Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Writing for Faith & Culture

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Intellectual Charity

Intellectual Charity

 “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give,” says the Lord, “will be the measure you get back” (Lk 6:38).

At the outset of a new academic year, students and teachers alike do well to consider the measure of their work. With respect to what standard will we be able to say that the vessels of our minds and hearts have been filled, pressed down, shaken together, and filled again to the point of running over?

With the help of the Holy Father emeritus Benedict XVI, we can at least put a name to the standard: intellectual charity. In the address to Catholic educators he delivered at the Catholic University of America in 2007, he spoke of the need to cultivate this “aspect of charity” which “calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love.” All of us are dedicated to the Church’s primary mission of sharing the truth in love, the mission of evangelization. We can and should, therefore, embrace the ideal of intellectual charity as the measure of our common endeavor. In order to do so effectively, however, we must know more about what intellectual charity is, why this ideal is important, and what claims it makes upon us.

In a first attempt to give an account of intellectual charity, we may be inclined to understand it to be a species of kindness, sympathy, or even tolerance. Such a view would be plausible and is at least partially true. St. Paul taught that charity is “patient and kind” and “bears all things” (1 Cor 13:4, 7). And when St. Peter urged us to be always ready to give a reason for our hope, he stressed that our apology must be made “with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15).

Yet we must not presume that this account of what may be called its outward qualities exhausts the virtue. In thinking about the life of the mind, we must be wary of the temper of our age, which is to prefer absence of conflict to the attainment of truth.

In our present context, it is not too surprising that even Christian philosophers should have defined intellectual charity as “an attitude toward . . . interlocutors and authors of texts.” In their book Intellectual Virtues, Robert Roberts and Jay Wood offer as the first instance of intellectual charity a reader’s response to a text: “If one reads a text charitably, one is reading the text as coming from an author who would like to be treated with respect and goodwill.”[1] Now, one surely would not want to say that reading should be a dyspeptic exercise in fault-finding. Nevertheless, the formulation of Roberts and Wood is a troubling echo of the pragmatism of Richard Rorty, whose allegiance was not to truth but instead to “a community in which everybody thinks that it is human solidarity, rather than knowledge of something not merely human, that really matters.”[2]

Rorty’s pragmatism was simply the latest guise of the perspective shared by many since the seventeenth century. If the good is irreducibly private—as the Enlightenment tradition maintains—then what we hold in common is a set of conditions and boundaries within which we pursue our personal aims. Truth, on this view, is not a common good and an end, but instead a private and instrumental good, which is more or less useful to each of us according to our circumstances.

The problem with such a view of truth is that it is false. A brief reflection suffices to remind us that if our conceptions—dandelion, dog, man—are not both measured by things and held in common with others—that is, held publicly—then we would not be able to communicate with each another and our search for happiness would be in vain. It is also clear that to make of truth an instrument subordinate to some other end we have chosen is not only to falsify its claim upon us, but also a very dangerous game.

One contemporary example is the woeful tale of Yoshihiro Sato. A medical researcher from Japan, Dr. Sato published dozens of articles in which he advanced theories about treatments leading to healthier and more resilient bones, theories based upon data he had simply fabricated. His articles were published in leading peer-reviewed journals, including The Journal of the American Medical Association, and were so widely cited and highly respected that they led to changes in clinical practice. Sato died before he was fully brought to book; fellow researchers have supposed that he committed suicide. The article in Science magazine recounting the affair calls Sato’s fraud “one of the biggest in scientific history” but, oddly, testifies to widespread puzzlement in Japan about his possible motivations.[3] The tragedy’s lesson, however, should be plain: Sato put truth—and especially truths that could be vitally important to those suffering from degenerative ailments—in the service of some other end he had chosen for himself. It does not matter what that end was. When we take truth as a means in the service of some other end, it eludes our grasp.

The moral of Dr. Sato’s story is reminiscent of a lapidary phrase from Pope Benedict: “the decline of the pagan religion was inevitable: it was a logical consequent of the detachment of religion . . . from the truth of being.”[4] Might some later generation of Christians look back upon the scientific endeavors of the twenty-first century—especially in the area of biotechnology—and come to the same conclusion? It is a possibility we must confront directly, for a society that closes its eyes to the truth cuts itself off from the source of its being and sustenance.

