Category Archives: Dialogue

The Truth on Lying


One of my favorite all-time commercials is a Geico ad in which President Lincoln is asked by his wife whether or not the dress she is wearing makes her backside look fat.  As cleverly designed as the commercial is, and as refreshing as “Honest Abe” might be in our current political climate, this short ad is particularly compelling because it forces the viewers to think about the nature of lying.  Drenched in a culture that has shown a particular allergy to truth-telling, we “spin the facts” and color-code our lies, bleaching them of any wrong doing.  As lies increase, trust decreases, turning us all into masters of suspicion. Lies will break down any society, the family included, but there is an ever-greater danger hidden in the weeds of lying—losing a grip on what is real.  Telling a lie over and over, we can easily forget the truth.  As philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth…but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.”   It is time to tell the truth about lying.

Most of us know a lie when we tell it, but there is a shadow over truth telling that creates a grey area.  That is because we lack a really good definition.  Even the Church has struggled to come up with a good definition.  In the 1994 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the definition of lying was “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth(CCC 2483)When the official Latin text was released 3 years later, the italicized part was left out, rendering lying as “speaking or acting against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”  This is true as far as it goes, but it does not shine enough light to remove the shadow.  This is why St. Augustine’s definition is especially helpful.  He says that lying is deliberately speaking (verbally or non-verbally) contrary to what is on one’s mind.  In other words, there is an opposition between what one speaks and one what thinks in lying.

Loving the Truth

Because most people look at lying as mostly a legal issue, it is first important for us to discuss what makes lying wrong.  Our communicative faculties have as their end the ability to convey our thoughts.  When we lie, that is when we say something that is contrary to what we are thinking, we are abusing that power.  Notice that in this teleological (looking at the purpose of the power) approach circumstances do not matter.  Lying is always wrong.

Seen another way, we can make further sense of the intrinsically evil nature of lies.  Our Lord is pretty harsh in His condemnation of lying; calling those who lie the devil’s offspring “because he is the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).  There are no such thing as white lies.  A lie is an offense against the truth, the same reality that God, in His Providence, has orchestrated.  That is, all lies, are primarily offenses against God because we are rebelling against the way things are and revolting against His ordering of things.  It is our love for God and with gratitude for His Providential care that we should love the truth so much that we would never lie.

In this case, removing the white does not necessarily remove the grey area until we can answer what constitutes lying.  Recall Augustine’s definition of a lie as the willful communication of an idea that is contrary to what one is thinking.  This definition is preferred because it removes the situation where the speaker is wrong in their thinking from the realm of lying.  If your son did not know he had homework and then told you he didn’t then that would not be lying.  He communicated the truth as he understood it.  Similarly with joking or story telling where the purpose is to convey irony or illustrate a deeper truth.  Many people say “I was just kidding” when they are caught in a lie, so again this is something we all naturally seem to grasp.  Regardless, at a certain point—like when the person asks “are you joking?” –it ceases to be a means of laughter or truth telling and becomes lying

Intuitively we grasp that to forget or joke around is not the same thing as lying.  But it is the so-called hard cases that make it more difficult.  For example, there is the oft-cited situation of the Nazi asking where the Jews are hidden. It was an attempt, although not precise enough, to deal with these hard cases that motivated the authors of the Catechism to include the clause “who has a right to know the truth” in the original definition.  It would seem that the only way out of this Catch-22 would be to lie because it is “the lesser of two evils.”

Living the Truth

It is necessary as this point to make the distinction between deception and lying.  All lies are deception, but not all deception is lying.  There are times when deception might be necessary, especially when the interlocutor plans to use the information in order to commit some evil.  Although our communicative faculties have as their purpose the communication of the truth as we know it, this does not mean that we have an obligation to communicate the truth.  In fact, the obligation may be to remain silent such as when you are keeping a secret.  Likewise the obligation to communicate the truth does not mean it has to be communicated in the clearest fashion.   But because lying is intrinsically evil, that is, it can never be ordered to the good, it can never be a means of deception.

