Why truth and charity are inseparable

Why truth and charity are inseparable

Alice von Hildebrand

Dr Alice von Hildebrand was born in Brussels, Belgium. She earned her doctorate in philosophy at Fordham University and was the wife of the famous philosopher, the late Dietrich von Hildebrand.

Alice von Hildebrand is the author of 'Introduction to Philosophy' and collaborated with her husband in the writing of 'Situation Ethics', 'Graven Images', and 'The Art of Living'. In 1989 Sophia Institute Press published her book, 'By Love Refined'. She has lectured extensively and is currently Professor Emeritus at Hunter College of the City of New York.

This is a shortened version of her article which first appeared in 'Homiletic & Pastoral Review'.

One of the most burning topics today is the relationship existing between 'truth' and 'charity.' I shall defend the thesis that they are so closely linked that they cannot be severed. It is, however, fashionable today to establish a dichotomy between them.

'Tolerance' and 'compassion' are politically correct. The word 'truth' jars modern ears: it is redolent of authoritarianism. Many of my students have been clearly allergic to the very word.

How right Benedict XVI was when he spoke of 'dictatorial relativism.' Unfortunately, a democratic majority can also be 'dictatorial.' In the 19th century, the megalomaniac Auguste Comte had already proclaimed, 'everything is relative, except the statement itself.'

Before coming to the core of this article - the bond existing between truth and charity - a few remarks are called for. It would be a mistake to believe that up to recent times men were always receptive toward truth, and in this context, I am referring to moral and religious truth.

In his last work - The Laws - Plato wrote that men 'prefer themselves to the truth' (V, 732). Obviously, they are not tempted to prefer themselves to 'neutral' truths and I mean by 'neutral' those which have no bearing on the way we should live.

In my long career, I have never met anyone opposed to geometrical conclusions. My students usually would defend the thesis that these command universal agreement because they are 'factual' and therefore 'certain,' whereas philosophical views are only 'opinions' - and why should one opinion be better than another?

It sounds convincing enough, but the real reason is quite different: namely, that geometrical truths do not affect us personally; they do not dictate how we should live. It would be odd, indeed, if someone had a nervous breakdown upon finding out that the sum of the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles.

But I had a student who declared, very emotionally and with tragic honesty, that the worst thing that could happen to him would be to discover that he had an immortal soul - because then 'I would be accountable for my way of living.' Needless to say, my chances of convincing him he was mistaken were non-existent: one never sees what one does not want to see. The question is not 'is the argument convincing?' but rather whether one is willing to be convinced by its validity.

On the other hand, deep down men have a longing for truth. Let us recall Augustine aged nineteen reading Cicero's Hortensius and exclaiming: 'O truth, truth, how did the very marrow of my bones yearn for thee when I heard them utter your name ...' (Confessions, III, 4).

Man is full of contradictions, and oftentimes there is a battle in his soul between this thirst for truth, and simultaneously the fear of having to follow its dictates: 'not yet today; tomorrow' exclaimed Augustine shortly before his conversion. How many of us can be certain that we will have a tomorrow?

Truth replaced

The 'unsavoury' word truth is today replaced by 'interesting,' 'new,' 'challenging,' 'modern,' or 'up to date.' In C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, the master devil recommends his pupil to eliminate the word 'truth' altogether and replace it by the words just mentioned. The psychological recipe works.

In a book written shortly before his death, Jacques Maritain deplored the contemporary 'indifference to truth' (De l'Eglise du Christ, Desclee de Brouwer, 1970, p. 182).

This is grave indeed for man's personal life, for his moral life, and most of all for his religious life. Among all the religious founders, Christ is the only one who said 'I am the truth'. Neither Buddha, nor Moses, nor Mohammed have dared utter such words. This assertion can only be validly pronounced by God himself.

This is why Catholics gratefully accept the official teaching of Holy Church, because Christ gave the keys to Peter, and she alone has the fullness of revelation. St Paul warned us that truth will become unpalatable to many: 'For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching ...' (2 Tim 4).

Kierkegaard wrote in his Journals: 'Every man is more or less afraid of the truth' (translated by A. Dru, Harper, Torch Books, p. 202). This is why self-knowledge is so difficult to attain. It is fearful to see oneself in the light of God. 'Who, O lord, is innocent?', 'Who can sustain the divine sight?'

The unpopularity of the Catholic Church is partially due to the fact that she claimed, from her very birth, that she is the one true Church - a claim which is viewed as scandalously arrogant. What about other 'points of view'? Why this pretentious claim that she alone has the fullness of divine revelation?

