Last Friday the Diocese of Portland, Maine, consecrated a new Bishop, Robert Deeley. His episcopal motto: "To Speak The Truth In Love."
That’s not a bad motto for any of us. I remember many years ago hearing Mary Cunningham Agee explaining how this same Scripture (it comes from Ephesians 4:15) served as a sort of mission statement for The Nurturing Network [link], her ministry to women at risk for abortion. In our family we have tried to make it a guiding principle as well; it has come to be called the “Prime Directive” (yes, that’s a Star Trek joke). Sometimes, in our human frailty, we honor it more in the breach than in the observance. Saint Paul tells us in another place that:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
(1 Cor 13:1-2)
Some of the reasons why this should be so aren’t hard to grasp, once we see them. Even those who disagree with us, even when they are angry, abusive, or blasphemous, still carry with them the image and likeness of God, which we must honor. Also, we will not be very convincing evangelists for the God who is Love (1 John 4:8) if we seem to be lacking in that quality ourselves.
But there’s more to it than that. The old saying that “something is always lost in the translation” seems to be particularly true about scripture. So it became clear in this case when I first saw Bishop Deeley’s episcopal arms, where his motto appears in Latin: Veritatem Facere in Caritate. I was struck by the fact that the word translated as “speak” in English wasn’t the Latin equivalent, dicere, as I would have expected, but facere, which more properly means “make” or “do.” A more literal translation would be “Doing The Truth In Love.” It seemed a curious (if not unpleasing) choice of word, and I suspected that the answer lay, at least in part, in the scriptural source.
That proved to be the case. In the Vulgate Latin translation of Ephesians 4:15 St. Paul says: Veritatem autem faciens in caritate, crescamus in Illo per omnia Qui est Caput, Christus, “But speaking” (literally “doing”) the truth in love, let us grow through all things into him who is our Head, Christ.” Veritatem faciens is itself a translation of St. Paul’s original Greek word aletheuontes, which can mean “speaking the truth”, but also “being true.” St. Jerome could have chosen the narrower, more obvious meaning and used dicens, but he seems to have thought a broader meaning was called for.
His choice is instructive, especially when we look at it in the context of the whole verse. Truth should be more than what we say, but what we do. St. Paul is talking about not just evangelization, but about becoming more like Christ (“growing into Him”) so we can take our place in His mystical body. Evangelization is inseparable from our own growth in holiness. It’s even clearer when we look at the larger context:
And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Eph 4:11-16)
It all comes down to love; it is love that binds together the body of Christ. Without love we can say true things, but we can’t embody The Truth.
It’s that understanding of embodiment that is one of the great insights, and one of the great strengths, of the Catholic tradition. It has often occurred to me that one of Martin Luther’s great mistakes was misunderstanding fides as simply “faith”, a largely internal and subjective experience. Fides is, in fact, much wider than that: it is “fidelity”, or “faithfulness”, a whole way of acting and living. Think of what we mean by faithfulness in marriage: it’s more than feelings or intentions, it involves doing certain things, and specifically not doing others.
So it is with veritatem facere. It does not only mean speaking the truth lovingly (although that’s certainly a part of it), it means doing the truth, living it out in love, in order to make up a worthy body for our Divine Head.