Lying for Jesus? There’s no such thing.

You may remember that some time ago a bunch of enthusiastic young pro-lifers did an undercover expose of sorts on abortion providers in the U.S. This involved posing as a woman seeking an abortion, or as a pimp of under age prostitutes seeking abortions for them, and then releasing the embarrassing videos documenting the complicity of abortion providers in providing unethical and illegal services. On other occasions, they pretended to be seeking non-abortion services, such as mammograms, then showing the world that many of the abortion providers in fact do not provide those services.

They problem is they outright lie to achieve these exposes. And they are back at it again, this time showing that abortion providers in the U.S. don’t mind helping people seeking sex-selective abortions to terminate foetuses on the basis of gender. Scarily, comedian Sacha Cohen hits the mark in the post credits of his new movie, where his character asks: “Are you having a boy, or an abortion?”


A lie is, according to the constant tradition and teaching of the Church, always wrong, a sin. I can allow that there are times where it is not a particularly grave sin, or that under pressure or duress our culpability in lying can be significantly lessened, but a lie is always wrong.

Unfortunately, even respected Catholics such as Peter Kreeft now attack this teaching. But here are some good series of articles defending the Catholic teaching on the wrongness of lying by  Edward Feser, Mark Shea and Fr Ryan Erlenbush.

But if people who want to lie to fight abortion won’t listen to these solid philosophical and principled arguments, perhaps they will consider this pragmatic argument. If you allow yourselves to lie, and promote that fact, in attempting to make the fight against abortion more efficient, are you not in fact, shooting yourselves (and everyone else) in the foot? How can anyone, pro-life or pro-abortion, accept as true other things you say? If you are going to attempt to be more efficient in the small game, why not consider the effects that has on the efficiency of the big picture?

Sure you might discredit Planned Parenthood, or Obama, or whatever, but you also discredit yourselves, and worse, all the rest of us pro-lifers that live from the honesty and integrity of Jesus.

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    Comments: 24

    1. Sonny Malone May 31, 2012 at 4:43 pm

      I agree. Far better to let the abortion providers carry on their unethical practices than having to worry about whether any personal moral standards are being breached. The abortionists will get what’s coming to them in the end.

      I think it’s important to make sure that our souls are spotless than attempt to prevent the evil that is abortion.

    2. Opthomistic May 31, 2012 at 5:24 pm

      Sonny Malone, I’m actually unsure if that is meant to be sarcastic… In either case it’s clear that lying is not necessary to

      “attempt to prevent the evil that is abortion”

      or that refusing to lie is

      “to let the abortion providers carry on their unethical practices”

    3. Lucia Maria May 31, 2012 at 6:46 pm

      I asked a priest about this sort of thing earlier this year and he said that Pope John Paul II had written about societies where there are “structures of evil”, I think. The idea being that if you don’t lie a greater evil comes about, such as the moral question of what would you do if you were hiding a Jewish person during WWII and a Nazi officer came to your door. Would you lie? The problem is, that in these sorts of societies, this sort of constant need to lie comes back in a future harm whereby telling the truth becomes difficult, even after the evil has gone away.

    4. Opthomistic May 31, 2012 at 8:18 pm

      Good point Lucia.

      But I don’t think that is the only reason why lying to the Nazi at the door is wrong.

      Edward Feser has a good definition of why it is wrong in the Aristotelean-Thomistic and Augustinian ethical systems.

      What is essential to lying is deliberately speaking contrary to one’s true thoughts; whether the listener has a right to the truth is irrelevant.

      Certainly the “Nazi at the door” thought experiment is interesting, but it is a false dilemma. The choice is presented as that between lying and allowing a Nazi to kill a Jew. But there are plenty of moral options available, you can say nothing, you can use broad mental reservation, and so on… you could even morally threaten, punch or shoot the officer in the face, in defence of yourself or your refugee!

      In a situation like that where someone does lie, it isn’t a grievous sin, but it is still immoral.

