“I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” (Apologia 21d)
Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes Translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb., vol. 1 (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1966).
So, today we saw another misrepresentation of Pope Francis. He spoke about investigating the role of the ancient position of deaconesses and clarifying what role they might play in the Church today. This suddenly became “Pope to investigate ordaining female deacons.” This resulted in both the radical traditionalist looking for “proof” that the Pope is a heretic, and the misguided Catholic who thinks the Church can ordain women jumping to the inaccurate opinion that the Pope justified their views. Once again we had people commit eisegesis, letting their preconceptions interfere with an accurate understanding. Debunking this was pretty easy compared to other incidents.
But after finishing this debunking, I had a thought. We’re quick in investigating false claims when it challenges what we find important. But we seem willing to take the same sources at their word if it supports our friend or harms our foe. This is more noticeable in an election year. We want our candidate to get elected and whatever harms the opponents of the candidate is good enough. So we end up sharing links which achieve this on social media without considering their accuracy.
The problem is, as Christians, we’re not supposed to do this. We’re supposed to speak the truth and live it. This obligation holds firm regardless of whether we talk about the Pope or about controversial politicians like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or Paul Ryan (to pick out four controversial names this election cycle from the headlines). We have to avoid rash judgment and calumny in what we say or what we repost. The Catechism tells us:
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
2479 Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 594–595.
Before a person makes a negative interpretation about the character of someone, he has the obligation to discover (to the best of their ability) whether the charge is true or whether it comes from a partisan interpretation of the facts. If it is the latter, we need to ask ourselves if this interpretation is the only one possible or if there are other justified interpretations that do not prove the moral badness of the target. In other words, we need to make sure we are not playing the hypocrite. If we object to people misrepresenting or defaming what we hold important, we must not do the same thing when it comes to people we dislike.
For that matter, if someone we like actually does wrong, we can’t pretend that it doesn’t matter and kick it under the rug either. So, for example, if we denounce corruption in one candidate, we cannot be silent if a candidate we like is also corrupt.
Discerning the right thing to do can be a fine line to walk. But it is about not letting our prejudices lead us to act unjustly through action or omission. If someone does wrong, we can’t condone it. But we do have to make sure it is wrongdoing and not disagreement over the best way to do things or a misunderstanding over what happened.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m the wise Socrates from the quote in the beginning of this article and everyone else is the person who thinks he knows and does not. I had to catch myself in the act of doing this before realizing I was playing a double standard. I noticed that I just took the word of the mainstream media when it came to public figures I disliked and investigated it when it involved people I approved of. But when I looked more closely at what the articles alleged, I saw other reasonable interpretations than moral badness. Because of this, I had to ask myself, “What sort of witness am I leaving to support my promotion of Catholic moral teaching."
I didn’t like the answer I gave myself.
Since, as Christians, we’re called to be the light of the world, the city on the hill, the salt of the earth (see Matthew 5:13-16), we have to consider what sort of beacon we give to the world compared to the beacon we’re supposed to give. That means we have to do what is right, speaking the truth, even when we think the person involved seems entirely wrong.