Protecting the truth from those who have no right to the truth is done then not through lying but through what is called Mental Reservation.  A mental reservation is a way of speaking such that the particular meaning of what one is saying is only one possible meaning.  There are two classes of mental reservation—a strict mental reservation involves restricting it in a way that the listener could never guess what you mean.  This would be a form of lying.  A broad mental reservation means that the average listener could figure out one’s meaning, even if it is not very clear.  Blessed John Henry Newman uses the classic example from St. Athanasius’ life when he was fleeing persecution and was asked “Have you seen Athanasius?”  The great enemy of the Arians replied, “Yes, he is close to here.”  Obviously there are a number of ways this could have been interpreted, but it was not a falsehood strictly speaking.  A similar approach could be taken with the example of the Nazis and the Jews but never in a way that would constitute lying.

What if however the soldiers had continued to probe Athanasius, forcing him to answer directly?  Broad mental reservation may be employed for as long as possible but when it fails, one may, out of a love for the truth, simply remain silent and suffer whatever consequences may come from that.  Likewise, many people tell other’s secrets simply because the other person asked and “I wasn’t going to lie.”  One can keep a secret without lying, but it may mean suffering at the hands of the interrogator.  However, before my teen readers see this as a Jedi mind trick and add it to their war-chest to use against their parents, this only applies when the person in question does not have a right to the truth.  When the person has a right to the truth, you have an obligation to give it to them in as clear a manner as possible.  There are some, especially in the Church, that rely on mental reservation to mask heresy.

In the commercial, Honest Abe, wanting to avoid lying, answers that the dress does make Mary Todd look a little fat.  Is this the only possible answer he could have given, or could he have exercised a mental reservation?  I’ll leave that for the readers to answer and debate in the comments section below…

Unleashing the Truth

Most regular readers of this blog will readily admit that relativism, that is the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth, is absolutely absurd and unlivable.  So ubiquitous is this false understanding of reality however that there is not a single one of us that remains outside the grasp of its tentacles.  Whether we believe in it or not, it still affects us in ways we might not initially realize.  It is one specific way that I want to address in today’s entry.

Relativism is not only damaging because it fails to recognize universal truth claims.  It is not only damaging because it is unlivable, causing a fracture in our personality between what we believe and how we act.  These are injurious only to those who profess belief in relativism.  It is most damaging because it depreciates truth in everyone’s eyes.  Where relativism reigns, there is a universal indifference towards the truth.

“Wait”, you say, “I am not indifferent to the truth at all.”  Really?  How many times, when confronted with a falsehood, have you just thought “it is not worth it to say anything”?  We might justify it using the Gospel maxim of “not putting pearls before swine” or speak of “picking our battles,” but most of the time we think that ultimately it doesn’t matter.  Perhaps this is more of a self-indictment than anything else, but I would dare to say that it happens more often than we would be willing to admit.

The truth (see what I did there?) is that it does matter and matters immensely.  We are not preserving the pearls of truth nor picking our battles.  There is no danger of losing the pearls of truth because they are not really pearls.  Unlike material goods, spiritual goods like the truth multiply when shared.   What this means is that the truth has a power all its own, even when we don’t share it with great eloquence or fancy arguments.  It has no power when it is kept inside, but once unleashed, it can destroy falsehood.

The Truth and Charity

Note the important distinction between destroying falsehood and beating a person.  This destruction of falsehood is not an excuse to beat your opponent to submission.  What I am suggesting is that we re-capture the distinctively Christian habit of forcefully and charitably attacking untruth.   This is always done with two motives, each equally important—destroy the falsehood and win the person.  The truth will set you free.

This is one of the reasons that GK Chesterton remains one of the best apologists for the Christian faith even today.  He attacked untruth wherever he found it.  He never shied away from debate.  But he was often criticized for how gently he treated his opponents. Unyielding when it came to untruth, he would still speak kindly to and of his opponents.  His goal was to “kill and wound folly” not his opponent.

