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Charity in Truth

July 14, 2009

For the past couple of years, I have been teaching leadership courses for public safety professionals.  I start each of these courses with an exercise aimed at identifying the values (not traits) students most admire in leaders they follow. The point of the exercise is to get them thinking about how leaders express their values through decisions and actions, and, in turn, how the students themselves will do the same as they assume leadership roles in their organizations.

I have been struck by both how difficult students find this exercise and the results it produces. The students readily accept that observing someone’s behaviors and actions yields insights into their beliefs, which in turn suggests what they value. But when students start the exercise, they usually focus on people in positions of authority as opposed to informal leaders. As a consequence, they tend to focus on strictly transactional leadership behaviors rather than transformational leadership with its rich context and nuance. As such, they almost always find themselves drawn not to positive, inspirational or aspirational examples but rather to negative ones.

This has, in turn, led them to identify integrity or ethical behavior as a paramount virtue in the leaders they follow. For cops, in particular, it seems a strong sense of right and wrong overwhelms almost all other considerations, even a strong sense of equity or justice.  Now to give them their due, cops do seem to appreciate shades of gray exist and they often do a pretty good job navigating in the shadows of doubt, but this makes them particularly critical of people who do not meet their particular ethical standards.

I started to reflect anew on these results and my students’ difficulties with the class exercise yesterday as I read His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on social justice, Caritas in Veritate.  In his third encyclical, the pope reflects on the Catholic church’s spiritual beliefs and teachings and how they inform responses to urgent human concerns arising from the current state of the economy, environment, and global society, which he notes reflect deep-seated moral failures.

The pope concludes his introduction to the encyclical by noting the important role the church plays as a leader in moral and social issues, but he cautions that the church’s role is not one of providing technical or political solutions to these pressing problems.  He writes,

[The church] does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation. Without truth, it is easy to fall into an empiricist and sceptical view of life, incapable of rising to the level of praxis because of a lack of interest in grasping the values — sometimes even the meanings — with which to judge and direct it. Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development.  [Emphasis from original.]

Earlier in the text, he notes that truth finds its meaning in love or caritas, the expression of which is charity. Charity goes beyond giving each person his or her due, as equity or justice demands, and requires each of us to give something of ourselves. For public servants, particularly those engaged in public safety, it is all too easy to develop a skeptical, if not cynical view of human nature, which in turn discourages us from giving our best. Likewise, the emphasis on evidence and measurement can discourage if not obscure the search for truth.

The practical expression of truth in charity, the giving of ourselves in love and with purpose to the dignity of humankind fulfills the aim of social justice. At the same time, the expression of charity renews in us, not its recipients, a connection to that which is truest in each of us.

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