Dear Souls and Hearts members,
Circumstances matter in living out the truth. Circumstances matter. What do I mean by this?
Context and nuance
As I reflected about the emphasis on living in the truth in my last few email reflections, I began to wonder if there might be some readers among you with scrupulous parts that were activated around fear of lying or misrepresenting the truth.
I also wondered about those of a more sensitive conscience that may feel impulses to explain, and to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” in circumstances where that might be simply impossible or inadvisable.
Finally, I considered some thoughts on those who listen to our words, those who might not want the truth, or those of our neighbors of whom it might be said, quoting Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!”
In this email reflection, I wanted to bring in some more nuance and the deepening understanding about circumstances. I wanted to bring in some guidance in reflecting on the context of our communications with each other.
I want to reassure those who might be concerned that in bringing in contextual factors that I might be drifting into situational ethics, with its repudiation of absolute moral law. Let me be clear about that – I strongly believe in the fixed universal moral principles laid out with great clarity by our Catholic Church.
At the same time, most of us intuitively know that the circumstances around our communications, the context of our speech matters a lot. So let’s get into that now.
Six reasons not to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
- The right to hear the truth is not unconditional. We have to judge whether or not it is best to reveal the truth in a given set of circumstances. Some requests need not be answered because the question isn’t grounded in truth-seeking – I am reminded of how our Lord was silent as Herod questioned him about miracle, motivated by a fascination for novelty and entertainment rather than by truth, goodness or love. Our “Nazis at the door, demanding to know if you are harboring fugitive Jews” example also comes to mind. And sometimes children will keep asking their parents, “Why?” when they are not getting what they want – children often argue to pursue some desired objective (like staying up later or getting to watch an inappropriate movie) – not every child’s argument is a sincere pursuit of truth – instead, the arguing might be a tactic to wear down a parent’s resolve to hold to a health limit or boundary.
- Revealing the truth about someone could be sinful – the sin of detraction, which happens when a person “without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraph 2477. This would include telling embarrassing stories from high school days at a company party about your old classmate who was just hired on in your department, in order to be the center of attention and to grow in popularity, without consideration for his or her reputation.
- A demand for information may be a violation of the seal of confession or may violate obligations to keep professional secrets. I can’t count the times others have made inappropriate requests to reveal confidential information about my psychotherapy clients (including attorneys, who really should know better). We have to discern how to live out the truth in charity and consider the legal and moral ramifications of sharing information.
- Detailed responses may be neither sought or useful. If the cashier at the grocery store asks in a perfunctory, scripted way how you’re doing today, it doesn’t require you to disclose that you’re still very much suffering with unresolved grief over the death of your mother and that your bunions are really bothering you today. You don’t have to say the conventional response of “fine,” if that isn’t accurate. You can say something like “I’ve had worse days and better days” or “I’m hanging in there.” Catholic writer and thinker Sean Collins explains in a Homiletic and Pastoral Review article that:
It is commonly understood that we don’t necessarily lie if we don’t tell the whole truth, or if we tell as much of it as is appropriate in circumstances. If, in answer to a customer’s question about “whether he has any oranges,” a shopkeeper says, “No,” he isn’t lying if he doesn’t mention the ones in his lunchbox. It is obviously natural to consider circumstances when determining what one ought to say or not say, precisely so as to represent as much of the truth as it is appropriate to represent. The truth of the answer is thus conformed to the truth of the circumstances.
- We need to maintain an appropriate reserve about others’ private lives. A teenager is under no obligation to answer a younger sibling’s probing questions about his romantic life – especially if that younger sibling lacks discretion and is building up an active following of local friends and acquaintances on Twitter.
- We need to be attuned and charitable in how we share the truth with our neighbor. Being truthful is so much more than simple providing factually correct information. Sometimes, truth-telling is so very painful to our hearer. In those situations, how much we share and how we share it has a real impact on how much truth our hearer can take in in that moment. We should not be brutal in telling the truth. It’s probably not best, when you are in a fit of anger, to tell your rambunctious teenage son that you have fantasies of sending him off to a high-school military academy (I did that, once. Not a good idea. Not good for the relationship.)
If you are interested in more, check out paragraphs 2488 to 2492 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, about all the different circumstances that impact the telling of truth.
Remember, none of the above warrants lying. Not sharing the whole truth does not equal lying.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,