No truth. No freedom


We usually take truth for granted in everyday life. We are hurt by lies (when we discover them). It helps when the doctor correctly diagnoses our illness. Truth matters.

Freedom is something else again. On the one hand truth seems to limit our options, while on the other hand no adult wants to be relying on illusions.

Who is free? A good man in jail or a rich playboy hooked on alcohol and drugs? Perhaps each is imprisoned in a different way. Should we be free to break our solemn commitments? Are we free to break the ten commandments?

No one lives like a complete relativist. People who accept Jesus' teaching on faith and morals might usefully try to persuade others, especially our young people, of the truth of three propositions: a) there are truths; b) there are religious truths; c) there are moral truths.

We know there are truths which are not our inventions. The easiest examples are visible and material realities, like the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the recent Victorian bushfires or the financial crisis.

Other truths cannot be seen. They describe our pain, or numbers or possibilities for the future, but they are nonetheless true, describing different types of reality, not just the fanciful products of our imagination.

Religious truths are not myths. They describe realities which exist (or not) independently of our acceptance or rejection, or level of understanding.

God does not cease to exist because someone, or many, do not believe in Him. Neither would everyone believing in Him bring God into existence.

A final claim is that there are moral truths which we are obliged to recognize. Arson is a good place to start. Deliberately starting bushfires is wrong; difficult to understand why it occurs, but wrong by universal agreement.

Lying is wrong. Today especially we condemn businessmen who inflated their profits, concealed their losses or deceived others into investing in scams, worthless schemes. Society cannot work if we are surrounded by lies. We all know this.

Freedom can be understood in a couple of ways. It is not just exemption from external control or interference, the opposite of slavery; but also the personal interior capacity to act. The personal freedom of an alcoholic or drug addict is radically reduced.

In a different way accurate self-understanding enables us to recognize our strengths and weaknesses, making it more difficult for us to deceive ourselves.

Truth brings personal freedom to individuals in a couple of ways. Liars are forced to lie repeatedly to maintain their fictions and they are rejected by others when their lying is recognized. Honest people are not so constrained.

In a different way accurate self-understanding enables us to recognize our strengths and weaknesses, making it more difficult for us to deceive ourselves. When we acknowledge our needs, we find it easier to realize that freedom is more than giving ourselves what we want.

Growing up means freeing ourselves from our childish illusions, harmless and harmful.

Without truth there is no freedom.



Cardinal George Pell, "No truth. No freedom." Sunday Telegraph (May 31, 2009).

This column is based on Cardinal Pell's Pentecost pastoral letter, the full text of which is available here.

Reprinted with permission of Cardinal George Pell.


Cardinal George Pell is archbishop of Sydney, Australia. He holds a Licentiate in Theology from Urban University, Rome (1967), a Masters Degree in Education from Monash University, Melbourne (1982), a Doctorate of Philosophy in Church History from the University of Oxford (1971) and is a Fellow of the Australian College of Education. He was Visiting Scholar at Campion Hall, Oxford University, in 1979 and at St Edmund's College, Cambridge University, in 1983.

He is the author of God and Caesar: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics, and Society and Issues of Faith and Morals, written by Cardinal Pell for senior secondary classes and parish groups. Since 2001, he has been a weekly columnist for Sydney's Sunday Telegraph.

Copyright © 2009 Cardinal George Pell

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