One of the problems with modern Western culture is the tendency to prioritize feelings and emotions over truth and reason. This has infected the Church as well; not offending often takes precedence over the unambiguous teaching of doctrine and the truth of the faith.
In his recent book, Christus Vincit, Bishop Athanasius Schneider writes, The crisis in the Church today is due to a neglect of the truth and specifically a reversal of the order of truth and love. Today a new principle of pastoral life is being propagated in the Church, which says: love and mercy are the highest criteria and truth has to be subordinated to them. According to this new theory, if there is a conflict between love and truth, truth must be sacrificed. This is a reversal and a perversion in the literal sense of the word (p. 166).
This makes an important point about the order of truth and love. As the Bishop reminds us, truth precedes love. It also serves as the foundation of true and perfect love.
Bishop Schneider roots this insight not just in the nature of things but in the action of God. God first sends forth his truth in the Law, through the prophets, and, perfectly, through His Son, the Word made flesh. Then, having rooted and established us in the truth, He sends forth the Holy Spirit, the Person of the Holy Trinity most associated with love. God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us(Rom 5:5). Thus, truth precedes love and frames its demands and blessings.
The precedence of truth is important for another reason: today, love is often reduced to kindness. While kindness is one aspect of love, so are correction and rebuke. In our culture, if we do not kindly approve of anything others want to do, we risk being called hateful. Love is often equated with approval, with being “nice.”
This attitude that has infected the Church holds that upsetting people, hurting their feelings, or making them feel “excluded,” is almost the worst thing we can do. Never mind that the biblical Jesus upset more than a few people; he “excluded” those who “[could not] be [His] disciples” because they would not carry their cross and would not love Him above all others. In the Church today, we walk on eggshells to avoid giving offense and talk endlessly about being a “welcoming community.” In order to achieve this, too many clergy and leaders of every rank in the Church seem willing to deform the truth of our doctrine through selective teaching, silence, or even outright misrepresentation of what the Lord and Scriptures teach. Mercy is frequently taught without any reference to repentance—but repentance is the very key that unlocks the door to mercy! The Lord links the summons to repentance with the good news of salvation (e.g., Mark 1:5).
Of course, it is not our goal to offend, but the Gospel has a strange way of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted; each of us is a little of both. We cannot forget that we serve a Lord who was killed for what He said even though no one ever loved His enemies more than He.
We need to summon clergy, parents, and all leaders in the Church to beware of the problem so accurately described by Bishop Schneider.We must not ignore the proper order: truth precedes love and is its foundation. Things in the wider Church are often disordered, for by reversing the order, things become—by definition—disordered.
All of us must be more courageous in speaking the truth. When I am preaching on a difficult or controversial issue, I often prepare my listeners by saying, “I love you too much to lie to you.” I then go on to speak the truth of God’s teachings even if they are “out of season.” I do this not only to prepare them but to illustrate that the truth of the Gospel precedes and frames my love for them. I cannot really say I love them apart from the truth of the Gospel. To lie or to be silent as the wolf of deception devours them is not love; it is hate, or even worse, indifference. It is neither loving nor merciful to deprive people of the truth that can set them free.
Love and mercy are beautiful, but they must be preceded by the truth. I am grateful to Bishop Schneider for this reminder.