      It’s also interesting that the Nazi example comes up. Mark Shea nails it:

      Sure the Church could say lying was bad back in the simple days of marauding and raping Vikings, merciless Saracens, and Romans who would roast people alive on griddles. But when Nazis came along and *our* generation discovered *real* evil for the first time everything changed and it became okay to do whatever we think best without reference to old-fashioned Church teaching (except about abortion and contraception, that’s still binding).

      And also relevant is the differences between the Nazi at the door and what Live Action are doing. For one, you are put on the spot when a Nazi comes a knocking, but Live Action are actually going out, seeking these people with the intention of lying to them. Another is that there is a actually a direct link between lying to a Nazi at the door and a Jew remaining undiscovered, while there it is really a tenuous link between lying while on undercover camera and actually stopping even one abortion that couldn’t otherwise have been prevented.

      Finally there is consistency. If it is okay to do something that is less seriously wrong to stop an abortion, how come Live Action et al. aren’t going around maiming people involved?

    5. Sonny Malone May 31, 2012 at 9:09 pm

      Arent you actually lying right now as your name really isn’t Opthomistic? For shame. Wouldn’t it be interesting if one day you were put in the position where you would either have to lie, or a grevious consequence would occur to a loved one or yourself?

      Maybe in the few seconds you have you would consider your moral options. It’s easy to judge from behind a computer screen isn’t it?

    6. Opthomistic May 31, 2012 at 9:56 pm

      Arent [sic] you actually lying right now as your name really isn’t Opthomistic?

      No, I am not. Using a pseudonym is not lying when it is clear that the pseudonym is not the authour’s real name. It is clear that Opthomistic is not my real name. In fact I explicitly state that it isn’t. . It would be lying, if, for example, I were to make my pseudonym “Chris Sullivan”, because I am not Chris Sullivan.

      Are you a Catholic Sonny Malone? (I’m just asking so that I know if you give the Catechism and Tradition of the Church any weight, otherwise I can stick to natural philosophy). The Catechism, following St Augustine defines lying as:

      Speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving

      2482

      and yet again

      To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error

      2483

      Yet another proof that pseudonymous writing is not lying is that the writers of Scripture and Tradition used it, King Solomon wrote as Ecclesiastes (The Preacher), St John wrote as “The Elder” and “The disciple Jesus loved” etc…

      Wouldn’t it be interesting if one day you were put in the position where you would either have to lie, or a grevious consequence would occur to a loved one or yourself?

      Maybe in the few seconds you have you would consider your moral options.

      I have been in a situation where my life was in direct danger and I had to talk to my attacker to save my life. I don’t even remember what I said, so I know that it would be hard to refrain from lying in such a position, but I also know that a lie in such a situation is not a grave sin and culpability is greatly lessened (this is only the third time I have said this in this thread). But I maintain, along with the teaching of the Church, that to deliberately lie is always a sin.

      It’s easy to judge from behind a computer screen isn’t it?

      Yes it is. But it’s even easier when you pick and choose your own morality and reject Revelation and Reason when they say that lying is wrong.

    7. Lucia Maria May 31, 2012 at 10:16 pm

      If it is okay to do something that is less seriously wrong to stop an abortion, how come Live Action et al. aren’t going around maiming people involved?

      I have to start with this one, as it’s the easiest! :)

      They aren’t going around maiming people because they want to cause the least harm possible, while having the greatest possible effect.

      It’s interesting this has come up today, because I’ve spent a bit of time reacquainting myself with Jan Karski who received some sort of posthumous award from Obama, which I wouldn’t have known about had Obama’s speechwriters not put their foot in it and called the Nazi death camps in Poland, “Polish death camps”. Now the Poles are very offended and demanding an apology and it’s made even the NZ news.

      Obama wasn’t specifically lying, but “Polish death camps” does not tell the whole truth, which of course does a lot of harm, which is why the Poles are so upset by it.