So, in thinking about intellectual charity—the aspect of the theological virtue of charity that has to do with our duty to be faithful to truth and to communicate the truth with rectitude of intention—we must not allow ourselves to limit our account to its rightful companions, patience and gentleness, but must speak about the virtue itself. If we are to do so adequately, we must frame our discussion of it with reference to the good that this aspect of charity intends. The formulation we need is, once again, provided by Pope Benedict: “Christ,” he wrote, “is the most precious good that the men and women of every time and every place have the right to know and love!”[5]

The point has been made with increasing frequency and urgency over the past half-century. The Second Vatican Council arguably framed its teaching as a response to the problem of atheism (see Gaudium et Spes, 19-22), a problem which is so widespread today that it is now common to speak of our society as secular. But if faith in the good news of the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus is indeed the very best possession, as it were, that a person can have, then there are many today who are living in the absence of what they most greatly need. The Good Samaritan is an exemplar of charity in general because he set aside his own concerns to give succor to the suffering wayfarer. We need exemplars of intellectual charity that are his equals for zeal and generosity. We have not far to look: in the teaching and ministry of Our Lord and his apostles we find the exemplars we need of the intellectual bearing of charity.

Let us consider three very brief examples. The first is from St. Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus had just spent himself teaching and healing in Capernaum, apparently working through the night: “And when it was day he departed and went into a lonely place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them; but he said to them, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose’” (Lk 4:42-43). The second is St. Paul’s heartfelt exhortation for the good news to be preached to the descendants of Israel, an exhortation he fashioned as a series of questions: “how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Rom 11:14) The third is from the close of St. John’s second epistle: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 Jn 12).

In these passages, we find three essential characteristics of intellectual charity. First, it is a warm and personal compassion responding to the fact that truth is a good of persons, that is, that truth is not found principally in books but rather is at home deep in the interior of the human mind and heart. Second, intellectual charity includes the recognition that the possession of truth is always a gift and one that imposes an urgent duty upon the recipient, as witness the insistence of Our Lord—“I must preach the good news”—and of St. Paul—“How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” Third, intellectual charity is a disposition found in the interior life of “the preacher”—already a vocation in St. Paul’s eyes—who with Jesus goes out to a “lonely place” to pray and to ensure that it he is grafted into the vine, the living God who is Truth.

It is upon this last point that we all—teachers and students alike—need to reflect earnestly at this moment of comparative repose before a new academic year, a season in life that will be devoted to strenuous study and apostolic work. In his essay on the life of Cicero, the ancient historian Plutarch had cause to remark more than once that Cicero’s quest for public eminence had led him into ceaseless activity and many cares, and, with Cicero’s bad example in mind, he warned his readers that “the desire of glory has great power in washing the tinctures of philosophy out of the souls of men.”[6] We can apply this important lesson to ourselves by noting that the desire to do great deeds for God has the power to wash the tinctures of Divine Wisdom from our souls unless we ensure that our lives are well-balanced and amply provided with the time, space, and silence we need for thoughtful reflection and intimate conversation with God.

What is the “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, [and] running over” (Lk 6:38) for our common work of study? It is the standard of charity, a standard that bids us to be deeply rooted in the love of souls and the love of the God who is Truth, unto the attainment of the blessed and unending vision of the Holy Trinity.


[1] Robert C. Roberts and W. Jay Wood, Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 73.

[2] Richard Rorty, “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” in Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), 20.

[3] Kai Kupferschmidt, “Tide of Lies,” Science 361 (17 August 2018): 636-41, at 636.

[4] Benedict XVI, “St. Justin Martyr,” General Audience Address of 21 March 2007. Available from

[5] Benedict XVI, “St. Dominic Guzman,” General Audience Address of 3 February 2010. Available from

[6] Plutarch, Cicero, in Plutarch’s Lives, trans. John Dryden, ed. Arthur Hugh Clough (New York: Modern Library, 2001), II:430.

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