Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sex, lies, and Santa Claus

I realize some of my regular readers may be growing a bit weary with the discussion on the morality of lying; that's because most of my regular readers probably don't have a problem with the morality of lying, but are willing to accept unquestioningly that lying is a sin and we're not supposed to do it--which is a good thing.

But I continue to post on the topic because I don't think I've covered all my bases yet; at least, I'm finding questions raised here that I've covered briefly elsewhere, and it's only fair to my readers who aren't reading the zillion plus comment threads elsewhere that I post here, too.

For instance, Lindsay asks below this post about the Santa Claus question. I know I've discussed this before when the whole Santa debate has come up, but it bears repeating, so I hope you'll indulge me. The reason the Santa story isn't a lie is because it is a myth or fable, which is a kind of truth, not a species of lie. Myths and fables are stories told to children to draw them toward an adult reality which they are not yet capable of grasping. No three-year-old I've ever known has the capacity to understand that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in the fullness of time became man, was incarnate in the womb of the Virgin, was born in a stable at Bethlehem, and thus began His earthly mission of salvation in which He healed the breach between God and Man which had persisted since the Fall. We can, if we like, tell the child the great truth that Jesus, Emmanuel, is God's greatest gift to us, since He is God giving Himself to us in an efficaciously salvific way--but the child will probably tune out the words she doesn't understand and imagine Mary and Joseph arriving at the stable to see a large beribboned box on the manger which, when opened, revealed God's gift, in much the same way that I, as a child, thought that the statement "Mary gave us the Rosary!" meant that Mary went around with a little cart in Israel after the Ascension giving people handmade rosaries and telling them what it all meant. Which is cute, perhaps, but not even remotely close to the literal truth of it all.

So when we allow children to believe that Saint Nicholas (a.k.a. Santa Claus) will bring them gifts to celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus, we are teaching them two things that are true: that Saint Nicholas is a saint who has a special love and care for children, as he is one of their dear patrons; and that Christmas is about a Gift, something they will understand better when they are older. We are making use of a story to teach them these things, and before they are very much older they will come to recognize that while some of the elements of the story are not literally true, the symbolic meaning which transcends the merely literal is truer than they could possibly have imagined in the days of their child-like glee.

To put it simply, there is a good reason why we tell children truths via myths and fables, fairy tales and stories, and even the old wives' tales about wearing proper coats or feeding a cold. We do this because children's minds are a delightful mix of fantasy and reality at all times, because their powerful imaginations are sometimes greater prepared to receive truths than their still-forming rational intellects, and because there are some truths which, no matter how we try to explain them to a child, are simply not accessible to them yet.

Take, for instance, sex.

There has been quite a trend lately to start telling even tiny tots all about the human body and its capacity for reproduction, in scientific and clinical terms. Some parents do this because they shun "lying" and insist on telling the two-year-old just exactly how his baby sister got into mommy's tummy--oh, wait, into her uterus--while others believe that child development requires frank talk about sex as soon as a young child asks any questions. I was not a part of that generation and don't really think it's a good idea; while you can, certainly, give a child all the anatomical names for body parts and explain to him or her using simple charts or diagrams just what reproductive activity involves, you can't give him or her an adult understanding of these matters. Which means, at the very least, you can't stop him or her from shouting out in church, at a crowded restaurant, or on a plane "My [anatomically correct body part] is really itchy!" or from telling a pregnant neighbor, helpfully and in detail, just how that baby got into her uterus.

So I side with those who employ the ancient parental wisdom of answering little ones' questions about body parts or babies with a bit of euphemism and a bit of story-telling; after all, it is true that a little boy's baby sister is a gift from God, and that when a man and a woman get married babies are God's gift to them; but if the child then imagines that same big bow-covered box jostling around in his mommy's "tummy," and gets the idea that the doctor's job is to remove the present so Mommy and Daddy can open it--well, he will come to an adult understanding soon enough, and in the meantime what he has been told is true. In fact, in some senses, the sentence "Babies are a gift from God," is much truer than the literal truth.