      I’m of Polish descent, btw, so very interested in all things Polish, including WWII. The Nazi example is not so distant for me. And if in that sort of situation where I had to lie to a Gestapo officer, I would lie.

      Anyway, Jan Karski was given an award due to his amazing exploits in getting into the Warsaw Ghetto and seeing first hand what happened to the Jews there, and other places To then report to the allied leaders and plead for help for them. He even pretended to be a Ukrainian guard at one of the camps. See this wikipedia page for more on him: Jan Karski.

      There is no way Karski could have done all his underground exploits without lying, yet, interestingly enough even though he has been honoured for what he did, he was not actually successful in gaining help from the allies for the Jews. They didn’t actually want to know.

      This has been a bit of a conundrum for me for a while now, something that I think about from time to time.

    8. Opthomistic May 31, 2012 at 11:04 pm

      They aren’t going around maiming people because they want to cause the least harm possible, while having the greatest possible effect.

      This isn’t what the Catholic can accept as their guide. And where does the “optimal” situation sit? What if the causing the least harm possible (which is probably sitting at home not doing anything, not saying or publishing anything about abortion etc…) does not coincide with having the biggest possible effect (which probably means full blown lying and propaganda, clinic bombing, abortionist assassination, torture for information about abortion, infiltrating networks posing and acting as an abortionist etc…). Neither is acceptable at all, and most positions along the spectrum are also unacceptable, even if in the calculus there is an optimal position.

      The Catholic must hold to the constant tradition of the Church, of Revelation and Reason, which is that lying is wrong, that the end doesn’t justify the means etc…

      This has been a bit of a conundrum for me for a while now, something that I think about from time to time

      Lucia, I agree that it is hard, but (especially as you are a Tradition respecting Catholic) please consider what St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, the Catechisms, and much more have said, rather than simply submitting to an intuition.

      One thing that might help you is realising that lying is not necessary, it is possible that a Jan Karski needn’t lie. For one, broad mental reservation is not lying, and is acceptable when spoken “to someone who does not have the right to [the truth]” cf. CCC 2489. I strongly recommend the articles that Feser and Erlenbusch have which I linked to in the original post. :)

    9. Chris Sullivan June 1, 2012 at 8:33 am

      The Catholic moral tradition has long held that it can be morally permissible (and even sometimes morally necessary) to withhold the truth from those who have no right to it. This would apply when you are hiding Jews and the Nazi officer knocks on your door asking where they are. The theology of mental reservation, developed by the Jesuits during the post reformation repression of the Church in Europe, can be very helpful here (“I don’t know where the Jews are” with the mental reservation “to you, who have no right to know that”). One can often just be vague, eg “What Jews?”.

      There are various ways of interpreting Matthew 24:36:

      “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

      but it does seem to establish that not everyone one has a right to know everything.

      The Catechism has a good section on this, some extracts:

      2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray.

      2486 Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.

      2488 The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.

      2489 Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.283

      It’s well worth studying the whole section
      http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a8.htm

      I don’t think it’s a particularly good witness for some in the pro-life movement to lie as that discredits the veracity of the prolife message. It’s in our interests to tell the truth, not to be suspected of distorting it.

      I do think we need to be careful to avoid doing evil that good may result (a proposition condemned 3 times in the Catechism). Sometimes one just has to accept that one cannot be immediately “successful” in preventing every evil. Jesus at Calvary wasn’t either.

      The Vicar General came to celebrate a requiem Mass in our parish recently and in his excellent homily he made the point that it is much more important to be faithful than to be successful. Advice worth bearing in mind when working for Social Justice where one is sometimes tempted to take actions that are less than morally perfect.

      What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet loose his own soul?

      God Bless

    10. John Jensen June 1, 2012 at 10:04 am

      Sonny Malone:

      I agree. Far better to let the abortion providers carry on their unethical practices than having to worry about whether any personal moral standards are being breached. The abortionists will get what’s coming to them in the end.

      I think it’s important to make sure that our souls are spotless than attempt to prevent the evil that is abortion.

      The thing is these are not personal moral standards. Lying is intrinsically evil. We may not do evil that good may come.

      Yes, it is, indeed, infinitely more important to make sure our souls are spotless than to try to fight evil with evil.

      Not all misdirection is lying. Equivocation – in serious circumstances – may be justified. So-called social lies – “How are you?” “I’m fine” (but I have cancer) – where there is no intent to deceive, because people know what you mean, are justified. Refusing to give the truth in serious circumstances is justified. Outright lying is never justified. It is not a personal matter. It is faithfulness to the God of truth.

      jj

    11. Opthomistic June 1, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Woops JJ, it looks like you left a comment over on the “Non-negotiables” that you would have meant for this post! All good points JJ!

      Chris Sullivan, you are right that some mental reservation is not lying. But we must be careful to know the distinction between strict(narrow) and broad(wide) mental reservation. The Catholic Encyclopedia explanation is sufficient:

      “In the strict mental reservation the speaker mentally adds some qualification to the words which he utters, and the words together with the mental qualifications make a true assertion in accordance with fact.

      On the other hand, in a wide mental reservation, the qualification comes from the ambiguity of the words themselves, or from the circumstances of time, place, or person in which they are uttered.”

      Strict mental reservation was condemned in Sanctissimnus Dominus by Pope Innocent IX in 1679. Broad mental reservation, on the other hand is not lying, although even that is only really permissible when those grave reasons Chris just quoted from CCC 2489 are in play.

      It seemed to me that the example Chris gave sounds like strict(or narrow) mental reservation. An example of broad mental reservation in that situation would be to say something like “I don’t know where those Christ murderers are” (because the ambiguity of your statement doesn’t merely exist in your mind, but in facts and contexts of the real world.)

      It is wrong to lie, even to someone who doesn’t have a right to the truth. But, this does not mean that we have to tell them the truth. ” By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.”

    12. Chris Sullivan June 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm

      Thanks for the clarification, Opthomistic.

      Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that

      “I don’t know where the Jews are”

      would be a broad mental reservation. In itself it is not a lie but a true, although ambiguous, statement. Yes, I did let the Jews hide in the cellar. But I don’t know for sure if they are still there. And I don’t know exactly where they are now (whether in this part of the cellar or that, whether standing, sitting or lying down). And who knows if they actually are Jews or even if they are the Jews the Nazi officer is referring to.

      It’s veracity does not depend on the unspoken reservation.

      A strict Mental Reservation takes the practice too far so that one is making a statement that is not in fact correct in the words publicly said. It is only correct when the unspoken reserved words are added.

      The Catholic Encyclopedia gives this example:

      Titius, who privately said to a woman ‘I take thee for my wife’ without the intention of marrying her, answered the judge who asked him whether he had said those words that he did not say them, understanding mentally that he did not say them with the intention of marrying the woman.

      http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10195b.htm

      If people are going to use strict mental reservations when making marriage vows and the like, it is clear that great social damage would be done.

      Mental reservations can be a slippery slope.

      God Bless

    13. Opthomistic June 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm

      Yeah, I think you are right that you could say it that way. It was just when you said that with the mental reservation “to you, who have no right to know that” I took it to mean that the qualification was the omission of those words, which would be strict.

      I think even broad mental reservation would be wrong in making vows, as there usually isn’t a grave reason to do so.

    14. John Jensen June 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm

      Woops JJ, it looks like you left a comment over on the “Non-negotiables” that you would have meant for this post! All good points JJ!

      Indeed I did :-)

      I should have added, regarding this:

      I think it’s important to make sure that our souls are spotless than attempt to prevent the evil that is abortion.

      That it is, indeed, more important not to sin (which is what I take “… make sure our souls are spotless…” to mean) than to do anything else whatever. In fact, there are no degrees here. One may not sin – full stop.

      That said, there is a false dichotomy here. It is certainly not the case that we have to choose between not sinning or trying to prevent abortion. We would, indeed, sin by not trying to prevent abortion, if the means were to hand and, all other things being equal, we could do so without neglecting other duties.

      So … we must avoid all sin and we must do what we can to prevent abortion. It’s not either/or. What we cannot (rightly) do is to use sinful means to prevent abortion.

      Leila Rose is going what is in itself a wonderful thing: exposing the evils of Planned Parenthood. The good she does is not vitiated by the evil means she chooses to take it. Nevertheless, the means are evil and she ought not to do it. This is so even if one were certain that no harm to the pro-life cause would come from using those means. We must not be consequentialists. We may not sin even if no bad results would result.

      Be angry and sin not (Psalm 4:4; Ephesians 4:26).

      jj

    15. Chris Sullivan June 1, 2012 at 3:13 pm

      John,

      Is there even such a thing as a sin with no bad results ?

      God Bless

    16. Andrewesman June 2, 2012 at 3:36 am

      Equivocating and mental reservations are the kind of thing Charles Kingsley meant when he observed that “truth for its own sake has never been a virtue with the Roman clergy” (!)

      I can understand flat lying. I can understand not lying and telling the truth (as at least some Calvinists actually did in the occupied Netherlands). I can understand doing something else, like punching the German, refusing to answer, or talking about the weather.

      By the time you’re splitting hairs about mental reservations and technical truth, it’s a little like technical virginity in the sense that even to be talking about it means you’ve broken the spirit of the rule.

      For what it’s worth, I think speaking truth in love applies; love for the Jew, and for the German called on to shoot him, means I would lie. Truth isn’t just a metaphysical theory, it’s a Person. As for whether that would be a sin or not, I suppose it would be–but in that case, you’re really trying to pick the least of the sins, not the greater one.

      I think the same in the Greek case where the mayor of the village asked to be shot (and was) instead of 50 of his people. That was technically suicide. It also saved the lives of 49 people.

    17. Opthomistic June 2, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      I cannot say for the clergy, but as far as Catholic moral theology is concerned; “on the contrary!”

      The distinction between broad and strict mental reservation is demanded by respect for the truth and the spirit of the law. Broad mental reservation means that what we say and the truth are in accord, it isn’t lying. Strict mental reservation and other lying means that what we say and the truth are not in accord.

      I think the approach Andrewesman has alluded to is problematic, if lying and suicide can be excused or used as moral means to achieve a desired end, why not abortion, why not rape, why not other evils?

      No, I don’t mind drawing the line, I will not do evil to achieve good. Especially when Jesus tells us in John 8:44 about who the father of liars is! I wish to have Jesus’ Father as my Father, not the other guy! I don’t settle for choosing the lesser sin, I settle for striving not to sin at all!

    18. John Jensen June 2, 2012 at 2:49 pm

      Is there even such a thing as a sin with no bad results ?

      Chris – no, there is not. Every sin injures the Body of Christ – and, in fact, the whole world. What I meant, I suppose, is that people will often say – with some reason – that their sin is private and is no one else’s business unless it hurts someone else directly and in a material way. My real point, however, is that we must avoid sin – an absolute – and that we must avoid it not based on a calculation of how much damage it does to others, compared with how much good might result from the sin.

      The classic example: the terrorist tells me to shoot the man in the next seat – whom I believe to be completely innocent – or he will take the ‘planed down. I may not do it, even if I am sure he will, indeed, take the ‘plane down. (I may – and arguably should – try to tackle him, hoping his aim is bad or something – quite a different matter – but I may not take an innocent life, even to save the whole world).

      And that applies to smaller sins as well. I may not lie to stop abortion. I must find another means. And this is true even if someone can prove that my lying won’t hurt the pro-life cause, or whatever.

      jj

    19. Andrewesman June 4, 2012 at 3:36 am

      The only point I was making is that sometimes you do have to choose the lesser of two evils. If there is a third option, you should of course take it. Scripture tells us “do not do evil that good may come of it”; no problem with that. But there are some situations in which all the outcomes are going to be bad, and you still have to choose, as in the Greek example.