In fact, at the heart of the Christian message is charity, that is, the habit of loving like God loves.  God loves in truth and with Truth.  For many of us we treat the truth as something that we own rather than as something to be given away.  And because we are possessive of it, we lose our confidence in its power.  It really becomes “my truth.”  As Pope Benedict XVI has said on a number of occasions, “none of us have the truth.  At best, we can say the truth has us.”  You cannot both believe a truth while at the same time not believe in its evidential power, standing all on its own.  With this realization comes the ability to always remain charitable in our untruth slaying.

The Value of Arguing?

The truth is the truth whether I can argue for it or not.  In fact I may not be able to argue it, but still I have an obligation to stamp out the falsehood.  Simply saying “that is not true” is enough, although quite obviously it is much better to be able to say why it isn’t true.  Even still, not being able to argue should never be a reason not to speak out against untruth.  The humiliation of not being able to defend the truth often motivates us to learn how.  Charity is truth, but so is humility.  Trust in the hidden power of the truth.

Most of us are jealous of our own ideas so convincing someone of their falsehood is often difficult.  But do you know who else is listening?  This is something that I came to realize when I took a trip to Mississippi just after Hurricane Katrina to help with cleanup with two guys I knew.  One of them was my college roommate who could never understand why anyone in their right mind was Catholic.  Over the years we had covered pretty much every topic related to the Faith.  A few hours into the trip, he said something (I don’t recall exactly what) about the Blessed Mother that was not true.  I immediately called him on it, even though we had talked about this before.  We spent a couple of hours going back and forth about the Faith.  He was just as unyielding as I was.  The whole time the guy in the back seat was quiet and didn’t say a word.  Two months later he called me and told me that he was entering RCIA and that the eavesdropped conversation was the thing that put him over the top.  My arguments were not to him specifically, I didn’t even know his objections.  Instead he heard the truth and it opened up everything for him.  All this because I was unwilling to leave a falsehood floating around the car.

Perhaps you may not win the person over to the truth, you may stop them from unthinkingly repeating what they are saying.  If what they are saying is untrue, it will crumble under its own weight.  He may not agree with you, but he will think twice before saying it on another occasion.  It will keep the falsehood from spreading.

Unleash the truth!

Dialogue with Islam

As was mentioned in a previous post, one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council was a concerted effort on the Church’s part to enter into dialogue with non-Christian religions.  While this always has the aim of evangelizing, it assumes that dialogue is possible.  What I mean by this is that, first, the other group is interested in dialogue and, second, that they are capable of it.  Nowhere are these assumptions challenged more than when it comes to the religion of Islam.  The Church has expended considerable resources on this effort and has had little fruit to show for it.  Could it be that dialogue is simply impossible with Islam?

When his brother Dominicans approached him to ask St. Thomas Aquinas about dialogue with Muslims, he said that they ought to approach them as if they were “natural” men.  What he meant by this is that unlike the Jews, Muslims fully reject Biblical Revelation.  Likewise because of the many contradictions regarding Christian doctrine (most notably the divinity of Christ) found in the Koran, Christians cannot accept theirs.  Therefore, the only approach is through human reason alone.

So even though Islam professes to worship the God of Abraham, the approach is the same as with any other non-Christian religion, through human reason.  What has to be understood however is that Islam rejects the whole notion of human reason.  In the Eleventh Century, there was an intellectual revolution led by perhaps the most influential Muslim next to Mohammed named Al-Ghazali.  As founder of the Ash’arite theology he affirmed that man can only know that which Allah tells him.  This makes entering into dialogue practically impossible.  If man can only know what God tells him, then any search for the truth (the literal meaning of the word dialogue) outside of the definitive revelation of the Koran is fruitless.

