Teaching the truth

Pope Benedict XVI addressed young university professors during World Youth Day on the importance of truth. 

The theme of his Aug. 19 talk reminded me of an odd experience I had when I was a young university professor. During a college council meeting, I made what I thought was a factual and completely nonprovocative reference to the truth of something. To my surprise, this remark infuriated another young professor, who hurried out of the room while muttering, “Now I have heard everything.” 

I did not credit myself as having the wit to provide my offended colleague with the very last thing he needed to hear in order to have heard everything. Rather, I took his words and action to be a sign of his commitment to a spacious skepticism, a bleak philosophical outlook that contends that truth is unknowable. My colleague had embraced a hopeless and contradictory philosophy. How could he be as upset as he was unless he was certain about what I had said? He did not say, “I do not know what you mean”; he stormed out of the room. 

Love and understanding

The pope was correct when he alluded to the omission of truth that often occurs at universities. But this omission, as he explained, can be tragic. He cited two areas where truth is vitally needed: 1) where science acknowledges no limits beyond itself; 2) where political totalitarianism eliminates any higher reference than the mere calculus of power. 

The truth of man reveals that unregulated science and unchecked political power cannot provide him with everything he needs in order to thrive as a human being. “The authentic idea of the university is precisely what saves us from this reductionist and curtailed vision of humanity,” the pontiff stated. We need to know the truth about ourselves in order to be fully ourselves. His appeal is both to the mind and heart, to thought and life, to understanding and love. Accordingly, he stated that, “Understanding and love are not in separate compartments: Love is rich in understanding and understanding is full of love.” 

The pope, therefore, urged teachers to love their students and inspire them to follow the path “toward the truth.” The words “toward the truth” are deeply significant. We are made for truth, and the more we are able to penetrate its inexhaustible depths, the better off we are.  

St. Augustine once remarked that although he had met many men who had been deceived, he had never met anyone who wanted to be deceived. This simple remark is richer in implication than it may appear to be at first glance. Let me say that many people have asked me for the right time, but no one has ever asked me for the wrong time. Just as we need to know the right time, we also need to separate truth from error. 

No one seeks or is ever satisfied with either deception or the wrong time. Although deception is commonplace, it is not normative. It never assuages us. When the skeptic mistakes the commonplace for the normative, he comes to believe that truth is unattainable. We should not allow skeptics to discourage us. In times of doubt, we need to strengthen our resolve to seek truth. 

Pope Benedict stressed how important it is that the search for truth be accompanied by the virtue of humility. We need humility to submit to truth, but we also need it to prevent pride and complacency from barring the way to further discoveries and explorations of truth. 

The message that concluded his address parallels Christ’s simple and timely words contained in Matthew 5:13 that we should become “plain and effective like salt, or like the lamp which quietly lights the room.” 

Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut.