How can we find and follow the truth when situations arise that two disagreeing people both feel they are following the will of God?
There are two directions from which we must approach this problem of knowing the truth in lived experience of seeking to follow God’s will. The first direction we must consider in this problem is from the “objective” sense – that is, from the perspective of the revealed truth of God and nature and what is the right response to this truth. The other direction is to consider the problem from the more “subjective” sense, or to consider lived experience itself in light of the objective truth.
To know the objective (religious) truth we need to look no further than that which is contained in God’s revelation as given in Scripture and Tradition and handed down by the Church’s Magisterium. (While this description of truth may not appear to account for “scientific truth,” know that scientific truth or what is called “natural law” is always consistent with religious truth.) The most concise means to know religious truth is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which contains both the doctrine of the faith itself and the means to apply it (including “how” the Scriptures are to be rightly read and understood). Following the will of God, by definition, always upholds what the revealed truth.
When two people disagree over what each believes is the will of God, the first thing to do is to look at whether or not both perspectives are in keeping with the revealed truth. If one (or both) points of view are not in keeping with the objective truth, any such divergence from the truth is not the will of God – end of story. However, sometimes it may not be so clear cut as looking at the objective truth itself. As an example, let’s say two adult siblings disagree on care for their elderly parent who has a terminal illness. Both know the command “honor your father and mother;” however, one believes that all means necessary should be employed to keep their parent alive for as long as possible while the other says that the possible treatments no longer are offering any benefit to their parent and therefore it is better to simply keep their ailing parent comfortable, allowing God to take them in His own way so as to give them a dignified death. Both think that their own perspective best honors and respect’s their parent. To go one step further, let’s also say that both seek to respect the commandment “thou shall not kill.” Clearly the one who wants to employ all means necessary to preserve life is keeping this command. However, the person who says to administer only comfort care can in right circumstances also be seeking to uphold the dignity of life (and death, for that matter). It is here that we might encounter the more “subjective” side, which is the discerning of an actual circumstance in order to see that what is true is upheld in acting – for which deeper seeking of truth is needed. Accordingly, just as prayer should always be foundational in every moment of life, prayer especially should be the foundation of discernment of God’s will, entrusting our needs to God and asking Him to guide us in our ways. Likewise, these moments of question of what is the truth invite us to turn to other persons (such as doctors, Catholic ethicists, priests, etc.) for clarification of both the condition of the elderly person and toward the best course of action for their care. Such appealing to God and others is both a way of humility and self-giving love – both of which are required to do God’s will.
While this example may be more than the original questioner wanted (or from a totally different direction), I use it to underscore the point that seeking the best way to live (a.k.a. living in accord with God’s will) is both rooted in the truth itself and that the truth must be applied and lived with humble, self-giving love. When it comes to other types of questions (such as questions on discerning one’s vocation in life), what is consistent with the medical example given here is that we must always be seeking to live by the objective truth if we are to be living according to God’s will. Likewise, it is also important to know that real experience does make clearer what God’s will really is for us – especially when we know we are living in the truth and that this experience of living the truth calls us to humble ourselves before the Lord and to seek the good of the other ahead of ourselves (that is, to “love”).
As an unintended sequel to this column, I will reprint for next week’s column a past question offering tips on end of life care….