In his now infamous Regensburg Lecture, Pope Benedict was addressing this very same issue.  He was calling for an intellectual awakening both in the West and in Islam itself.  The violent response of Islam to Benedict XVI’s lecture showed that there is little room for reasonable discourse about Islam.  But what many Catholics are not aware of is that it actually did result in a gesture toward dialogue when 138 Islamic scholars penned a letter to Pope Benedict called A Common Word between Us and You.  Many within the Church took this as a great sign, but for those who are familiar with the teachings of Islam, it perhaps represents a subterfuge more than a real attempt at peace and understanding between the adherents of the world’s two largest religions.

The Islamic scholars insist that the “basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbor. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbor is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.”  One has to ask whether this is true.

The title of the letter comes from Sura 3:64, “Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him).” The scholars connect this verse with the First and Greatest Commandment given by Jesus—“The words: we shall ascribe no partner unto Him relate to the Unity of God, and the words: worship none but God, relate to being totally devoted to God. Hence they all relate to the First and Greatest Commandment.”Church of Holy Sepulchre and Dome of the Rock

The problem with this is that it attempts to gloss over a very real and potentially insurmountable difference.  No Muslim actually believes that to say “we shall ascribe no partner unto Him” simply refers to the Unity of God in the sense that a Christian would understand the unity of God.  For to “ascribe a partner unto Him” is the unforgivable sin in Islam, namely shirk.  Christians, who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, commit this sin with impunity.  The Koran is very clear as to what Muslims are to do to those who obstinately commit this sin,

“Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture and believe not in God nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which God has forbidden by His Messenger, and follow not the religion of truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low…and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of God. That is their saying with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved of old. God (himself) fights against them. How perverse are they! They have taken as lords beside God their rabbis and their monks and the Messiah son of Mary, when they were bidden to worship only One God. None should be worshipped but God alone. Be He glorified from all that they ascribe as partner (to Him)!” (Sura 9:29-31)

A difference this large cannot be a foundation for peace and understanding.  For faithful adherents of Islam, this difference is a foundation for war and dhimmitude (“pay the tribute, being brought low”).  To pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best.

The second commandment as a basis for peace and understanding, namely the love of neighbor also forms a shaky foundation.  After issuing the twofold commandment of love of God and love of neighbor, Jesus is asked by the scholar of the law “who is my neighbor?”.  He goes on to tell him the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate that Christianity believes in the brotherhood of all mankind (Luke 10:25-37).  The Christian sees in all men, his neighbor.  For the Muslim who is faithful to the Koran and Hadith, his neighbor is only other Muslims.

One of the five pillars of Islam is Zakat, or almsgiving.  All Muslims are obligated to give alms only to “the poor and the needy, and those who collect them, and those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free the captives and the debtors, and for the cause of God, and (for) the wayfarers; a duty imposed by God. God is Knower, Wise” (Sura 9:60).  But these alms can only be given to other Muslims because Allah commands that Muslims “[N]ever be a helper to the unbelievers” (Sura 28:86).  In other words, if the victim was not a Muslim in Jesus’ parable, then Muslims are commanded to pass him by.

It is this foundational truth about Islam that makes dialogue extremely difficult.  Dialogue always assumes an equality between the two parties insofar as their dignity is concerned.  Their ideas may not be equal, but without seeing the other as your equal then honest dialogue can never happen.  Muslims are taught not to see “People of the Book” as their equals.  Only their fellow Muslims can be their equal.  This distinction between believers and unbelievers is made in everything.  It even plays out in Sharia Law with respect to punishments for crimes.  Punishments change based on whether the perpetrator/victim is a Muslim or not because a Muslim is considered to be on a higher level of faith and thus to do him harm is not just breaking some moral code, but also constitutes an act of sacrilege.  The robbers in the parable may even have been faithful Muslims who justified it by saying they were collecting the jizya.

