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Finding ‘the truth’ in the modern era

October 5, 2018

When I was a boy, two plus two equaled four, the grass was green and the moon was not made of blue cheese. If someone were to claim otherwise, we would say, “It’s not true,” or say they were out of touch with reality. There are things that were true in the past, are true now and will be true forever. Truth is reality. Reality is truth.

And yet, just because someone claims that something is true, that does not make it true. An old Irish proverb says, “you can put silk on a goat and it is still a goat.” It used to be that, because something were true, we said, “It’s true.” However, it seems that, in our post-modern era, truth is under attack. Even the self-evident fact that there is a truth, is being questioned. What we are seeing today is “my truth” and “your truth” but, not “a truth” or “the truth.” Truth is becoming purely subjective and relative. In today’s day and age, we see three attitudes toward the notion of truth. It is either ridiculed, violently opposed or accepted as self-evident.

We are all called to be witnesses to the truth. We witness to the truth in our words and in our actions. We should not bear false witness. We are forbidden from misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others. Why? Because we are called to witness to God, who is the truth and wills the truth. Since God is true, we are called to live in the truth. Offenses against the truth express by word or deed a refusal to commit our self to moral uprightness.

Truth, as uprightness in human speech and action, is called truthfulness, sincerity or earnestness. Truthfulness is the virtue that consists in showing oneself authentic in words and deeds, guarding against duplicity, dissimulation and hypocrisy. Mutual confidence is lost when and peace and harmony are disturbed by the breakdown in respect for the truth.

What are offenses against truth? Lying is the gravest offense against truth. Lying is speaking or acting against truth in order to lead someone into error. There are four criteria to measure the gravity of a lie: the nature of the truth it deforms; the circumstances under which it is disseminated; the intention of the one who lies; and the harm suffered by the victim of the lie.

False witness is another offense against the truth. It is a public statement about someone contrary to the truth. False witness can also lead to slander. Perjury is giving a false witness statement under oath. Rash judgment is when we assume as true, without a sufficient basis, the moral fault of someone else. We should be responsible to interpret — as much as possible — our neighbor’s thoughts, words and deeds in a favorable way. Detraction is disclosing another person’s faults, without an objective reason, and failings to others who don’t know them. Calumny is injuring the reputation of others with remarks contrary to the truth. This gives occasion for false judgments. Detraction and calumny are offenses against the virtues of justice and respect for others. Flattery and adulation that encourage others to commit malicious words or deeds are offenses against the truth too. Boasting and bragging also go against truth.

Just because we are in possession of the truth, it does not mean that we have a right to communicate or share it with others. It may be totally inappropriate and imprudent to reveal something we know against the good of others, the good of our family or the good of our country — even though someone may request it.

We must respect the truth and respect the good of others. This should help us decide our response to those who request information. Not everyone has a right to truthful information- especially if it does not concern them. Professional secrets must be respected. Confidential information is to be kept under the seal of secrecy except in extreme cases where the keeping of a secret would cause grave harm to the person who confided it, the one who received it or to a third party and where very grave harm can be avoided only by revealing it. Professionals or confidants, even though not bound by a seal of secrecy, are not allowed to let any private information harmful to another be revealed unless there is a grave reason. All of us have the right to enjoy a good reputation and have the right to privacy.

Social communications have an important role to play in the dissemination and communication of the truth. They give us information, promote culture and form consciences. In today’s world, their role is increasing as technology advances. News is so diverse and extent. Social communications play an important part in the formation of public opinion. The mission of the communications media is to be at the service of the common good. Members of a society have a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice and solidarity. Contents of communication must be true and complete. Contents should also be communicated honestly and properly. These contents should conform to an accepted moral code, legitimately recognized rights and the dignity of the human person. We are all called to use social communications to communicate and form sound public opinion. Genuine communication respects the rights of individuals and the free circulation of ideas that further knowledge and respect for others. Those who write, are obliged to serve the truth. We must try to respect the nature of facts and use critical judgment respectfully. We should avoid defamation at all costs.

Who should safeguard the promulgation, dissemination and communication of the truth? Civil authorities are responsible for the common good. They have the duty to assure that the misuse of social media does not lead to the abuse of the rights of individuals, their good reputation or privacy. They also have the obligation of protecting us against the manipulation of public opinion through social media. Systematic abuse of social media to falsify the truth, exercise political control of the public or manipulate defendants and witnesses at public hearings, is gravely immoral.

Public offenses against truth concern individuals or groups of individuals. These offenses against justice and truth and the good reputation of others, demand reparation. The suffering and harm of victims must be duly compensated for. Satisfaction in the name of respect and dignity of others must be done and, if calumny or slander has been committed, good reputation must be restored.

Today, we are all called to stand up for truth.

The Rev. Arthur Mollenhauer is the former pastor at St. Roch’s Parish.

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