Thursday, February 17, 2011

The truth that sets us free

I've been pondering the topic of whether or not lying of the sort that Live Action engaged in is ever justified, having followed some of the writing about it here and there.

As I've read and participated in some of the discussions, I've started to have the uneasy feeling that we've had this sort of theological debate before, in the Catholic blogosphere. Only last time around, the sin being discussed was the sin of torture, the would-be exculpatory scenario the infamous Ticking Time Bomb (TTB) scenario, and the justification for its use the idea that agents of the state have the right to torture people in the interest of public safety.

Of course, the fact that agents of the state are involved does not make something that is intrinsically evil suddenly good. Agents of the state, for instance, may not murder. If they are carrying out a lawful execution they do not commit murder, by definition; but if a guard shoots a docile prisoner as that prisoner is being marched to the execution chamber, he is guilty of murder--and murder is intrinsically evil by definition.

So we can't pretend that agents of the state may lie without being guilty of lying (ordinarily a sin of much lesser gravity than the sins of murder and torture, of course). What some people are presently pondering is whether certain untruths are actually lies, given some rather restricted circumstances--for example, in those situations where you are protecting a potential victim from his would-be killers, or where you are being unjustly forced to reveal knowledge you are morally bound to keep secret.

It is my completely un-scholarly opinion that the answer, ultimately, will be: no, you still can't tell an actual, honest-to-goodness lie, not even in these situations, without committing a sin, at least objectively. Your moral culpability may be greatly lessened or even completely absent, but the action itself is still sinful. But, like I said, that's my opinion as an average Catholic laywoman trying to sort this stuff out. For all I know, moral theologians may be able to work out a definition of lying that totally exempts situations in which one's life or the life of another is at stake or the information is being unjustly coerced, where an untruth of sorts somehow manages not to be a lie. But I don't really see how that will work, any more than I ever bought the idea that some form of painful coercion might somehow be defined as "not-torture" when circumstances seemed to demand it.

Still, that's not--thankfully--my call. Moreover, it has nothing to do with the Live Action situation. The Live Action people are not responding under duress to unjust examiners, nor are they being pressed to reveal information they are pledged to keep secret. Instead, they are entering clinics knowing ahead of time that they will be holding a false conversation containing numerous lies. I am sure they are courageous, and I'm also sure they are convinced that the purpose of their actions justifies the methods--but morally speaking we reject such reasoning as consequentialism, the idea that the morality of an action depends on the actions consequences.

But there's a larger point here. When the TTB scenarios kept cropping up in the torture debates, people like Mark Shea responded by reminding everyone that the questions raised should not be "How close can I come to committing the evil act of torture without quite crossing that line?" or "What exceptions that will allow me to commit acts of torture against Truly Evil Bad Guys can be carved out?" but "How can I fulfill Christ's commandment to love my neighbor as myself?"

I think we're seeing the same sort of thing here. Instead of asking "How can we justify some lying when it's for a Really Good Cause?" or "How can we define lying so as to permit it in some really excusable circumstances?" we should be asking ourselves, "How can I fulfill God's desire that His children speak the truth in charity?"

Putting the question that way forces us to think of our duty to speak the truth not as something that simply or mainly impacts ourselves alone, but that is something we owe our neighbor both in justice and in mercy. It is, for instance the truth about abortion--the full, ugly, horrific truth--that has led to the conversions of some abortionists and clinic workers; sometimes they encountered this truth for years before their hearts turned away from the evil, and other times it took just one graphic encounter for them to realize the evil, but the truth was the weapon that set them free.

If we truly love our neighbors, even the ones who work in abortion clinics, we will not see them as hopelessly depraved and beyond conversion such that it's just fine to lie to them. We will, instead, continue to confront evil with the most powerful weapon we have: the truth. It is, after, the Way, the Truth, and the Life Who Himself sets each of us free from the evils of sin and calls us to spend eternity in happiness with Him forever; we can offer no less to every person than what we have ourselves received.


Jeff Miller said...

I am also leaning in the direction that the answer is no and certainly changes in the Catechism show that the magisterium is starting to lean in that direction. Right now we need some doctrinal development and for the magisterium to clarify this.

I also am cautious in debates where the moral action gets framed against the circumstance first. In this case the continuing horror of abortion and the veil Planned Parenthood contributes to this. There are certainly some case where the circumstances do frame as to whether something is a sin or not. A poor man unable to get food any other way might have a duty to take bread not his own, though not from somebody in similar circumstances. At least this is a case I have heard described before.

So far I am not really buying the distinction between deception and lying and it seems to me that Live Action Films is really tempting people to sin by deceiving them on a couple of levels.

Even though I am leaning in the direction that lying in any situation is not permissible, I wouldn't be dogmatic about it since I think it is an area where Catholics of good will can prudentially disagree on since I don't think a magisterial case can yet be fully made. What St. Thomas Aquinas wrote on this and the biblical examples of Rahab who was praised are objections I would like to see fully answered.

Hector said...

Re: for example, in those situations where you are protecting a potential victim from his would-be killers,

Seriously, you don't think that lying would be justified then?

I would say that if my religious authorities told me that lying in such a case was wrong, and my conscience and intuitions told me something else, I'd go with my conscience.

I think this would be a perfect example of where the Orthodox principle of economia would be applicable. Yes, at some level it may be a sin, and Jesus did tell us to say simply "Yes, yes" or "No, no", but we live in a world where often the only choice is between a lesser evil and a greater evil, and we need to choose the lesser evil. I think that in view of the circumstances, lying in such a case would not only be tolerable, but would be a positive duty. Jesus was quite clear that all other rules and regulations are subordinate to our duty to love, and loving one's neighbour in a case like that means protecting him. By lying to the killers, if necessary.

Serious question- I'm not RC, of course, but my understanding was that official Catholic teaching was that lying in such a case would be a venial sin, not a mortal one. Is that not correct?

melanie said...

Hector, you and I, once again are in agreement on this issue- economia is that synonmous with "common sense"?
Here is an issue where we in all our philosophizing and theologizing we have just completely lost sight of our "common sense".

And yes, I just looked up this in the catechism yesterday because I was trying to get a sense of what it's take would be on "intent" and how that relates to mortal sin vs venial
sin...lying in the context of protecting someone woud be a venial sin- grave matter has to be present for mortal sin, lying is not listed as a "grave matter". However, there would be instances where lying plays a key role in a grave sin, for example adultery. But one would truly need to discuss this with a more adept theologian in order to understand all of those distinctions. I am going to ask my dad when I get a chance because I truly am curious what the church would say about the lying question. I mean, common sense says of course in certain instances, but let face it, the RC church doesn't always go with common sense so I am willing to look more deeply at this question. Even if my personal gut instinct and conscience would absolutely lie if I truly believed it was for the greater good or if the lie were the lesser of two evils.

melanie said...

PS when I say adept theologian I don't mean to imply I am even an un-adept theologian....haha, I do know people I can ask this of though who are theologians and because I am curious I will do that.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I was once told by a WELS Lutheran pastor that if he saw a man attempting to rape his wife, and killed the man, it would be a justifiable homicide, but it would still, nonetheless, be a sin. There is a certain sense to that -- the impact on a person of taking another person's life is still present. One might say the same about dropping a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima... all the arguments about saving the lives of those who would die in a conventional invasion of Japan may be true, but still, it was also a sin.

This calls to mind an old story about a woman who had considerable wealth, and spent it providing people with food during a famine, knowing that Satan literally had agents trying to buy souls for money starving people could use to purchase food. Finally, her money ran out. She sold her own soul, which went for a considerable sum, being so pure and lustrous, in order to continue feeding all the others. Naturally, the story has a deus ex machina ending: because she made such a supreme sacrifice, God redeems her, breaking the contract she signed of her own free will. What if he couldn't do that? Did she make the right choice? Did she know God would save her in the end? If so, was her signature fraudulent? And was THAT a sin too?

Archaeology cat said...

I think you have a good point about how the question shouldn't be "how close can I get to this sin?" or all the "what ifs", but "how can I reveal this in charity?".

Speaking of charity and being truthful, does anyone know if someone has pointed out these concerns to Lila Rose?

I certainly don't claim to be a theologian or know the answer, but I do think this post makes sense.

Anonymous said...

I found John Zmirak's piece interesting, and I'm leaning in his direction. Excerpts:

There's a very long tradition in Catholic theology that attaches an absolute value to truth-telling. St. Augustine is famous for his candor and intellectual honesty, so we should not be surprised when we read him writing that lying is so intrinsically evil that we should not even tell a lie to robbers who come to our front door, inquiring if the man they wish to kill is in our home. We may be silent, he said, or we may speak ambiguously, but we may not say something that's untrue. (Ironically, since Augustine coined the Catholic teaching on just war, he would have allowed us to use violence to defend the innocent -- but not untruth. So when assassins come for our dinner guest, we may not lie to them -- but we may kill them. He also believed that unbaptized infants were damned, so he deserves at least a grain of salt.)

