Over the past year, I have heard a lot of people–most of whom are fellow Catholics–lamenting the difficulty of discerning the truth about current events. What really happened, and how can we know? Some people are genuinely confused about how to understand the protests for racial justice that occurred last summer, the coronavirus crisis and its associated mitigation measures, and the violent January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.
This level of doubt may be surprising to those of us who follow the news closely or read it broadly, using a variety of different sources from across the political spectrum. We may have confidence in our judgments regarding what is true and what is not. However, many do not have the time, energy, interest, or openness to cross-check a variety of different sources. They are left wondering least of all because of the manipulation of narratives in a fast-paced media environment.
So for many, discerning the truth about what one sees, hears, and reads can seem almost impossible. Pope Francis recently referred to “the media’s noisy potpourri of facts and opinions” as “an obstacle to dialogue, since it lets everyone cling stubbornly to his or her own ideas, interests and choices, with the excuse that everyone else is wrong” (Fratelli Tutti, 201). When presented with the juxtaposition of chaotic bloodshed and Christian symbols, such as the “Jesus saves” signs and the cross that was erected near the Capitol during the recent violence, good Christians can understandably wonder, “What is the truth here?”
Attempts to answer that question often take one of two forms. Some assume a defeatist attitude, forfeiting even the attempt to know the truth because the messaging is so confusing. Others take the path of choosing one anchor or news network or Twitter page that more or less confirms their biases and tells them what they want to hear. Both of these approaches suggest the image of “sheep without a shepherd,” lost and at the mercy of the wolves (Matthew 9:36).
Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to remember that we are a people who are loved by the Good Shepherd, and our faith can provide us with paradigms for discerning good sources of information and finding our way toward truth. I’d like to offer one of them here.
At an Easter Vigil Mass in 2019, in a parish on the outskirts of Vienna, I heard a homily that is surprisingly relevant here. The priest began by recounting his recent critical reading of Adolf Hitler’s notorious book, Mein Kampf. He shared one thing he noticed to be missing from every single page: tenderness. In the Gospel, on the other hand, tenderness is ubiquitous. “Look at Jesus’ tenderness to his disciples after the Resurrection,” he exclaimed. “It knocks you right over!” He went on to describe how Jesus demonstrated tenderness by giving his disciples what they each needed to believe in his Resurrection in his personal encounters with them.
Pope Francis has made tenderness a theme of his pontificate, often calling for what he has called a “revolution of tenderness.” In a 2017 TED Talk, for example, he defines tenderness as “the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands.” Again in Fratelli Tutti, he insisted that “Politics too must make room for a tender love of others” (FT 194). Tenderness can also help us to discern truth among competing narratives.
What are some concrete ways we can do this?
When you’re bombarded with contradictory information and divergent opinions from media sources or even trustworthy friends and family, look for where tenderness resides in words and actions.
If you’re not sure whether a given politician is telling the truth, or whether he or she can be trusted, print out a recent speech and search for the theme of tenderness.
If you have time, try to get a comprehensive picture of a public figure’s life, and see where you can find tenderness within it.
If you’re not sure what to think about the riots on Capitol Hill on January 6, try to discern tenderness in the pictures and video recordings from the day.
If you’re not sure whether a news anchor or columnist is telling you the truth about the coronavirus or a contentious political issue with “two sides,” try to discern tenderness in her words. Is there an element of love that “comes close and becomes real”? Do you see, rather, words or actions that degrade others, minimize their suffering, and encourage violence?
To help in your discernment, you can also turn to the child Jesus in a manger, flanked by his two parents. Within that image, you can discern the God who came close in love: Is what you are hearing, reading and seeing compatible with the God who humbly comes to Earth as a human infant without a hint of force? The connection between tenderness and the manger is an important one. Pope Francis describes the manger as containing “reality, poverty and love.” If the manger scene is tenderness par excellence, then there is a tangible connection between tenderness and reality.
In other words, where we find tenderness, we also are likely to find the truth, including the truth about what is going on in the world. The opposite is also true: a speech, article, or action devoid of tenderness will also be devoid of truth.
When using tenderness as a test-strip for truth, we must be careful not to misconstrue tenderness as mere niceness. The “love that comes close and becomes real” is tender yet strong.
Consider, for example, Saint Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran bishop who stood with his people against a tyrannical military regime. His prophetic words were filled with love but were not in any way soft as he called Christians involved in the junta to repentance. He pulled no punches in decrying the injustices perpetrated by the powerful, and his courageous tenderness ultimately cost him his life.
Consider also the protests for racial justice this summer. While many might look at isolated images from the time and struggle to see the tenderness in them, there is nothing more tender than a movement that comes close to the people and stands up to fight injustice. Wherever people earnestly come together to stand for justice, tenderness is incarnated.
Pope Francis’s pontificate has the tender mercy of God at its center, yet he firmly calls us to a conversion that challenges our comfort. Tenderness is not softness; it is love. It is also a path to truth—one that we should all be inspired to follow.