Society

Tell the truth when it might hurt you

The secularists have flourished because no one argues with them

 

 

Make this a rule of life: Tell the truth when telling it might hurt you. If you fear the results, speak as if you don’t. God will be honored, the Church and the world will be served, and you will feel better about yourself. You might have fewer friends and more enemies, but so did Jesus.

I say this looking in a mirror. I can think with shame of times someone around me sneered at the Faith or the Church and I didn’t say anything. Keeping quiet was easier than a painful argument in which I was likely to be opposed by everyone else, who would be full of the secularist’s righteous wrath against the ignorant, and the glee of the lion who trots into the arena to find a chubby Christian chained in the middle.

Speaking for the truths the Church knows

As Catholics in a secularizing world, we don’t have any choice. If we don’t speak for the truths the Church knows, no one else will. Some will speak for one and some for another, and many of them will do so courageously and at a cost, but no one will speak for the whole thing, and no one else will speak for the Church herself.

Princeton professor Robert P. George recently posted on his Facebook page a conversation with a “closeted conservative colleague.” He could have said “closeted Catholic colleague.” George famously (or notoriously, from the other side of things) speaks for his Faith in public with the confidence that it’s true. His “CCC” colleague makes excuses for keeping his views to himself. He replies:

There is a certain moral hazard in not speaking your mind. As scholars, we’ve got a special obligation to truth and a vocation to truth-telling. Of course, everybody has a basic obligation to honor the truth, as best they grasp it, but our obligation is even more central to who we are. So, speaking for myself, I don’t see what the point of being a scholar is if we’re not willing to speak the truth as best we understand it.

Though he doesn’t mention it, George has paid a price for his witness, including having to fight for tenure despite a stellar teaching and writing record.

As an Episcopalian working at an Episcopal seminary some years ago, my writing about the state of the Anglican world prompted regular letters to the dean demanding I be fired. Being the sole support for a wife and four children, for me these were not minor threats, but I did not want to be ashamed of myself when I got older. I’m not asking others to do what I haven’t. (My speaking out wasn’t particularly virtuous, more a matter of a writer’s pride and a contrarian personality, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Speaking as a Catholic

It would be good if the Catholic politician might actually speak as a Catholic and not as a standard Democrat or Republican, and the celebrity Catholic academic lend his influence to Catholic causes. It would be good if the Catholic journalist covered stories his faith tells him are important and avoided the appeals to the baser passions his medium encourages. It would be good if the major voices who are Catholic were major Catholic voices.

Our world needs more, though. It needs the minor voices: the unknown academics, the writers of modest readership, the parish clergy, the articulate laymen, all those who don’t habitually speak as they are able. It needs us.

We can’t offload our responsibility onto the major voices, not least because so many of them won’t pay the costs of speaking. They have their excuses, like “I can’t do any good if I’m not in office” and “I work better behind the scenes” or “I’m a stealth Catholic,” and as George said on his Facebook post, they have to answer their own consciences.

So do all we minor voices. Think how public discourse might change if tens of millions of Catholics spoke in public as confidently as tens of millions of secular people do. Many already do, but not enough, I’m sure, reflecting on my own missed chances and the struggles friends have shared, and many uncomfortable events I’ve witnessed.

Imagine the office atheist knowing a thoughtful Catholic might challenge him. Imagine the faculty bully trying to harass a Christian student group suddenly aware that many of his colleagues will speak for them. Imagine the neighbor who calls for total war against Muslims confronted with a Catholic who knows just war thinking and the loud guy at the bar who thinks the poor deserve it having to answer someone who understands poverty and Catholic social teaching.

They’ve flourished because no one argues with them. Faced by people who can challenge them, they might keep their own heads down or speak in a way that encourages real conversation. Suddenly two alternatives are in play, not just one.

Even if they don’t retreat, even if they get worse, someone needs to challenge them lest the truth appear to lose by default. Other people notice what’s not said, and adjust their thinking accordingly. When you don’t defend your faith against attack, other people won’t always assume you’re just bashful or tactful, they’ll assume you don’t care.

One voice can shift a conversation

Tell the truth when telling it might hurt you. Think how one Catholic speaking up will encourage some and embolden others to speak, and help others to see what they hadn’t seen before. One voice can begin to shift the whole conversation.

The effect would eventually percolate up and change the public debate. A rising tide of witness lifts all boats.

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David Mills

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.