Above I appeared to be overly harsh in response to what appears to be a good will gesture by calling it potentially an act of subterfuge.  This is because Islam is one of the only religions that has a developed doctrine of deception called Taqiyya.  Sura 3:28 commands Islamic adherents to practice deception if it benefits the spread of Islam. Al-Tabari (an early Islamic scholar) explains “If you are under their authority, fearing for yourselves, behave loyally to them with your tongue, while harboring inner animosity for them…”  Because dialogue depends upon both parties being truthful, there can be no movement toward the truth when either party is convinced that they can lie anytime it helps them.  Knowing this, we naturally have to ask whether the scholars are trying to disarm Christians.  Beware of the man offering peace with one hand behind his back.

All of this shows the near impossibility of dialoguing with Muslims.  They can only do so on the basis of the Koran, which is the very text that is in question.  Ultimately in any investigation of the truth, it comes down to “because the Koran says so.”  This was also a point the Benedict XVI stressed as well when he quoted Ibn Hazim “[W]ere it God’s will, we would even practice idolatry.”  The Pope Emeritus was stressing that the Muslim conception of God puts Him  somehow beyond good and evil and that those categories are simply a matter of His capricious will at any given time.

Despite appearing to be a prophet of gloom, I believe there is a path forward in which fruitful dialogue might take place.  Certainly an awareness of what Islam teaches is very important for Catholics.  I am often struck by the level of ignorance of members of the Church.  The reasonable person when confronted with a threatening ideology will learn about it in order to defend themselves against it.  Can you imagine the Church trying to fight Communism without reading Marx and learning how Lenin interpreted him?  Or how about Fascism without reading Nietzsche and seeing how Hitler interpreted him in Mein Kempf?  Regardless of how we divide up Islam into moderate and radical, there is some percentage of Muslims who have become sworn enemies of the Church.  We may choose to fight armed with love and the sword of the Spirit, but not attempt to understand your enemy will not lead to a single conversion.  Perhaps this is why the Church has seen so little fruit in converting Muslims.

Personally I loathe the designation between “moderate Muslims” and “radical Muslims” almost as much “cafeteria Catholics” and “orthodox Catholics.”  In both cases both groups must be prepared to make an explanation for difficult teachings.  The cafeteria Catholic must be prepared to say what the Church teaches about a given issue and why it is wrong or being misinterpreted.  So too the moderate Muslim needs to be prepared to explain the difficult passages in the Koran just as much as the radical Muslim does.  The moderate Muslim needs to be ready to explain why Osama Bin Laden was wrong when he thought “terror in Islam is an obligation” was true based on Sura 9:41 (“Go forth, light armed and heavy armed, and strive hard with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah! That is best for you if you but knew”).  All too often I have found the Church kowtowing to political correctness by staying away from the controversial issues.  The responses to the letter from those inside the Church were no exception.  I recognize there is a certain amount of decorum necessary, but eventually you have to confront the real differences.  Personally had I received the letter, my first question would have been “how can we have peace and understanding between Christians and Muslims when it appears to the average reader of the Koran that you are commanded to kill me?”  Regardless of whether the person is “moderate” or “radical” the movement toward the truth can never be accomplished without asking these types of uncomfortable questions.





On the Meaning of Dialogue

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of a small, but significant document from the Second Vatican Council called Nostra Aetate.  This Declaration on the relationship between the Church and non-Christian religions has been repeatedly hailed as a watershed document marking the Church’s newfound openness to other religions.  It is often summed up in two sentences directly quoted from the document, “[T]he Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men” (NA, 2).  Like many of the documents of the Council, its overall positive tone has made the Church look more appealing to many.   But this strategy to “accentuate the positive” because it went unchecked, has led to a culture of universalism.  The Church rejecting “nothing that is true and holy in these religions” has really become the belief that the Church “rejects nothing in these religions because they contain things that are true and holy.”  As proof of this, one well known Jesuit author claims that Nostra Aetate has led to an irreversible openness in the Church and to the belief that “Jesus is radiant and alive in whatever paths lead to God, whatever is true, whatever is life giving.”