Now, what's different between employing myths, fables and stories in order to help us enter into a child's world to communicate with children, and the sort of thing Live Action did?

It is not that adults can't sometimes benefit from stories. Our Lord, after all employed many parables, and His adult listeners learned great truths from them. But the difference with adults is that they usually know they are being told a story. We purchase or watch fiction, we listen to a homily containing a humorous anecdote without needing to believe that the joke is literally true; we have, to put it simply, outgrown the childish state of seeing stories as real and reality as a story in its own right. Parents of small children see, and lament a little, the movement past the "everything is a story" age. As a child approaches and then passes the age of reason, they begin to have that same adult awareness of what is truth and what is fiction; in fact, if they are being told a story at that age they will ask with precocious cynicism, "Did this really happen?" It is a distinction that would have escaped them a few years earlier.

The Live Action operatives were, of course, speaking to adults, and they were not presenting themselves as actors or storytellers. And they were not trying to tell a larger truth by their words; their words were intended to cover up the truth--because the truth was that they were Live Action operatives bent on tricking the Planned Parenthood workers into being apparently willing to violate statutory rape notification laws, among other things. And so there is no loophole of the "Santa" variety for adults telling demonstrably false things to other adults--because adults are not children, and the fact that we sometimes tell children truths via stories and fables which the children may accept as literally true for that glorious period we call childhood is not in any way the same thing as lying to one's fellow grown-ups.


Amy said...

Really interesting posts and comments on this. I remember my head spinning in a philosophy class (taught by a good Catholic) discussing the absoluteness of a lie. The absoluteness was apparent, but the situational "BUT" of many of the hypotheticals we ran thorugh had great moral weight. Telling the truth often flew in the face of common sense and seemed, morally, like the obvious worse choice.
I personally find compelling St. John Chrysostom's distinction of the person's right to know the truth. I think he's onto something there. How else to reconcile this?

Lindsay said...

Except that parents are not simply telling their children a "story" when they speak of Santa. Some are purposefully leading them to believe he *really is* flying through the sky in a sleigh and bringing them toys.

Or closer to the case at hand, perhaps, telling their children that the man at the mall or the Christmas party or in the parade IS Santa Claus (or St. Nicholas).

Are we expected to be evasive (in the Jesuit tradition) when presenting Santa to our kids, or is it okay to tell them that Santa is coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve and leaving toys for them? Is there a line here, or is it all okay?

Because, honestly, I feel more comfortable dealing with Santa as a Jesuit might, answering questions with questions, etc... But, I'm also not comfortable condemning parents who take a more direct approach in actually making an effort to protect their child's literal belief in this man. That is different from a game of pretend where the child is "in on it."

So really, I totally agree with you on this one. Its not a sin.

But I still see it as along the same lines as what Live Action did. The GOAL is the same, to arrive at the truth, in the case of Santa, for the child to discover some truth. We are deceiving them in *some sense* in order to help them find the truth.

Some people even employ this myth as a means of getting their children to behave or do good things (Santa won't bring presents to bad little children). The man dressed like Santa acts in a way to convince the child he *really is* in order to have the child reveal what he wants for Christmas.

So, isn't that sort of the same thing? Is it okay to dress up and pretend you are something you are not if the person you are fooling is below the age of reason, but not if they are an adult? Because, Live Action wasn't tricking them into doing anything immoral. Rather, they were fooling them into revealing the truth about what they had in fact done.

It still feels to me that most of the arguments against Live Action rely on a very literal interpretation of the catechism, and such a literal interpretation of the catechism would not allow for the type of deception required to convince a child to believe in Santa. So, just like I find your defense of "deceiving" children about Santa to be an exception to what the Church was referring to as "lies" in the Catechism (even though the Catechism itself does not lay out such an exception), I can really see the point of those who argue for the case of Live Action on this point.

I do see this particular point as debatable (I've often thought it must be a terribly in-humanizing thing to be a spy), but it does not feel to me to be the "there it is in the catechism, a lie is a lie" scenario because, as you've just made the case, a literal interpretation of that is not entirely reasonable universally applied. It ISN'T that easy to say that every spoken untruth or means of deception is a "lie."

And while I've heard many arguments against the "extreme" examples used (Nazis at your door, terrorists with bombs, etc...), it was your post that brought to mind not so extreme examples that seemed to me to point in the same direction.

Red Cardigan said...

Lindsay, that's a thoughtful comment. Let me venture a reply.

The main difference to me between Santa, or "the stork brought the baby" (in earlier ages or more reticent cultures), etc., is that when we speak to children we enter into their world of make-believe for two purposes: to teach them some truths and shield them from others. Very young children, for instance, do not need to know what "terrorist" means, and the evasive reply "a bad guy" is sufficient without needing to clarify or nuance the definition.

But I honestly think this exception applies only to children. No, that doesn't mean "It's okay to lie to kids, but not adults." It means that in our conversational dealings with children we have to enter into their world a little--to help them enter into ours, which is our ultimate goal.

Do parents sometimes cross the line, as regards Santa, for instance, or other childhood games, or even in refusing to tell the children certain things? Perhaps, and if they do, then they have probably been guilty of a venial sin of lying--but whether they are culpable is another matter, naturally.

And whether Live Action is culpable is also not for us to determine--but I don't see how what they did is really comparable to what parents do in regards to their children. PP workers don't live in some magical world where they only speak "prostitute/pimp," for instance. Anyone can walk into their clinics and ask questions without needing to lie about who they are.

Maybe that should be the take-away, here. Maybe more pro-life people should be willing to walk into PP and ask, "Is it true that you kill unborn human beings here? Wow. How evil and wretched," and then leave. Who knows? Maybe a dose of the honest truth would be more benefit than a million lies.

Rebecca in CA said...

Your kids must be really different from mine. Mine want to know by age three or four if this is pretend or for real. Anyway, I do think it is as simple as this: If you tell the child something not true, intending to deceive the child, as a proximate end, whatever your ultimate end is, it's lying. That is, if you tell the kid a story about Santa coming down the chimney in a red suit *with the intention of getting the kid really to think Santa comes down that chimney in that red suit*, that constitutes a lie.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I was the only Protestant on a block full of Catholics from the age of two until the age of seven, and there were lots of Catholics in the neighborhood we then moved to. When I was four or five, I proudly paraded around one summer morning telling all my playmates that there is no Santa Claus. They cried. One of their older sisters (HER older sister grew up to become a nun), pulled me aside to say "You know that and I know that, but you're making them cry, so shut up."

I would agree with what you said here Erin, if we were talking about "St. Nicholas." But Santa Claus is a contrivance distinct from St. Nick, intended to incite the modern orgy of commercial expectations. That's not a lie, but the story about the North Pole is. I love well written fantasy, and old myths and legends. I stay away from Santa as much as possible.

I share your preferences on talking about sex too early, with two caveats.

For most of human history, most children saw chickens, ducks, pigs, horses, and cattle mating, so by the time a girl was ready for marriage, she could sense that "men can't be much different from horses," except hopefully he had other qualities she found attractive, human qualities.

And unfortunately children still pick things up in a less natural way. My little brother told me when I picked him up for a movie that kids at school had told him about a disease you get from sitting too long on the bus. After a while he remembered its name: gonorrhea. First I told him that nobody gets that from sitting too long on the bus. I managed to tell him if he married one woman and stayed faithful to her (and she to him) neither of them would ever get this disease, without precise discussion of anatomically correct body parts. (I later learned that his mother had found it necessary to tell him about the mechanics, because, as I had indirectly learned, kids in the upper grades of elementary school talk plenty about such things.)

When I was small, I thought "virgin" was a synonym for "female," but I wasn't sure what a "roundyon virgin" was.

Rebecca in CA said...

I just read the above I see a difference between telling the whole truth (bad guy vs. detailed description, or babies are a gift of God vs. detailed physical explanations) and are obligated not to tell the whole truth to children, but I just don't see a place for stating an untruth. I don't see a need for anyone telling a child babies are brought by a stork--that is not an incomplete truth but a lie.

Red Cardigan said...

Well, Siarlys, in our house St. Nick = Santa Claus. I don't worry about the details (my girls used to like the flying reindeer idea) but eventually the life of the real saint gets taught, and they understand the other elements as part of a fun story.

Rebecca, I'm a storyteller myself, so yes, I think my girls "believed in" stories longer. There is a kind of magic in a good story that made wondering whether it was real or not rather secondary for them for a long time.

As for the stork: well, *lots* of people in previous generations believed it was absolutely immoral to hint to children about sex in any way. So there were the charming stories of babies brought by storks or found under cabbage leaves--and I once heard of a woman not much older than me whose own mother scolded her bitterly for talking about her baby-to-be in front of her older children. "We don't talk about those things!" the mother said with a great deal of anger, and the woman had to tell her mother that yes, in their house, they did talk about those things.

I don't defend this particular practice--but I still think the motives of those who told tales like that about babies was protecting children's innocence/ignorance about sex, so if they were technically guilty of lying I doubt there was a great culpability there.

freddy said...

This is a good explanation. Let me see if I follow you.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) makes no exeptions for telling someone something you know is not true -- if you do that, you lie.

However, Catholic moral tradition has never condemned telling children about Santa Clause (or any of the other special holiday personages).

So, either telling children about Santa Clause is a lie, but we're allowed to lie to children (which is contemptible) or it is not, in fact, a lie.

Your explanation of why it might not in fact be a lie is insightful, and I agree with it.


It is your opinion, not Church teaching, and there could be other reasons why this might not be a lie.

My dilemma with Lila Rose is that like telling children about Santa Clause, Lila Rose says what is verbally contrary to fact, but like telling children about Santa Clause, the Church has not consistantly condemned such actions as spying, public or private investigations into public institutions or businesses, or the witness protection program.

Now, I'm not saying that the cases are in any way equal!

I am saying that this is a case in which proper development of doctrine has to occur because now is when it's being called into question. And that may take years! And who knows, it could well turn out that Lila Rose is wrong, but witness protection is okay, or that Lila Rose is fine, but spying is out.

What we do know is that telling someone something that is verbally contrary to fact is not a lie in some cases. Beyond that we have no clear guidance.

Lindsay said...

Yes, Freddy. That is where I am as well. I think Red and others might have excellent reasons as to why the Santa situation is different from Lila Rose and what they did should be classified as "sinful."

But, the acceptance of the Santa scenario proves, to me anyway, that there is in fact room for debate on this. Thank you for articulating it so well.

freddy said...

Thank you, Lindsay, and God bless you. Thanks, also, for not pointed out my spelling error! Santa "Clause" forsooth!

Lindsay said...

I figure if everyone else can excuse my hasty, ill-conceived sentences, a spelling error or two is small potatoes ;).

Tony said...

"Do these pants make my legs look fat?"

"Yes, honey. They make your thighs look like a pair of Virginia hams".

(Good thing I didn't commit a sin.)

Anonymous said...

When my kid was 2 and 3 I told him we used the toothbrush to get "the lions and tigers" out. He opened right up, even started adding dinosaurs and other animals that had to be brushed out.

A lie, or a fun story to get cooperation for a vital health practice?

Lions and tigers - a metaphor for sugar and bacteria?

Or, literal lying to deceive another person? Anyone think a preschooler will be convinced by a factual explanation of how bacteria in the saliva adhere to sugars and particles and thus damage tooth enamel with dental caries?

Rebecca in CA said...

The 2/3 year old didn't believe you about the lions and tigers (otherwise he'd be crying); he was pretending with you.

Red, I agree that there was not great culpability with the stork business--just as I don't think there is great culpability when people try to get their kids to think St. Nick comes down their chimneys. Both have good intentions; I think the technique should be refined so that it doesn't include direct untruths. I would say the same about Lila Rose--I have no problem with the technique, in general, of deceiving the PP workers into thinking you are someone you are not--but I do have a problem with the direct lie. Nevertheless I don't think it constituted a mortal sin even formally, let alone the question of moral culpability. Still, something to be avoided.