In a class I took from Msgr. Robert Sokolowski some years ago, he lamented how modern society esteems the false virtues of “sincerity” and “authenticity” over real virtues. (Some may think Sokolowski is a prophet these days, seeing how his calling out of these two false virtues predated any of the current craziness regarding gender and the proper understanding of human nature.) I found a literary example of the dangers of this modern way of thinking the other day when I came to the end of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (speaking of prophets, Percy published The Moviegoer in 1961).
True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever. No prostitute ever responded with a quicker spasm of sentiment when our hearts are touched. Nor is there anything new about thievery, lewdness, lying, adultery. What is new is that in our time liars and thieves and whores and adulterers wish also to be congratulated and are congratulated by the great public, if their confession is sufficiently psychological or strikes a sufficiently heartfelt and authentic note of sincerity. Oh, we are sincere. I do not deny it. I don’t know anybody nowadays who is not sincere. Didi Lovell is the most sincere person I know: every time she crawls in bed with somebody else, she does so with the utmost sincerity.
Much of the debate in society today is colored by these concepts. If you stamp your thoughts with guarantees of sincerity and authenticity, we’re told, then your positions will be given full faith and credit in the course of an argument. But it doesn’t work that way.
Rather, sincerity and authenticity are cop-out words used to avoid facing the objective truth of a position, to see reality as it is rather than as the person wants it to be. (Or rather than as the person needs it to be to assuage the deep psychological pain he or she feels.) We use these themes to justify all kinds of behavior and, in the extreme, we end up like Percy’s character Didi Lovell–sinning boldly with sincerity and authenticity.
True sincerity must be grounded in objectivity: “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Mt. 5:37) Likewise, authenticity is found in being a man “fully alive” as St. Irenaeus says. That does not mean that we find refuge in self-help books or seek some vague kind of self-fulfillment. Rather, it requires that we interiorize the truth that “man . . . cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (Gaudium et spes, 24) We overcome the cult of sincerity and authenticity through a humble recognition of who we are in relation to God. As St. Catherine of Siena recalled the Lord saying: “Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you will have beatitude within your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS.” (Raymond of Capua, Life of Catherine of Siena, 92)
Sincerity and authenticity can and should be replaced by humility and charity. For it only then that we will be able to grasp their true meaning.