St. Thomas Aquinas carried on Augustine's scruples, to the discomfit of Jesuits who infiltrated Protestant England. Laymen who hid these men from Queen Elizabeth's secret police could use "mental reservation" when questioned whether priests were in their house, but they could not say something that was not literally true. Hence, if a priest-hunter asked, "Are you hiding priests in your house?" a faithful Catholic could justly say, "I haven't seen a priest!" while "reserving" in his mind the next phrase, ". . . in the last five seconds." This legalistic tactic for deceiving tyrants and saving priests from torture and execution is what won the Jesuits their reputation for slyness and cynicism, and established in English dictionaries the secondary meaning of "Jesuit": "a person given to subtle and equivocating arguments."

This issue became much more important during the Second World War, when thousands of Catholics really were, for the first time, in the position of hiding innocents from bands of murderers at their doors. An argument advanced by the Protestant Hugo Grotius, dismissed by the old Catholic Encyclopedia as a reckless innovation -- that it didn't amount to lying if you told an untruth to someone with no right to the truth -- suddenly won respectability. The pope set an example: Pius XII issued thousands of false baptismal certificates to Jews under persecution and transmitted messages among the conspirators planning to assassinate Adolf Hitler and halt the Holocaust. The pope hid thousands of Jews and dissenters in Vatican palaces and cellars, directing monks and nuns to practice deception against the Nazis on a massive, historic scale. No wonder, then, that the first published draft of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church included Grotius's argument. It reflected the real experience of thousands of faithful Catholics who'd risked their lives to save the innocent, and it amounted to a worthy development of doctrine.

Then, in the revised edition of the Catechism, that argument disappeared. Apparently what had been orthodox for several years was no longer quite kosher. Perhaps it had been a typo, a modernist innovation that crept into the text . . . Or had it?

Tarcisius said...

While I can't go through every single undercover video ever made and search for lies, I can distinguish between a lie and other deceptions. I know that to lie is to say that something false is actually true, or vice-versa. It is a direct contradiction with reality, and therefore draws our minds from it. God is Truth, and without God there would be no reality. All that is real was put here by God, and so to contradict reality is to contradict Him. Therefore, a lie is intrinsically evil.

That said, there are certain methods of deception which can--under certain circumstances--be permitted. For example, a bluff in a card game is understood by all participants to be part of the game. Or to counter a direct question about your whereabouts with "why would I be there?" or explain by a roundabout fashion where precisely you were such that it sounds that you were somewhere else. Answers like "I don't know precisely where he is," don't necessarily speak the full truth, that your friend said he'd be at x supermarket, but you don't know his exact coordinates or even whether or not he arrived or left yet. To bend reality by using words to imply something contrary to what you secretly mean is a mental reservation, and can be morally licit.

While lying is never an option, deception can sometimes be used, due to both our fallen nature and that of the others around us.

Rebecca in CA said...

I've been a little disturbed by the folks who are accusing those who say that lying is always wrong, of being pharisaical, because the lie is such a teeny tiny thing in relation to the good being accomplished (or in the case of the Nazis, the evil being avoided). What keeps coming to my mind is the book of Maccabees. Do you remember the mother who first watched each of her seven sons be tortured and slowly die, encouraged each one of them, and then was tortured and killed herself, all because of what--not being willing to eat a measly piece of pork? The piece of meat is such a teeny thing, compared to the evil which would have been avoided. Probably the younger sons were even still children. Wasn't she cruel not to give on that one small point? I think we really need to take a lesson from such a woman, and for others who have been unwilling to give even a little, even on a matter of venial sin, as you argue so well, Red. What if someone told us that if we didn't shoot this old man, who was going to be dead of cancer in a week anyway, they would drop a nuclear bomb on a city of a million people? It frightens me, a little, that Catholics aren't seeming to have firm principles which they would adhere to regardless of consequences. It seems to me it boils down to: Obey God, and trust, no matter how things may appear. He can take care of it.

Recently I read Corrie Ten Boom's account of her family's experience hiding Jews in the haulocost--there is one point at which several young men are hiding under a trapdoor under the dining room table, and in comes the Gestapo, sweeping the neighborhood for young men to recruit. The Ten Booms did lie, but interestingly, this one time, one girl just couldn't handle the lying aspect, and when questioned, hysterically shouted, several times, "They're under the table! They're under the table!" The soldiers looked at her like she was nuts, shook their heads, and left. Of course I am not advocating going out of your way to tell the truth to those who have no right to it--but it strikes me as an interesting example of things working out for the best in a very difficult situation.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Again, what about the nun who had never told a lie, who lied to Javert to save Jean Valjean from arrest?

