It is good to begin one’s search for truth with the awareness that we are always limited in our possession of truth. That limitation does not mean truth is unattainable.


 What Is Truth? by Nickolai Ge, 1890.

From the earliest times, history tells us of deep and devastating divisions among people. Our contemporary society is definitely no exception. Who among us has not experienced at least some degree of anguish in the face of the many issues currently dividing us, both as Americans and as Catholics? For the most part, efforts to seek common ground have met with little success.

Unfortunately, more is involved than simply tension among people with different opinions. Now, it has grown into a question of polarization. Tension can be a creative force. Tension can lead to new insights. Polarization, however, is worse than useless. Polarization stifles honest discussion and creativity.

We all search for the truth. The search is good. But the search leads people in different directions. People differ greatly on how and where truth is to be found; even as to whether or not it can be found. Seeking for truth is arduous. As Paul Elie put it in The Life You Save May Be Your Own: “The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, are complicated by our lives.” Amid the conflicting claims about truth, we may well be tempted to echo Pilate’s words: What is truth?

An analogy may help to understand contrasting approaches to truth, neither of which is adequate, and which can become a source of division. Some people approach truth as though it were a fossil, an unchanging faithful witness to the past, but incapable of change or adaptation. Others approach truth as though it were a chameleon, easily adjusting to change, but taking on the appearance of whatever circumstances it finds itself in.

It is good to begin one’s search for truth with the awareness that we are always limited in our possession of truth. That limitation does not mean truth is unattainable. Rather it means, in many cases, that truth is neither simple nor obvious, that its possession is never complete and absolutely secure, that its expression must remain partial and tentative.

To maintain there is such a thing as objective truth is to assert the existence of a reality independent of its being known, and the ability of the intellect to grasp that reality. In that view, reality is normative of truth. One’s view of reality is like a map with which we negotiate the terrain of life. It is true that each of us inhabits a mental home with its own design and limited space. It is also the case that we are not born with maps. We have to make them, and making them requires serious effort. The biggest problem of our map-making is not that we have to start from scratch but that, if our maps are to be accurate, we often have to revise them. The one constant in virtually every area of human experience is change.

We must continually revise our maps and, sometimes, when enough new information is accumulated, make major revisions. That does not mean there are no constants. It is not to deny there is such a thing as eternal truth. It is one thing to say truth is eternal. It is quite another to say it is static. Truth does not change, but the human expression of it does. Wordsworth stated that idea poetically.  “Truth fails not, but the outward forms that bear the longest date do melt like frosty rime that in the morning whitens hills and plains, and is no more.” Bishop Ken Untener offered a helpful analogy. He noted that the early maps of a territory were modified over time as further exploration took place. The maps changed. The terrain did not.

There is a valid sense in which truth is subjective, not in the sense that the knowing subject creates the reality or radically distorts it. It is simply to affirm the role of the knowing subject, and its limitations. In a famous critique, Kant spoke of “pure reason.” But reason is never completely pure. It is always someone’s, someone in a certain time and place and circumstances.

In the conception of truth, there is split which sociologists label the fact/value split. The “fact” realm is the realm of science. It includes whatever qualifies as public knowledge scientific, objective, rational. The “value” realm includes religion, morality, arts, and the humanities. In the value realm, truth is reduced to private, subjective experience. Many believe that in this realm, human reason does not have the capacity to uncover truth, which is objective and universal. Individual feelings outweigh moral and intellectual criteria. Hence, there is the possibility of many “truths” and resulting divisions among people.

People at opposite extremes on an issue usually have certain characteristics in common. First, they begin with their conclusion. They then proceed by dis-missing as aberrant or insignificant whatever does not support that conclusion. They assign all the light to one side, and all the darkness to the other. They put on the armor of fixed purpose, which becomes impenetrable by any argument. Often civility and rational argument are sadly lacking. Deep-seated resentments, ignorance, and prejudice replace the work of argument. It can also happen that people focus so strongly on the specific differences between their position and that of another that the differences take on the aspect of essential principles to be maintained at all costs.

It is also the case that many disputes result when one party overemphasizes what the other party wrongfully ignores. Thus, it seems arriving at truth is often a question of achieving balance. Examples are plentiful. The earliest heresies and divisions in the Church were the result of some of the faithful being unable to balance the concepts of Jesus being both truly human and truly divine. Quietism is only a slight exaggeration of the teaching of the mystics about simplicity in prayer. Quakerism enthrones, in dangerous isolation, the truth of God’s presence among us. Jansenism’s call for conscientiousness is overshadowed by scruple.

It is said of heresies that they live by the truths they contain. Heresy or error, even in extreme form, is never entirely false. It is truth torn from its natural place in the scheme of things, a truth without regard to its complementary truths, a truth out of balance.

