotle and furthered by St. Thomas Aquinas describes truth as having a mind that is aligned with reality. The world exists, and our task as humans is to understand it as clearly as possible so that we might live in it well. Fortunately, as Aquinas notes, we’ve been gifted by God with what we need to do so: We are able to experience reality through our senses and engage reason to construct an ever more accurate picture of the world.
Granted, reality is vast. As one of my colleagues is apt to say, “Reality is like a bazillion volts of electricity, and most of us only have 60-watt bulbs in our heads.” There will always be more to reality than what we know of it. But we can set the goal of knowing reality before us as an objective and be open to changing our minds when we discover something to be less accurate than we first thought. The sciences, faithfully undertaken, help us on that journey.
In our work as catechists, we want to stress that there is such a thing as reality and that it is in our best interest as humans to be aligned with it for the sake of our survival and thriving. For instance, a person may not “believe” in gravity, but if they jump off a diving board into a pool, they will fall to the water as quickly as a person who does.
We want to cultivate the desire to understand the world better and encourage vocations to the sciences as a way of living the human task in the world well. We want to be careful not to pit the use of reason against the life of faith as if one could injure the other; the God who created the universe and set up the laws that govern it is the same God that we worship. God, like truth, is one.
2. Truth guides us in forming judgments.
Living well, however, requires more than an accumulation of accurate facts. It requires being able to make use of those facts to construct a good life — or, as the Gospel of John phrases it, to enjoy “abundant life” (John 10:10). We need to be able to interpret the facts and discern among them to form opinions or judgments about how to best make sense of the happenings around us and how to respond to them.
In modern American society, we will often hear, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” Catholic tradition says something a little bit different: Everyone is obligated to follow their own conscience. Everyone must do what they judge to be best in any given situation. But conscience is not infallible. It needs to be formed by accurate knowledge about reality, awareness of the impact of our actions on others, and the wisdom of the Church accumulated over much time. Not all opinions are equal. Some are “truer” than others.
In our ministry as catechists, we need to be able to explain not only what the Church teaches, but why the Church teaches it. We will need to be able to discuss questions such as: How do we know that one opinion is better than another? What makes one choice “truer” than another? And then we also need to talk about what we as Christians can do when others don’t arrive at the same judgments that we do. When people of goodwill disagree on the best way to make sense of or respond to a situation, how should we handle that? Healthy conversational skills are essential for living a truth-filled life in today’s world.
3. Truth shapes the way we communicate with each other.
It is possible to have a mind aligned with reality, but it is another matter to have a mouth aligned with one’s mind. Being steeped in truth requires not only that we see the world accurately, but also that we communicate what we know honestly.
St. Thomas Aquinas referred to this practice as the virtue of truthfulness or veracity. It is an important virtue because all of society depends on it. We cannot function as a community if we cannot trust the veracity of what we say to one another. The sick will not heal if the drugs given do not actually contain the ingredients listed. Buildings will crumble if the architect draws up blueprints that she knows are structurally unsound. No wonder Scripture speaks of the sin of lying in such unusually harsh terms: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” Proverbs 12:22). The Catechism of the Catholic Church is equally straightforward: “Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. … By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord” (CCC, 2483).
As catechists, we are now serving a generation of youth who — already questioning whether it is possible to tell what is real — have been subjected to leaders in high levels of both government and Church life publicly stating things known not to be real and seemingly suffering little consequence. If we want the next generation to be able to receive any of the age-old truths we wish to pass on to them, we will need to be firmly committed to rebuilding the trustworthiness of words — speaking out candidly about the evil of lying and its effect on the ability of a community to believe even things that are true. We will need to model in our own words by only saying things that we ourselves hold to be true.
4. Truth enables us to build and remain committed to relationships.
All of the ways that we’ve spoken about truth so far, however, will be insufficient if we do not speak about the most ancient sense of the concept — predating both Aristotle and Aquinas and rooted instead in the language of our ancestors in the faith. In Hebrew, the word most frequently translated as truth is emet. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God is emet. The Torah is emet. And certainly, when our ancestors in the faith spoke this way, they meant much the same as we do: God/the Torah is real, is sound judgment, is trustworthy. But the nuances go deeper: God/the Torah is steadfast, is faithful. You can count on God/the Torah the way you can count on a spouse, on someone who is true. More than once, Pope Francis has commented on this fourth dimension of what truth means. In his 2018 Chrism Mass homily, he emphasized, “We need to realize even more that closeness is … the key to truth.” Like the Good Samaritan, he noted, when we get closer to people, we’ll know their reality better, and we’ll know what to do about it.
Many of the youth we serve have not grown up in situations where they have seen and benefited from strong, faithful relationships they could count on. They live in a world that not only questions truth but wonders whether it is possible to be true. In our work as catechists, we want to lift up stories of both divine and human fidelity.
In our classes or groups, we can invite married couples, members of religious communities, and long-time friends to talk about what being in committed relationships looks like and how their relationships incline them to see and be in the world differently. And while we can’t form long-lasting relationships with every one of the youths we catechize, we certainly want to witness in our own life that relationships matter to us.
Although challenging, teaching about truth — in the fullest sense of the word — is perhaps the most important thing that we will ever do as catechists. For in doing so, we are preparing the next generation not only for what we as Catholics believe, but giving them a framework within which to believe and to live what they are taught. We can’t avoid talking about truth. Everything else we are trying to do as catechists depend upon it.
Ann Garrido, DMin is an associate professor of homiletics at Aquinas Institute of Theology and a long-time parish catechist. Her newest book is Let’s Talk About Truth: A Guide for Preachers, Teachers, and Other Catholic Leaders in a World of Doubt and Discord (Ave Maria Press, 2019).
This article was originally published in Catechist magazine, April-May 2020
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