Like many of the documents of the Council, Nostra Aetate has been caught up by the “Spirit of Vatican II” and has been used to suck the life out of the Church.  When it comes to this particular document however, the Church offered an authoritative interpretation when the Declaration On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church or, simply Dominus Iesus, was issued in 2000.  Anyone who attempts to interpret Nostra Aetate (or Unitatis Redintegratio on the Church’s relationship to other Christians for that matter) without putting on the lens of Dominus Iesus will often succumb to the gravity of universalism.

When Dominus Iesus was released there were accusations that it lacked a certain amount of tact and that it set the Church backwards in her relationship with other non-Catholics.  Once the initial waves of indignation settled down it was mostly ignored despite its clarifying purpose.  It is important to note however that this document carries the same Magisterial weight as Nostra Aetate.  Both documents fall under the category of “Declaration” which means they represent a joint statement of the Pope and another religious leader or leaders regarding what ought to be considered a common understanding of some teaching.

According to Cardinal Ratzinger in Dominus Iesus, there are two truths which go hand in hand in our relationship with other religions.  First, the real possibility for salvation exists for all mankind only in Christ.  The second is not that “Jesus is alive and radiant” in other religions, but that the Church is absolutely necessary for the mediation of this salvation.  One may certainly recognize that within these religious traditions there are elements that come from God and even open up the human heart for the way of the Gospel.  But they also contain superstition and other errors that can also be a genuine obstacle to salvation.  Through the different phases of dialogue we may want to emphasize either of those aspects, but ultimately dialogue that never gets to the superstitions and other errors in order to free the followers of the false religion from them is fruitless.

Dominus Iesus

What then is the purpose of this type of document within the corpus of the Council?  It was meant to be part of an overall call to evangelize.  The Church had become closed in on itself in many ways and so the Council hoped to arm the Faithful with a means of encountering those outside the Church—but always with the intention of bringing them back into the Church.  The openness of the Church always has the goal of closing her doors behind the new members that enter.  As Blessed Paul VI said in his Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization, the Church “exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14).

For those who are familiar with the Latin Mass, it ends with the words Ite Missa Est, which literally means “She is sent.”  The Mass empowers us to be sent out into the world so that we might return with more members.

The optimism of the documents was meant to supply an opening to the Faithful in their encounters.  By rejecting “nothing that is true and holy in these religions” it presents common ground for the evangelizer to begin their presentation of the Gospel and invitation to discipleship.  From the Church’s perspective, dialog is part and parcel of evangelization.  It should always have the goal of conversion.  Today, dialogue has become something like negotiations.  Many think that it should be approached as some sort of zero-sum game in that if the Church would be willing to concede that Jesus’ salvific role is not unique, then Muslims would be willing to admit that He may be the savior of Christians just not the savior of Muslims.  The Council recognized that when there are truths at stake there are no winners and losers.  One side’s loss is a loss for both sides and one side’s gain is a gain for both sides.

If we only practice an openness to other religions and not a strong desire to bring them more fully to Christ, then we have failed.  What they offer is already found in the beauty of the Catholic Church.  Certainly the emphasis that other religions place on certain aspects of the truth may help us to see it more clearly in the Church, but still there is nothing loving about leaving them where they are.

At the close of Dominus Iesus, Cardinal Ratzinger supplied some additional ground rules for dialogue that are well worth repeating.  Beginning with the idea of equality he clarifies that this “refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ — who is God himself made man — in relation to the founders of the other religions.”  He also reminds us that if we are truly guided by charity and respect for individual freedom then the Church will be “primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”  The point is that by treating the mission of evangelizing with some urgency we are most assuredly doing the will of God, who wills that all men be saved. Salvation is found in the truth and those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are on their way toward it—but it remains for the Church who has been entrusted as its guardian to “go out and meet their desire.”