Some propose relativism as a remedy for divisions. Relativism, however, is simply inadequate. It is, in fact, a threat. When objective truth is abandoned, the result is not that nothing is true, but that anything can be true. Relativism also fosters a distorted notion of tolerance. Everything can be forgiven, but not everything can be tolerated.

Better suggestions for a remedy have not been lacking. Many years ago, the French philosopher and Christian apologist, Blaise Pascal, in his Pensées, offered a fairly simple, common sense way to resolve disagreements. He suggested that if we believe someone is wrong, and wish to correct their error, we must begin by ascertaining their viewpoint. That will enable us to see the element of truth they see. Pascal further suggested “acknowledging that truth will lead a person to see they are not mistaken, but only failed to see all sides. No one likes to be mistaken, but no one is offended at not seeing everything.”

A more ancient wisdom is found in some of Plato’s remarks concerning dialogue and disagreement. In Gorgias (485), he wrote that “dialogue is worth the trouble if you consider it a gain to be proved wrong; otherwise it is better not to start.” He further suggested that disagreement/argumentation, assuming it is carried out in a civil manner, can be profitable. He also suggests: “Sooner or later, both sides may find themselves in agreement, and the one who has lost the argument will be the greater gainer, for he will be freed of the very great evil, error. It is the patient, not the physician, who has the greater benefit when he is cured of his illness.”

It can also be helpful to recall that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, while still a Cardinal, pointed out a human tendency which stifles dialogue. He wrote: “Today, no one bothers any longer to ask what a person thinks. The verdict on someone’s thinking is ready at hand as long as you can assign it to its corresponding formal category: conservative, reactionary, fundamentalist, progressive, revolutionary. Assignment to a formal scheme suffices to render unnecessary coming to terms with the content.”

The problem, then, is not lack of a remedy, but a widespread unwillingness to apply a remedy. That unwillingness is rooted in the fact that human beings have been wounded by sin. Martin Luther described the sinner as “curvatus in se”—turned in on self. Unfortunately, the more a person is turned in on self, the more divided they become from others.

Fr. William P. Clark, OMI About Fr. William P. Clark, OMI

Fr. William P. Clark, OMI, earned graduate degrees in philosophy and theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He took additional coursework at the Catholic University of America, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Minnesota. He taught at the Oblate Major Seminary, Lewis University, in Romeoville, Illinois, and at St. Joseph Theological Institute in South Africa. He served as academic vice president at Lewis University, as president at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), as director at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, and as director of the Missionary Association. He is currently semi-retired, and doing occasional preaching for parish missions and retreats.


  1. Father McGavin Father McGavin says:

    Father Clark, “They begin with their conclusions” is a key word in this essay, and the Ratzinger quote is important. What we need to ask is, “Why ‘they’ begin with their conclusions?” It is usually because “they’ are insecure and judgemental people who want to project “their” problems on the “other” and not look inside at themselves (oneself). It is difficult to penetrate such people, especially if they are priests or bishops, because they hide behind their office, and use their office to oppress others. They are “abusers”, but in our era “abuse” has come to mean sexual abuse; whereas abuse of psychological kinds remains prevalent, and is an abuse of authority. The path to humility and to self-knowledge for such persons is overgrown with self-justifications. How we, with Our Lord, walk through such a “landscape” is very difficult; requires deep recourse to the Way of the Cross”, and building our security on Him. This is a tough call of asceticism, and takes a lot of practice to walk with equanimity and love, tough love. It is also very situational: no “rule of thumb” because of the specificity of such thorny and rocky situations. But your article gives a good portrayal. May it assist readers, especially young and seminarian readers. Seminaries are often places of mental travail for searchers of truth, love, and joy in the Gospel, because those in authority too often are men who think that their point of view is “it”. PRAY. And keep voicing your wisdom, please.
    Father McGavin

  2. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Father Clark, thank you for looking at truth. Father Bruce Vawter, CM. in his exegetical work ” The Four Gospels ” Doubleday 1967 gives a definitive explanation of ” What is Truth ” Pilate missed an opportunity to let Jesus explain it. Pilate immersed in his own power missed the supreme moment of his life Pilate had heard nothing . He had not even paid the truth the compliment of a rejection, so little was his concern for it . The Synoptics conclude their apocalyptic dramatization of the death of a Savior:if men do not mourn this thing they have done, then the elements do. The veil of the temple was split in two. Are we to understand that the death of Jesus has torn this veil asunder as it also broke down the ” wall of separation ” ( Eph 2:14 ) uniting Jew and Gentile in one principle of salvation ? Jesus had died no raving, screaming death of a maniac , but with dignity fitting the claims he had made for himself. Equivalently, he had proved right and his enemies wrong :the testimony of the Spirit had begun ( cf Ln16:8-11 )

  3. What an outstandingly clear, simple, TRUE article! I have saved this for my students.

    Thank you, Father!