Just before Christmas Pope Francis “tweeted” a brief holy day reflection: “Without love, both life and faith are worthless.” And certainly it is true that a faith life lived without love can easily degenerate from righteousness into self-righteousness and from sanctity to sanctimony. Everyone has encountered someone to whom the expression “butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth” easily applies. The person might be morally upright and doctrinally correct, but sympathy, compassion and indulgence are qualities lacking in the individual’s encounters with acquaintances, colleagues and even friends. Certainly Pope Francis himself has gone out of his way to re-invigorate the Christian life and Christian faith with a loving attitude and caring example. No one could accuse the Pontiff of being aloof or smug or remote. His welcome openness toward social outcasts like the homeless, migrants and prisoners is matched by his controversial indulgence toward the divorced, the sexually ambivalent and climate devotees.
However, the Pontiff might well have observed, with equal legitimacy, “Without truth, both life and faith are worthless.” Nowadays, all manner of enterprises from white lies to mercy killing are undertaken in the name of love. Physician-assisted suicide is approved in some locales as a loving response to severe illness. Abortion is justified as a loving solution to the prospect that a pre-born child might be delivered with a challenging handicap. Hastening the death of the elderly and the critically ill may sometimes be considered a loving gesture on the part of relatives and medical staff. The nature of matrimony is radically transformed in the name of love to justify unions that patently disregard authentic human nature. The perennial understanding of sexuality is lovingly altered to accommodate the gender confused. Some would lovingly extend the reception of the Eucharist to all who might feel unloved when left out of the Communion line. Love has sadly become an excuse for avoiding courageous stands in the face of controversial issues. Without truth, love quickly degenerates into sentimentality, expediency and convenience.
In his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (Love in Truth), Pope Benedict makes this very statement: “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite.” Authentic charity, real love, will always seek out the fullness of truth when making important judgments and critical choices. The teachings of Scripture, the traditions of the Church, the example of the saints, the fruit of prayer, the advice of fellow believers and insights of credible secular voices should all be taken into account when the “loving thing to do” is being discerned. Charity always needs to be understood, confirmed and practiced in the light of truth. Real charity is never afraid of the truth. In fact, as St. Paul instructs the Corinthians, “Charity rejoices in the truth.”
Pope Benedict is certainly not favoring truth over love. He insists that truth always needs to be sought, found and expressed within a framework of charity. In the same encyclical he boldly teaches, “Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope.” However for love to be authentic it must always be exercised with an eye to the truth. The once Pope wisely knows that truth actually frees love from the limitations and constraints that short-sighted emotions often evoke. As St. John wrote, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free!” St. John is not writing here of theological truth as found in text books and classroom discussions. He is writing of an inner, spiritual grasp of what life is all about. He means truth in the sense of knowing how God and man, heaven and earth, time and eternity, all fit together. He means truth emboldened by faith, by revelation and by prayer. Such fullness of truth re-directs love, guides love and escorts love toward honest and fruitful if sometimes painful decisions.
The first reading at Mass this coming Sunday is the celebrated Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. Respect for God, his Name, and his day, as well as respect for authority, life, marriage, private property and another’s reputation are frank expressions of perennial truths from which no one is exempt. But they are also wise directives concerning practical love which only the foolish will ignore. Pope Francis’ celebration of love and Pope Benedict’s salute to truth are both well reflected in the Commandments, the ancient Biblical synthesis of the natural law, a functional balance between truth and love.