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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
The Observer

Pursuing truth together

To steal a chorus from Bob Hurd, “ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est” — where charity is true, God is there. More succinctly from the late Pope Benedict XVI, “Deus caritas est” — God is charity. But those twin aims of action, truth and charity, at times can seem at odds with each other. Indeed, much of my time at Notre Dame Law, and really in the Notre Dame community more broadly, has been defined by the relentless pursuit of just the right balance between truth and charity. After all, anyone can see the hurt feelings caused by candor that is too blunt. Likewise, if that sort of bluntness is exactly what we unhealthily fear, then our charity could end up suppressing truth. 

This dialectic even infects our politics. How many times have we seen those on the right making points along the lines of “facts don’t care about your feelings”? The point is true enough: if one has authentically arrived at the truth, no contrary notion, regardless of how grounded in one’s own personal experience, can substitute for it. But such a relentless pursuit of truth without charity ends up leading people away from both. And then there’s the practically instinctive tendency of those on the left to align themselves with the marginalized, whether actual or perceived. Solidarity is a principle of Catholic social teaching and a noble pursuit, and those on the right side of the aisle admittedly tend not to abide by it anywhere close to sufficiently, but the readiness of those on the left to stand with the marginalized often seems to be grounded in things other than a pursuit of truth as to the nature and scope of alleged ongoing oppression. In exercising the principle of solidarity, many a left-leaning thinker thereby invest their time and effort in the pursuit of virtue signaling rather than actual virtue. The result is similar: charity without truth ends up leading people away from both.

The tribalism of modern politics creates another problem which intensifies both of these infections. In 2008, Bill Bishop wrote a book titled The Big Sort that describes a sociological phenomenon over the past 40 years in which there has been a tendency for individuals to geographically conglomerate based on political preference. This sort of retreat into what Alexis de Tocqueville would call a “little society” consisting of only those who think and act most like ourselves is exceptionally problematic.

Countlesscurricularmaterials on an “author’s purpose” in writing state the proposition that those purposes number three: to inform, persuade, or entertain. The more society “sorts” itself by political affiliation, the less that people engage in discourse to persuade others and the more they engage in discourse instead to inform their own as to where they stand. The temptation to prove one’s bona fides to one’s preferred political tribe is particularly difficult to resist. Might some of the lack of empathy amongst those on the right be attributable to a desire not to get labeled a snowflake? Likewise, might some of the virtue signaling amongst those on the left similarly amount to a desire not to get canceled? A plague o’ both these houses. There must be another way.

In middle and high school, I had a theology teacher who made a point of etymologizing key Greek words of the New Testament. One of the first words to which he gave this treatment was “metanoia”. Whenever Jesus says “repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” in Scripture, the word “repent” is a loose English translation of the Greek “metanoia,” which comes from two roots: “meta-,” which refers to change, and “-noia,” referring concurrently to the heart and to the mind. Rather than simply turning away from wrong things, Christ thus calls us through a multitude of parables to open our hearts and minds to deeply rooted change.

And so it is here, dear and faithful reader, that this column concludes with an exhortation: whenever we find ourselves engaging in discourse, we should ask ourselves two simple questions: first, what am I trying to show here, and second, to whom? The answer to that first question should be “truth with charity”, while the answer to the second should be “everybody.” If instead we find ourselves proclaiming untruths with an uncharitable disposition and tribalism in our hearts, the very metanoias that enable the Kingdom of God to flourish will take root neither in our hearts and minds nor anyone else’s. 

As I have previously noted in this space, St. Maximillian Kolbe’s formula for holiness notes that God’s will, united with ours, is the very definition of sanctity — “W + w = S” for short. As we pursue the marriage of truth and charity, let us strive to unite our small-w wills to God’s big-W will and so pursue that capital-S sanctity which is the foundation of every meaningful metanoia.

Devin Humphreys is a 3L at Notre Dame Law School. When he isn't serving as the sacristan at the Law School Chapel, singing with the Liturgical Choir or Chorale or competing at a quiz bowl tournament, he's sharing his thoughts on the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. For advice on law school, hot takes on Mass music and free scholarly publication ideas, reach out to Devin at or @DevinJHumphreys on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.