Reinhold Niebuhr on telling unpleasant truths

As a parish priest, I often pondered Reinhold Niebuhr’s reflection on why it is so hard to tell unpleasant truths to parishioners.

Niebuhr says, “I am not surprised that most prophets are itinerants. Critics of the church think we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are economically dependent upon the people of our church. There is something in that, but it does not quite get to the root of the matter. I certainly could easily enough get more money than I am securing now, and yet I catch myself weighing my words and gauging their possible effect upon this and that person. I think the real clue to the tameness of a preacher is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love.”

In my experience, Niebuhr is right. It is very difficult to tell unpleasant truths to people one has learned to love.

As I begin my new call in helping in the formation of future parish priests, I wonder how to best help them navigate this dilemma.

One the one hand, to say that priests should not love their parishioners (or somehow love them less) doesn’t seem right. I suppose I could make the case for something like this option by drawing an analogy with the doctor-patient relationship. I go to my doctor expecting to hear the truth of my blood tests whether I like the results or not. There are probably some things like this in the relationship between priests and their parishioners, but I don’t think the analogy can be pressed too far. The cure of souls is surely different from the cure of illness.

On the other hand, to say that loving people includes the telling of difficult truths merely restates the problem. Niebuhr was a great theologian, so let’s assume he wasn’t working with a wishy-washy idea of Christian love. Let’s assume he knows that our love of God qualifies our love of neighbor and let’s assume he has read the New Testament and knows that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom included a call to repentance and amendment of life. Given all this, Niebuhr is saying it is still hard to tell unpleasant truths to people we have grown to love.

Now since I am someone who believes in the priesthood of all believers, I suspect this is a dilemma all the baptized experience in some sense. I expect that everyone who is serious about the life of Christian discipleship has faced this challenge of telling unpleasant truths to people they have grown to love.

I rather think there will be a range of faithful responses to this dilemma based upon the vocation and gifts of each person involved. On the one end, I suppose there will be those who have a call to be more prophetic and will faithfully speak the hard truths we all need to hear. I have seen this done well and also done poorly. Some prophetic types speak hard truths in love and some self-proclaimed prophetic types are just jerks masquerading as prophets. On the other end, I suppose there will be the pastoral types, who try to listen, affirm, accompany and encourage people into the kingdom. Again, I have seen this done well and also done poorly. Some peoples’ loving witness is so compelling that it opens people up to hard truths and other peoples’ so-called loving witness is so wishy-washy that they end being quivering masses of affirmation and availability. It’s not that the faithful approach is somewhere in the middle of the range, but rather that there are number of faithful approaches (and simulacra) across the range.

So how do you deal with this dilemma?





  1. I understand what you are saying Joe but I think that parishioners are like family and then there is
    tough love in there also. Sometimes a priest and a parent have the same hard job to do but the bottom line is that they are both are telling the hard to hear truth.


    Liked by 1 person

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