As Valjean said "May the angels in heaven bless you for it."

Rebecca in CA said...

I can't remember the nun scenario. But yeah, I think there could be a situation where someone's motives sort of outweigh what might be objectively wrong with the act. But that doesn't just cancel the act being wrong if only venially. Anyway, Victor Hugo is an awesome writer but not necessarily the person to go to for questions of moral theology.

Hector said...

Rebecca in CA,

Re: Do you remember the mother who first watched each of her seven sons be tortured and slowly die, encouraged each one of them, and then was tortured and killed herself, all because of what--not being willing to eat a measly piece of pork?

Re: Anyway, Victor Hugo is an awesome writer but not necessarily the person to go to for questions of moral theology.


The Holy Spirit speaks through laypeople as well as through priests, bishops, and authors of catechisms. There have been times when the majority of the clergy was in the wrong, and the laypeople were in the right. And when your conscience agrees more with Victor Hugo than with the authorities of your church, you ought to follow your conscience.

The obvious difference is that their act of defiance didn't hurt anyone, besides themselves of course. Telling a killer where some people are hiding- people who have sought refuge with you- obviously does harm those people. No rule or regulation- including the general rule that we should be truthful- can override our duty to love our neighbour.

Re: The Ten Booms did lie, but interestingly, this one time, one girl just couldn't handle the lying aspect, and when questioned, hysterically shouted, several times, "They're under the table! They're under the table!"

I hope those parents gave that girl quite a talking-to afterward.

Rebecca in CA said...

Ack! No one has ever said that anyone is obligated to "tell the truth" to the murderers! Where is this coming from???

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Victor Hugo isn't a source of moral authority because he has any claim to infallibility. Rather, the scenario he presented is a plausible moral dilemma that speaks for itself.

Rebecca in CA said...

It's a plausible moral dilemma which is worth pondering but it doesn't prove anything...getting into the emotions of a situation is great for exercising compassion but not for thinking clearly about principles. Hugo could have written the same scenario, and the nun could have come up with an excellent deception without lying directly, and the story would have still been good. As it is, I can relate to what the nun did, and I can't say I wouldn't have done the same if I were pressed--but that doesn't confuse me into thinking the lie was essential to the heroism displayed or something I ought to approve of.

Hector said...

Siarlys Jenkins,

Of course, Luther had rather a different take than the Catholic church (you're Lutheran, right?) In the matter of the Landgrave of Hesse's second wife, he famously said, "What harm can there be in telling a good, strong lie for a good cause and for the advancement of the Christian Church?....God would not punish such lies, he would accept them."

I'm not Lutheran, obviously, and not citing the man as any kind of authority (I don't even like Luther, to be honest) but I thought the contrast was interesting. I do disagree with Luther here, in general, and I would say there is a very strong general presumption against lying and deception. I think it can be overriden in extreme cases though, such as the nun lying to Javert.

I think that we live in a world where sometimes the only choice is between a greater evil and a lesser one, and in such cases we have the right and the duty to choose the lesser evil, even though it may not be a positive good. And that sometimes the rules need to relaxed in order to make allowance for special cases. Every rule, after all, is subordinate to the one big rule to love one's neighbour as oneself. When a rule gets in the way of truly loving one's neighbour, then that is the time for that rule to be relaxed.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Hector, I have perhaps inadvertently misled you, by referencing a WELS church I am familiar with, but no, I am not Lutheran. I was raised Presbyterian and currently belong to an AME Zion church. I often visit the WELS church, where I am no more eligible for communion than I am when visiting a Catholic church, because a friend invited me, because I got to know people there, because the service is a good service and God is God no matter what doctrines are being preached, and because I find the dialog challenging and edifying.

I respect one thing about Luther: he broke the earthly power of the bishops of Rome to constrain the consciences of western European Christians. He created a space on earth where men and women could think about their relation to God, rather than accepting the dictat of what had essentially become a political edifice.

I incline more to John Wycliffe than Luther, with the caveat that the Bible does not make itself clear, and the printed page handed down to us is not complete or perfect, it is the best we have to work with. But Wycliffe is correct that man has no earthly spiritual overlord but Jesus.

Luther was in many ways a crude man, and I agree that God has not given us a license to lie for the church.