Truth, charity and the Laetare Medal
John VanBerkum | Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Let me begin with a quote from Michael Sean Winters, a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter and a supporter of University President Fr. John Jenkins’ decision to honor Vice President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner with the Laetare Medal: “This year’s Laetare award sends the unmistakable signal that the time for building walls, either those erected by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or those promised by Mr. Trump, has ended and the time for building bridges has begun.”
This seems to be a common refrain after Pope Francis’ exchange with Donald Trump a few weeks ago. But, what is actually involved in building bridges, and why might some efforts be considered building walls?
Turning to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in “Caritas in veritate” is enlightening: “A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world. Without truth, charity is confined to a narrow field devoid of relations. It is excluded from the plans and processes of promoting human development of universal range.”
Bridges are built by charity in truth, that is, charity anchored in or indivisible from truth, because charity in truth promotes human development and fosters real human relations. How? Truth satisfies and fills that emptiness within us that often drives our searching, and charity is the bond of relationship by which we encounter such truth.
Walls are built by charity without truth: treating someone as the sum of their emotions (and therefore working to satisfy those alone) rather than as a human longing for something much deeper: the truth of existence and life itself. Charity severed from truth does not promote the development of a community of people yearning for authentic happiness.
When we honor someone for civility in politics while at the same time failing to point out where he has separated himself from the truths of his faith while acting in the political sphere, we are actually building walls. Such a recognition tells the Catholic faithful that the radical witness of the Catholic faith — in which charity and truth are inseparable — has no place in politics. Truth, it seems, should be covered up or set aside for personal life.
We should look, however, at the nature of the Laetare Medal itself. “Magna est veritas et prevalebit” is the inscription on the medal, translated, “Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail.”
We should go right to the source to discover the ultimate meaning of such words.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus said.
And another passage from Scripture: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Truth — Jesus — sets us free. Bridges, not walls, set us free. Jesus is indeed mighty and has prevailed against all evil.
How then are the lives of Biden and Boehner witnesses to truth, to Jesus, in the realm in which they work — politics? How do they live up to the radical witness of God on a cross or the martyrs burned alive for their faith?
We do not talk like this today, and this probably causes many of us to cringe. By radical, however, I do not mean crazy and irrational. I mean Jesus: a healer of the sick, outspoken against hypocrisy and a complete gift to others. We are not called to be nice (Jesus was not always nice). We are called to be charitable (offering ourselves in relationship) and to speak the truth (to be in truth), which can sometimes seem harsh to hardened hearts.
By honoring civility over the truth, is granting this medal to Biden and Boehner perpetuating the indifference to truth, the moral relativism, that is so prevalent in our culture?
Both are Catholic, yet Biden supports the funding of contraception and embryonic stem cell research, and Boehner stalls immigration reform.
Giving this award to Biden and Boehner is a direct contradiction of the very nature of the medal itself. Rather than encouraging political dialogue, it instead builds walls. It encourages everyone, and politicians in particular, to disregard truth.
Biden and Boehner are prominent politicians, maybe as prominent as one can be: The perfect stage, one would think, to voice their knowledge of the truth learned from the mother they purport to accept as Catholics — holy mother Church.
Where is the radical Catholic witness of charity in truth today? Are we mired in indifference to truth? This University should be the hands and voice of charity in truth for the whole nation. We should not be afraid to proclaim the truth that we know in the public square.
There is still hope though. Be radical, Fr. Jenkins: rescind the award.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.