    20. John Jensen June 4, 2012 at 6:44 am

      But there are some situations in which all the outcomes are going to be bad, and you still have to choose, as in the Greek example.

      Andrewesman – I think there is a – no doubt unintentional! – equivocation here. ‘Evil’ can mean two different things – evil action or evil result.

      I certainly am often – perhaps, in an imperfect world, always – faced with the choice of lesser evils in the second sense. Extreme examples are easy to come by. I must attack – even kill – the person about to attack my loved one. It is less evil in gterms of the outcome that the guilty party die for his evil than that the innocent party do so.

      What I may never do is evil in the first sense, no matter how much evil in the second sense I may avoid. Again, my “terrorist on the ‘plane” example. He tells me to shoot the innocent person next to me or he will crash the ‘plane, killing many innocent persons. I may not do it. I may – and perhaps morally must – risk my life to stop the terrorist. I may not destroy the innocent life of the man next to me, no matter what.

      So, yes, we are often choosing the lesser of two evil outcomes; we may never choose an evil action, no matter how trivially evil.

      That said, there is far less actual guilt connected with using a relatively minor evil action to achieve a great good outcome. This is doubly so when the actor may plausibly be unaware that the action is indeed evil. There is, in my opinion, no reason whatever to doubt that Leila Rose considers her lie to be not evil at all. I think she is mistaken, but I think that, although her action is objectively evil – albeit a minor evil – it is not formally evil – I mean that she is not guilty if she honestly think a lie in the defence of victims of abortion is justified.

      But her putative innocence does not mean that it is valid to choose the lesser of two evil actions under any circumstances. She has not, as she believes, chosen an evil action at all.

      And, indeed, it is possible that I am wrong. There are good Catholic philosophers who would defend what she did as not a lie at all. I think they are mistaken. But that is not the point. The point is that if in fact her action is a lie – and, therefore, an evil action – it cannot be objectively justified, regardless of how good the result.

      jj

    21. Andrewesman June 4, 2012 at 8:18 am

      John Jensen,

      Thank you for your careful reply.

      I’m basically a deontologist in the sense that my head thinks you are correct–but I also tend to think (at the risk of sounding like a woolly relativist, which I ain’t) we have an incarnated faith as well–we have to live in a real world with real people in it. I suspect the moment some harm threatened anyone I love, I’d lie like a trooper. Let’s say I aspire to live up to the bar where you’ve put it, and I’ll keep my priest on speed dial. :-)

    22. John Jensen June 4, 2012 at 8:29 am

      I suspect the moment some harm threatened anyone I love, I’d lie like a trooper.

      I am one hundred per cent. with you there :-)

      jj

    23. Don the Kiwi June 4, 2012 at 10:11 am

      There are some situations where we must act in the way our conscience tells us, and leave the judging to Christ, and the admission in the confessional.

    24. John Jensen June 4, 2012 at 11:31 am

      There are some situations where we must act in the way our conscience tells us, and leave the judging to Christ, and the admission in the confessional.

      In every situation we must act in the way our conscience tells us. There are no exceptions. We have, in addition, the duty of correctly informing our conscience – that is one of the things our conscience tells us.

      Acting the way our conscience tells us is not for situations where we are uncertain what is right. ‘Conscience’ is simply our moral reasoning power.

      What I take you to mean is that if we reason that lying under certain circumstances is what is right and our duty, then, indeed, we must lie. That is quite right. And the priest in the confessional must seek to understand whether we acted in accord with our conscience or not. If we did – even if the act is morally wrong – then we are not guilty of formal sin, though we are guilty of material sin.

      But the same priest, if his conscience is well-formed, has the duty to inform us that the act was, itself, morally wrong, and to tell us it is our duty not to commit such an act in future.

      jj