TO THE EDITOR:
Toni Morrison’s novel Sula introduces the reader to two captivating figures, Sula and Nel, unlikely and periodic friends from very different families whose lives seem, for good or for bad, inextricably bound together. They are equally tragic figures, in that Sula seems to lack any capacity for empathy while Nel lacks any capacity for truth. Which is worse? Is Sula worse for acting so callously toward her community, her relatives, her friend Nel? Or is Nel worse for being unable to contend with the reality in which she is immersed, as difficult or as unpleasant as it is?
In observing their tragic relationship unfold throughout the novel, one is tempted to give in to the fallacy of false dilemma: one must lack empathy in order to be truthful or one must lack truthfulness in order to be empathetic. In reflecting on the story of the two women, a pair of critics observed: “Empathy by itself does not guarantee the integrity of a moral system…Moral authenticity requires both truth and empathy.” I couldn’t agree more.
Any discussion of Amoris Laetitia—either with regard to its interpretation or its implementation—must likewise be careful to avoid the fallacy of false dilemma. There is no discernible argument for changing Church discipline in Fr. Michael Najim’s recently published reflection, save an argument from empathy. (The biblically-based Pauline Privilege couldn’t be stretched, squished or squeezed to fit the situation of Fr. Najim’s friend.) At the same time, there can be no discernible empathy for the real plight of struggling couples in some who tout the truth of the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and worthiness to receive Holy Communion.
Moral authenticity—brazen and unwelcome as it may be—carries empathy but stands on truth. Need they really be as difficult to balance as we tend to assume?
Father Joseph R. Upton
Chaplain, Catholic Student Center, University of Rhode Island