If I have to tell you, “I’m just being honest,” then I know I’ve messed up. What it really means is I’ve been gossiping, insensitive or just plain rude and now I’m trying to cover my tracks. So I pretend, assume a flippant tone, and make my claim. Honesty is a virtue, right? So if you’re offended, then it’s your fault. At least, that’s the lie I tell. How ironic!
As a younger man, I prided myself on my honesty. I was quite blunt, particularly in college classes, and would gladly let classmates know when I thought they were incorrect. Years later, I found out that my honesty had intimidated some of my classmates and chilled the class discussion because they were worried about how I would react to their contributions. When I discovered this, it embarrassed me. I couldn’t believe that what I’d thought was a sign of my righteousness – my commitment to honesty and intellectual rigor – was, in fact, an excuse to indulge in vice – a propensity to grandiosity and arrogance.
In truth, honesty can and does offend if it isn’t united with other virtues. So, yes, of course honesty is always the best approach, even when honest conversations are delicate. It’s never better to lie. Honesty, though, cannot stand alone. It must be combined with humility, compassion, empathy and prudence. People don’t need to know my opinion about everything under the sun, even if I think I’m speaking the truth. Sometimes what others need is care and compassion, not to have it pointed out to them where they went wrong. If I do decide that the truth needs to be shared, it ought to be delivered with empathy and love. There’s no virtue in blurting out a truth without empathy or in weaponizing the truth as a way to hurt someone.
I’ve always found that it’s easy to be brutally honest and then convince myself it’s a job well done, but it’s far more difficult to speak the truth with love. Honesty shouldn’t offend or scandalize. It shouldn’t make other people want to stick a piece of tape over your mouth. Particularly if we want other people to take what we say seriously and not simply generate an argument, feelings need to be taken into account.
As a priest, I’ve really taken this lesson to heart. Priests often need to say difficult things. The Church is counter-cultural, and we often find ourselves at odds with the world. Priests must be honest about sin and the consequences of sin, but it’s important that we phrase it in a way that’s positive and encouraging so that our parishioners see how appealing and life-affirming Church teaching is. We have important information to share, far too important to phrase it in a negative, cynical or blunt way.
Parents, you have the same responsibility with your children, to speak difficult truths to them with love and positivity. An honest heart is a loving heart. It builds the sort of relationship in which you never have to say, “I was just being honest.”
Father Michael Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.