Up to Vatican II, this claim was loudly proclaimed. Today, it is seldom - if ever - asserted from the pulpit. This assertion is definitely against the Zeitgeist which advocates 'broadness of views,' 'open- mindedness' and what my husband dubbed ecumenitis.

Truth is considered 'divisive' whereas the word 'opinion' brings men together. A very orthodox Jewish colleague of mine defined ecumenism (as understood by most) as the meeting of an atheistic Jew with a fallen away Roman Catholic, and their pleasant discovery 'that they have much in common.'

Vatican II

According to their interpretation of Vatican II, the Catholic Church has finally caught up with the times, which are opposed to any claim to the full possession of revealed truth. The reasoning behind this view is: How are we to attain peace in a world torn by religious conflicts? Is it not more reasonable to say that all religions are ways to God, and that truth being relative, each one of them has a message valid for certain cultures at a certain time?

Man 'having come of age' realises that to accept the validity of all positions is the way to universal harmony and peace: no more religious wars, no more bickering over hair-splitting distinctions that no one cares about anyway. A new, broad road is opened to us: the new age of universal peace. One thing is obvious: the word 'truth' has to be eliminated altogether for this short word is a mine of potential conflicts.

Is that 'true' ecumenism? Does it require the elimination of the key word of human existence - truth - in the name of tolerance and charity?

To create a dichotomy between truth and love which are one in Christ is to lose sight of the supernatural and fall back into a humanitarianism - a poor human substitute for divine love - a 'love' stripped of its supernatural perfume.

Those who through God's grace would gladly give their lives for the one true Church ardently desire that all men - without exception - would accept Christ as God and the Catholic Church as his Bride. But how should they communicate this message?

Christianity is unique in its claim that truth and charity are one: to communicate truth without charity is to inject poison in it.

Seeking to be 'charitable' by eliminating truth for fear of displeasing others is in fact a betrayal of both truth and authentic charity. It is a cheap way of being popular and accepted by everybody. There is a luminous passage in the gospel, which states clearly that truth cannot be severed from love. When Christ chases a devil from a man possessed, and he exclaims, 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,' Christ, to our amazement, forbids him to say so.

From this it be comes luminously clear that the Evil One when proclaiming the key truth of Christianity does it without charity of which he is forever deprived: the Evil One knows the truth but this knowledge is totally severed from love and is therefore poisoned. To proclaim truth without love is to insert a subtle poison in the nectar of truth.

Reversely, to believe there can be true charity without a passionate love for truth and an ardent desire to share it with those who do not have it, is a false charity, stripped of its innermost core. To refrain from communicating truth out of 'love' is a plain betrayal.

Is it insignificant to believe that Christ is God or to reject it? That God is a Trinity of persons or that it is not the case? Is it unimportant to believe or not to believe that Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist? Is it unimportant to accept the authority of Peter or to reject it? Is it unimportant to be either monotheistic or polytheistic? Is it indifferent to believe in personal immortality, or to believe that either there is no immortality or that we shall all melt in a huge unknown?

Plato wrote that the gravity of an error depends upon the object we are erring about. To confuse a mule with a horse is regrettable, but insignificant. But, he tells us, we should give our greatest and fullest attention to avoiding mistakes in the domain which matters most: God (or the gods) and his relationship to man (The Laws, VII, 803).

This is precisely the domain in which the words of Kierkegaard tragically apply: 'The one thing that men fear least is to be in error' and obviously he is referring to the ethical and religious sphere.


I have heard ad nauseam what does it matter what a person believes if 'he feels good about it' and 'it makes him happy'? Tolerance can be an 'unsacred' veil covering indifference toward the beliefs of others. Basically it is repeat of the words of Cain: 'Am I my brother's keeper?' Yes, I am.

Another misconception which has gained currency is the exclusive concern with salvation. More than once, Protestants asked me whether I was saved. Upon my telling them that trusting in God's grace, I hope to go to heaven, they would look at me with pity, for they have the guarantee that they are saved.

The Church has always taught that those who are victims of 'invincible' ignorance, those who have had no chance of hearing the blessed song of revelation, those who are totally ignorant of the divine message and live according to their conscience and follow the natural law, can be saved.

To many Catholics today, this clearly frees them from their obligation to share truth with their brothers. 'They can be saved; why should I bother?' What they forget is that according to Catholic teaching, the glorification of God is the primary end of man; beatitude is the second. Christ said to the Samaritan woman that we should adore God 'in spirit and in truth.' To render to God the honour He deserves we must know who He is, and how are we to know it if it is not revealed to us?

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