What does it say about a culture’s relationship with truth when a man walks into a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., and fires a rifle because he’s “self-investigating” the allegation that the business is a front for a child abuse ring? This is what happened Dec. 4 after the gunman encountered such a claim on the Internet and decided to act upon it. The claim, however, was false — one of a glut of fake news stories that has made the rounds in concert with last month’s presidential election.
This highly disturbing spread of false information calls to mind the pithy observation of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
While this may seem straightforward, the reality is that we are living in a world where objective truth matters less and less. Much has been said about the “post-factual” nature of our very divided cultural moment. Comedian Stephen Colbert has referred to it as the rise of “truthiness.” Just last month, the Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year. Such an atmosphere is amplified by today’s political environment, as we witnessed throughout the campaign and unfortunately continue to see. An attitude that denies facts and plays on emotions defies not only logic but every reasonable Christian, and certainly Catholic, sensibility.
For as Christians, we’re called to love and respect the truth. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), “This mission of truth is something that the Church can never renounce. Her social doctrine is a particular dimension of this proclamation: it is a service to the truth which sets us free.”
Catholics believe truth ultimately is embodied in a person, Jesus Christ.
Service to the truth requires something of everyone. For media consumers, it requires a level of discernment of facts. It means avoiding the temptation to gravitate only to sources that reaffirm a preconceived worldview, especially when that content is deliberately inaccurate. It means rejecting the emerging “dictatorship of relativism” that Pope Benedict warned against — a world in which everyone is cocooned in his or her own truth, with the very existence of objective reality being attacked from all sides.
For media outlets, especially Catholic media, service to the truth requires a commitment to ascertain the truth, to tell it and to tell it well. It means not letting biases cloud our vision and damage our credibility. We at Our Sunday Visitor see this responsibility as part of our mission, to serve the Church and to continue the work of our founder, Archbishop John F. Noll, who began this publication in response to the malicious falsehoods being spread regarding the Church in the early 20th century by the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan.
And for our leaders, both inside and outside the Church, service to the truth requires a respect for truth as something larger than themselves and their agendas. It requires an appreciation for the awesome responsibility of power, as Pope Francis said in 2013: “True power is service.”
As we go forth in a spirit of truth seeking, we must engage others not in a spirit of outrage but of mercy, compassion and a desire for understanding. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Thomas Aquinas: “Men could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another” (No. 2469).
When we unmoor ourselves from truth, the fabric of society is jeopardized.
Editorial Board: Greg Willits, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor