Friday, February 18, 2011

To none does He give license to sin

Did you see the story about the little boy who had a near-death experience, and came back talking about Heaven? Excerpt:

Miraculously, after a difficult recovery and another surgery, Colton survived. But his story is far from over.

There were things Colton did and things he said after the surgery that were out of the ordinary, but none of it made sense until a drive past the hospital four months after the surgery.

His Dad jokingly asked Colton if he wanted to go back to the hospital.

Colton's response? "You know Dad, the angels sang to me while I was there," the boy said. [...]

But perhaps the most shocking part of Colton's story, the baby he never knew about.

One day while Colton was playing he walked up to his mom, and out of the blue asked, "Mom, I have two sisters, you had a baby die in your tummy didn't you?"

Sonja was shocked and overwhelmed by what her little boy had just said. When she asked him who told him, he said, "she did Mommy, she said she died in your tummy."

Todd and Sonja had never told their son about the miscarriage Sonja had before Colton was born. After all, it was more than a four-year-old would ever need to know.

Colton went on to tell his mom that she was a girl and, "she looked familiar and she started giving me hugs and she was glad to have someone in her family up there."

Beautiful, isn't it?

C. S. Lewis wrote several times about how our choices each day make us a little bit more of a heavenly creature--or more of a hellish one. To be a heavenly creature, we have to have the faith, obedience, and trust of a small child; we have to believe in God, trust what He has told us, and seek to follow Him with all our hearts.

That's why, even when discussions like the one we've been having all week about the morality of lying seem like hair-splitting or mere academic thinking, they really are about more than that. In order to choose the good, we must first know it; we can't get into the habit of thinking that our feelings or gut instincts or other criteria are a replacement for careful discernment enlightened by reason and thought.

It's often possible to feel as though a certain thing must be right, and then to do our absolute best to rationalize those feelings. Certainly, sometimes good can happen when we do that--but there's no guarantee that we won't be choosing evil. After all, some of those, clerics or lay people, who defended pedophile priests felt as though a handful of credible allegations of abuse from a couple decades ago should not outweigh the demonstrable good the priest was doing in the parish in the present day. They were wrong, plain and simple; but one can understand how they might feel as they so clearly did, or do, feel.

Similarly, some people might feel as though Bishop Olmsted was wrong to strip a certain hospital of its Catholic identity, because they feel as though the woman in the case was entitled to an abortion; others might feel as though a certain priest/exorcist really didn't commit the violations of chastity he said he did, or if he did, well, the situation was complicated, and in the case of a priest who is a pro-life hero we perhaps ought to overlook a peccadillo or two.

One big problem with all of this is that our feelings are rarely derived from morality, and frequently derived from our tribalistic impulses. We judge those who are not of our way of thinking much, much more harshly than those whose views we share and whose actions we would like to approve. In Lila Rose we see a brave heroine saving babies by daring and unconventional means, and so we don't want to have to question her methods too closely, lest we discover that they aren't really all that sound, or that there might be something morally problematic about some of them.

That's understandable, and human. But it's not necessarily good.

Peter Kreeft, whom I usually respect, has written a post essentially saying that when our gut instincts tell us something is moral and right, then it probably is, regardless of hair-splitting legalism. He thinks that we ought to emulate children, too, but assumes that children are not high-sticklers for the rules, and will readily understand violations of the rules when circumstances seem to demand it. Perhaps it is because I am a mother who has witnessed plenty of children's play, but I would disagree right away with the premise: children demand the rules. It is children most of all who are sticklers for playing games "by the book," and who will quickly refuse to play with a child who alters the rules of the game at will--even if the child's motives are to favor the younger members of the group, and give them a better chance of winning. "But that's not fair!" some of the older children will cry, disregarding the purity of their teammate's motive as irrelevant to the discussion.

But Kreeft goes on to say:

If you were watching your son or daughter being raped while you were disarmed and tied up and had only words as weapons, and if there was some lie you could tell to the rapist that would stop him, do you really mean to tell me that you would not tell that lie? If so, I thank God that you were not my father.

I know there are universal, objective moral absolutes. I know that a good end does not justify an evil means. I know that we should not ever murder or rape or blaspheme even to save the world. But I think your child would probably understand that. In the above horrible scenario, if the rapist could be deterred only by watching you rape or murder some other victim, or defecate on a crucifix, you should not do it—and your child, his victim, would probably understand that. But your child would certainly not understand why you could not save him by lying to the rapist.

I'm having trouble thinking of a lie that would stop the rapist in that situation. "The police are here!" will be demonstrably false, and would probably get you more suffering. "My child has [insert names of various diseases here]!" probably won't do anything, either. In fact, the hypothetical is about as real as the "ticking time bomb" scenario--which is to say, not very real at all.

But it's the second paragraph where the trouble really starts. No, the child most emphatically will not understand why you can't rape or murder someone else or abuse a crucifix--especially that!--in order to save him. In point of fact, your child will truly not understand if all the would-be rapist wants you to do is commit an act of grave blasphemy, and you refuse to do it--what, you refused to say some words insulting God or commit some act of desecration against Him rather than watch your own flesh and blood suffer in so horrific a way? But we know that blasphemy is gravely morally wrong--or are we going to begin to say that, like lying, blasphemy may be all right in situations where you don't really mean it and are under duress?

The bottom line, though, is that asking what you or I might do in so terrible a situation isn't really germane to the discussion of what is or isn't sinful. I admit--to my shame--that in such a situation I would probably sin to save people I love. I hope that I would have the strength to avoid sinning gravely. But to say for certain that I do is presumption.

Again, however, we go back to one glaring, blinding, scintillating difference between all of these scenarios and what Lila Rose is doing. There is no duress. There is no immediacy. They are not even telling the lie "Oh, the abortion clinic is closed today!" to potential customers in a last-ditch effort to save babies (note: I'm not saying that would be morally correct, but just offering it as a different hypothetical where the purpose would be the immediate saving of at least one human life). Instead, they are hoping to catch Planned Parenthood workers willing to flout the mandatory reporting laws by agreeing to aid a group of non-existent underage sex workers. That might be a good motive overall, but is it the kind of immediate, dire, life-or-death situation where even if a lie remains at least a venial sin objectively the culpability for lying might theoretically be lessened to the point of nonexistence? No, and no, and no again.

Our moral choices are important; they are, as Lewis said, making us a little more heavenly or a little more hellish each day. Lila Rose and Live Action may be acting with sincerity and courage and under the mistaken impression that the sort of deception they're engaging in is morally acceptable, and no one is judging the souls of anyone involved. But to the extent that we refuse to consider the moral reasoning and opt instead for our feelings or gut instincts, we are moving away from putting God's law first in our lives, and toward the credo "If it feels good, do it!" Which is not a terribly sound way to follow God, even if our intentions are good and our motives as pure as the driven snow.

Last Sunday's first reading from Sirach gives us a little idea of what is at stake in these discussions:
If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you;
if you trust in God, you too shall live;
he has set before you fire and water
to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.
Before man are life and death, good and evil,
whichever he chooses shall be given him.
Immense is the wisdom of the Lord;
he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.
The eyes of God are on those who fear him;
he understands man’s every deed.
No one does he command to act unjustly,
to none does he give license to sin. (Sirach 15: 15-20)


Rebecca in CA said...

Again very well said. Thank you for thinking, and writing, carefully. It is so needed.

Red Cardigan said...

Rebecca, thank you. I appreciate your kind words.

Archaeology cat said...

I second Rebecca

melanie said...

God is both just and merciful. He expects us not to lie, but He knows that we will. That is why He sent His son to die on the cross for us. If we could, by intellectual argument and the force of our own will, not sin, we would not need Christ and we would not need the Eucharist. Speaking only for myself, I know that I am weak. Under extreme duress, like if I were hiding Jews and the Nazi's came looking for them, I would probably lie, to protect myself and to protect the. Then, I would beg God to be merciful. If my child were being tortured and I was being asked to deny God to save them, well let me just pray right now that God is merciful and such a thing would never happen to me. And, finally if someone sees a huge evil organization killing babies and thinks that maybe by going in and pretending to be something she's not, she can expose this evil for what it is, I would HOPE that God would be merciful if her motives
and intentions were good. The bottom line is I am human. My will to live is strong. I don't know how I will act if I am
tested, but I know God is merciful.

Patrick said...

Yeah: kids are *way* more concerned about rules than adults. Only with a little maturity comes the idea of "putting a finger on the scale", as it were, for the less athletic or younger kids.

Daddio said...

No duress?? No immediacy?? Thousands are dying every week.

Daddio said...

Abolitionists and underground railroad workers also used a lot of deceit to achieve their justifiable ends. I need to spend more time thinkin' on this one.

Rebecca in CA said...

There isn't anything wrong with the deceit per se, though, Daddio...Red is talking specifically about lying, which is one form of deceit. Some forms of deceit are permissible some of the time; lying is a form of deceit which is inherently disordered.

Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking indeed.

Anonymous said...

Well said Red --I agree.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I think the real point is that each choice we makes does indeed make us a little more heavenly or a little more hellish. There may be times when we each make a choice that sacrifices a bit of our own heavenliness for the sake of another, and then we have to recover from that, but it may be the right sacrifice to make. Still, we don't want to keep making that sacrifice, because we too want to come back from the brink.

Here is a hard one: would you go to hell to save your own daughter from that fate, and send her to heaven? True, its an unlikely scenario, but is there an absolute answer?

Rebecca in CA said...

Siarlys, that question is like asking the question, "Can God make a rock he can't move"...the whole thing is absurd. It doesn't make sense as a question because it doesn't have anything to do with who God is. God just doesn't set up a scenario like that. He's not a sicko.

Justice said...

Hi, Erin,

Your arguments are correct -- to a point. I think the issue of detecting and stopping crime lies somewhat outside the usual framework of analyzing truth and lies. For example, in wartime, those in the underground must lie, or they will be killed. Law enforcement officers must "lie" when they operate undercover.

It's true that Live Action is not an official government law enforcement agency. But since there is unlawful activity taking place -- activity that is not being uncovered by official law enforcement agencies -- isn't it legitimate for Live Action to conceal its identity in order to uncover the unlawful activity (and child prostitution goes way beyond unlawful -- into "immoral", and "shocking".)

In general, it is wrong to lie -- but I think when undercover work is necessary to stop unlawful and even inhuman practices, including child prostitution -- it's justified.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

You are probably correct Rebecca, but here IS the old Irish tale about the woman who sold her soul the devil for enough money to enable her neighbors to eat without the necessity of selling THEIR souls to the devil. (Her soul, being exceptionally pure, sold for a great pile of gold coins).

There are many reasons to question that tale, and my solution is, I don't believe souls can be sold by contract, or that there is a willing buyer to sell them to. In other ways, "selling your soul" is a useful metaphor.

In the story, angels intervene on the grounds that a woman who made such a sacrifice for such a noble purpose merely enhanced her own purity, and is therefore admitted to heaven. But, that undermines the sanctity of the underlying contract. In fact, it suggests that she lied when she sold her soul in the first place, or that God lied to Satan in letting him believe the contract would be enforceable.