There is a possibly apocryphal, but persistent, story that when Galileo was forced to recant his position on heliocentrism and a rotating Earth, he left the room muttering “and yet, it moves!” Questions of historicity aside, the meaning of the anecdote is plain: contrary to philosophical idealism or immaterialism, common sense dictates that there exists a realm of basic physical facts that precede ideology and narrative. Any number of ideological or even philosophical arguments for geocentrism could have been mustered, but none of them would have changed the material reality that the Earth moves around the Sun. A similar story from the annals of Western thought is that of Samuel Johnson, who responded to George Berkeley’s idealism by kicking a large rock and exclaiming, “I refute it thus!”
Contemporary Catholic theology, perhaps mindful of events like these in Western intellectual history, chides us that “realities are more important than ideas.” This insight, along with “time is greater than space,” appears in Evangelii Gaudium, the first major teaching document of Pope Francis’s pontificate. “Realities simply are,” we read, “whereas ideas are worked out” (§231). Evangelii Gaudium warns of a situation in which “the truth is manipulated, cosmetics take the place of real care for our bodies” (§232). This is a metaphor, but perhaps it is not only a metaphor, given that the culture surrounding cosmetics is criticized in Christus Vivit as well (CV §79). Not only does this principle apply to philosophical world-pictures such as idealism, materialism, hylomorphism, and so forth, but it can be applied to moral reasoning as well. A clear line of moral reasoning must start from the facts of the real, mind-independent, pre-ideological world around us, not because those facts are themselves moral facts—that’s the fallacy of moral naturalism—but because those facts are the only way to fully understand what the actual moral question is that we are answering. Somebody attempting to make a decision about his or her life—especially, but not limited to, moral decisions—needs to understand the realities with which he or she is confronted before making a decision with weight, wisdom, and substance. These days, some of the most consequential decisions people can make are related to the physical safety and health of themselves and their neighbors. This is a subject where comprehensive knowledge of material realities is especially important.
Various local government officials in my area who shall remain nameless were quoted in the Easter weekend edition of my local newspaper as refusing to provide the public with statistics on cases of COVID-19 in their municipalities. One rationale given was concern that if the number of cases provided was higher than expected, people would panic, and if it was lower, people would not take the outbreak seriously. Instead, because the numbers in and of themselves “wouldn’t tell the entire story”—a phrase that one of the articles actually used—they should simply not be provided. A basic empirical fact about the pandemic was being denied to the people by our local political leadership, in the service of that leadership’s ideas and narratives about what information the public can be trusted to handle. To make matters worse, this decision by the local governments suggests that they were attempting to situate the citizenry’s moral decision-making in an ideological and narrative context, rather than the factual realm.
Evangelli Gaudium has choice words for religious and political leaders who “have left simplicity behind and have imported a rationality foreign to most people” (§232). This isn’t to imply that every attempt to base political policy or religious doctrine on rational grounds is unacceptable ideologizing, but it is a repudiation of abstract, paternalistic rationales for withholding information about the world from others. But are these rationales—which exist at all levels of both secular and Church government (I’m only using my local government as an example)—merely unwise and counterproductive, or are they actually sinful? There are arguments that can be made either way.
Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the concept of a “noble lie,” which comes down to us from the elitist political structure advocated in Plato’s Republic. The “noble lie” in the Republic is not necessarily meant to respond to realities that would present immediate individual or social threats; instead, it serves more abstract functions, like (in the example Plato gives) using an invented myth to justify a highly stratified society. The “noble lie” is all the more galling in the context of Plato’s thought because Platonism is also the philosophical tradition that introduces the concept of the “transcendentals”—free-standing, objective, immaterial standards for positive characteristics, such as goodness, beauty, and truth. In this context, the “noble lie” is the decision to let ideology and narrative override an authority’s obligation to the truth and, thereby, its obligation to seek the common good.
In the Catholic moral tradition, in which direct lies are held to be always morally wrong, the accepted way to respond to questions when truthful answers would endanger oneself and others is to resort to half-truths and stonewalling. (The example I was given in my confirmation class was of somebody responding to a Nazi official asking him if he was sheltering any Jews in his house by saying something like “I’m an upstanding German citizen; what do you think?”—although in practice I can’t think of any confessor I’ve ever met who would treat a direct lie in this situation as mortally sinful.) This is closer to the local government decision I discussed above, and could be taken at least in theory to justify it. It relates to the controversial idea of “mental reservation”–they know the full truth, but are simply holding it back, and so as long as they don’t utter an outright falsehood they might be in the clear for equivocating on the exact facts. (A story is told of Francis of Assisi misdirecting a would-be murderer pursuing his victim, while pointing in a different direction with a finger inside his cassock.)
However, the mere fact that withholding information isn’t intrinsically wrong in the same way that telling direct untruths is, does not mean that it can’t be assessed morally or doesn’t present a moral problem. There are evils other than intrinsic evils, and sins that are not intrinsically evil acts. Moreover, social structures of sin—such as a conniving or unforthcoming government—do imply and represent the consequences of individual sins on the part of at least some members of society (CCC §1869).
Thus, an argument can be made that a government’s decision to withhold public health information in the interest of not provoking a panic is not intrinsically evil. At the same time, an argument can also be made that it is nevertheless morally wrong for other reasons, because it represents a conspiratorial, abstracted, and ideologized attitude towards the role of governing authority. Catholics who have followed the sexual abuse scandals of the past several decades are intimately aware of the terrible things that happen when governing authorities take the “you can’t handle the truth” rationale to its full conclusion.
There is a common tendency to think of Catholic moral theology as extending only to efforts to control or pass judgment on individuals’ behavior in a few private arenas–most notoriously, sexual acts. This view of the Church’s moral teaching is widespread among the Church’s liberal and, in some cases, conservative critics. It is reinforced (whether intentionally or unintentionally) by certain churchmen in sordid spectacles like a former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith claiming, in contravention of all recent Popes, that environmental policy “is nothing to do with faith and morals.” There is also a habit of thought within the Church that treats moral theology as if it is some sort of extension of (or justification for) canon law, rather than canon law being applied moral theology. (This is how someone like Cardinal Raymond Burke, a knowledgeable and nuanced canon lawyer, can end up hopelessly in over his head on moral theology without realizing it.) In reality, moral theology flows from and incorporates even more basic principles. “Realities are more important than ideas” is at heart a metaphysical statement in rejection of solipsism and subjectivist idealism. It can be applied to any number of situations–from the actions of a small archipelago of local governments in a sleepy corner of the Northeastern United States to decisions taken at the highest levels of the Catholic Church.
Image of Pinocchio from Wikimedia Commons.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.