[This is a looong post. Go brew a cup of coffee (or quality tea), and maybe a snack too. And then come back for what I hope is a simple point followed up by an attempt to address a few of common fallacies that are currently going around..... but not without words. Lots of words. You've been warned.]
I’m an avid blog reader. My list of blogs I follow tops out around 150 – most of them are Catholic (although a few only claim that title, and the others are special interest with a few fun diversions). It’s one of my favorite ways to keep up on current events and thoughtful reflections.
I know that I am not alone in this, especially given the internet explosion of great Catholic bloggers who have a solid following and excellent offerings. The internet is a two-edged sword however, in that a single person has the ability to promulgate error, whether by design or unwittingly. That so many of us use it to inform ourselves opens up the possibility that a published error goes very far indeed in a short time.
With that in mind, I’d like to address the content of an article written by Deacon Jim Russell, posted at Creative Minority Report titled ‘Live Action, Lying, and the Catechism: Why a Good Catholic Can Support an Undercover Apostolate’. As a priest – and especially as a confessor – this elicited a terrible sinking sensation in my gut as I read what is ultimately an exercise in twisting the intellect to reach several false conclusions, most especially the following:
- The truth is this: the Magisterium permits a faithful Catholic to embrace either the Augustine/Aquinas view (lying is always wrong)—a view that is referred to as the “common teaching of Catholic theologians”—OR the less rigorous view proposed by other saints, bishops, and theologians (that permit lying in special cases). A good Catholic can accept either one of these views.
- To summarize: the Catechism does not “elevate” the common teaching of Catholic theologians on lying in any way—thus good Catholics may take the view that not all “lying” so-called is morally wrong.
- But the primary goal here and now is to give reassurance to all Catholics that Live Action’s life-saving apostolate falls completely within what is considered morally permissible in the Catholic Church.
Before I get into why these points are false, and what the Church actually teaches, let me be very clear – this is not a personal attack on the author or the blog that hosted the article. My critique is not a judgment of a person or their intent (which only God can know & judge) but of the presentation of Church teaching (which we are capable of knowing and understanding).
What the Church teaches
This is the simplest part of this whole matter is the point that is minimized and overlooked: that the Church clearly teaches on lying in the Catechism of the Catholic where it states what constitutes lying and the morality of lying:
CCC 2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.
CCC 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.
Make no mistake, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not simply a collection of theologians who happen to have a common opinion about the truth. It is in fact, much more authoritative as Pope John Paul explainedwhen it was released:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved 25 June last and the publication of which I today order by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion
One simple conclusion
So where does this lead us? Well, the short version is that the Church has spoken authoritatively on the value of lying – and found it wanting. How do we know this? From the first line of CCC 2485, that “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” To paraphrase, lying is intrinsically evil.
Conclusions by extension
Live Actions tactics, assuming they involve lying (and my understanding is that at least some of their video ‘stings’ do), are not morally acceptable. Their goals are admirable – any method that they employ involving lying is not, and can not be supported.
We as Catholics – from bloggers to lay apostolates to clergy online & offline – need to stop this madness of debating the value of lying. Lying is a sin – and the Church teaches this directly and explicitly. If we’re going to be faithful to what has been handed on to us by Christ, this is part of it. Its time to stop arguing and start figuring out how we can be better Catholics and effective evangelists without trying to use the tools of the enemy.
Mark Shea makes an excellent point about the culpability of those who would lead others into sin, especially grave sin. The long and short of it is that if a group is leading someone to commit a mortal sin, that leading action is itself gravely evil. And yes, that applies even if a) that person has done whatever mortal sin before or b) might do it again and c) even if you don’t actually go through with it. You don’t put a bottle of vodka in front of an alcoholic, tempt him into reaching for it and then pull it away without being guilty of sin, perhaps mortally so.
A final point of my own – isn’t it a terrible sign that pro-lifers would consider using the very tool that enables abortion? Abortion is built on the lies of ‘choice’, ‘not a baby’, and ‘safe, legal and rare’. Why would we who have claim to Truth Himself want to embrace any tactic that brought us closer to Father of Lies and distanced us from the Truth? Do we value Truth so little that it can be discarded when it becomes difficult?
Surely this is yet another aspect of taking up our cross. And I daresay that in Christ we have all we need to do just that.
Common responses I’ve seen on the internet
“But Father, but Father…..its not lying if….”
The Catechism clearly states what lying consists of. “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” (CCC 2483) Either an action fits that description or it doesn’t.
And honestly, who are we fooling when we start talking about how ‘it wasn’t really lying because…’? Has there ever been a good ending to that sentence? Our parents didn’t fall for it, your confessor isn’t going to buy it and God certainly sees what’s really going on.
“But Father, but Father….. what about those who don’t have the right to the truth?”
Hey, you’ve been reading the Catechism! It just so happens that this is addressed just shortly after lying is explained and then condemned. In CCC 2488 it says:
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.
Notice how not telling the truth (ie, keeping silent) is not equivalent to telling a lie. So don’t tell the truth to those who don’t have a right to it’s communication. Don’t lie either.
“But Father, but Father…..Aquinas, Augustine, Newman, Pope Pius XII, Pope Francis …..”
Please, stop. Yes, all of those people – and many, many other good, holy and even saintly people have done things or held positions of which the Church teaches against. Yes, they are better people than we are (or at least, than I am). And yet, their example is not the authoritative expression of Church teaching. If its not from the Church Herself (and please, no quibbling about a pope who isn’t acting ex cathedra, much less about his actions before he was pope), then its not authoritative.
Bonus points, by the way, if you recognize that we can say that someone of Aquinas’ or Pope Francis’ stature has sinned and yet still admire and love them. Welcome to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of sanctifying grace. God is really that good – and we should thank Him for it every single day.
“But Father, but Father….. Nazis!”
Sigh. Godwin’s Law, anyone?
More seriously, this is the common scenario that is raised in objection: you’re hiding a Jewish group in your home during the Nazi regime. They come to your door and demand to know if you’re hiding any Jews in your home.
First of all, let me say that this common scenario stinks. Can no one think of a single meaningful & significant example since World War II? And resorting to one of the most emotional and simultaneously distant examples possible? Debate fail.
Let’s go to a more relevant example: confession. You come to me and confess adultery. Or murder. Or viewing pornography. Or whatever your most embarrassing and shameful sin might be. And then you go off, absolved of your sins, happy as a clam and ready to join the likes of Saints Augustine & Aquinas, Blessed Newman and all the rest of those in the Beatific Vision.
Your wife comes up – or maybe your best friend, or your son, or your boss. And they, perhaps guessing or even knowing that you went to confession to me, would like to know about it. “Father, did my husband/best friend/son/employee commit adultery/murder/impurity?”
You think it doesn’t happen – directly put or indirectly asked? Think. Again. Most of the people who do this don’t even realize what they’re asking – or the occasion of sin they’re providing. Its usually not phrased directly, but believe me – its ask in a myriad of little ways, and often enough that a priest must be quite careful. And of course, its my grave responsibility to answer both without lying or breaking the seal of confession! The consequences, by the by, involve not only mortal sin on my part, but also excommunication if I break the seal – and sin also if I lie.
And you know what? Its just not that hard. Dodging the question (‘why would ask that?’), redirecting the conversation (‘is there something going on that we should talk about?’), flat out refusing to answer (‘lips are sealed, remember?’) – you learn stock lines and how to deliver them well. And make no mistake – I’ve got plenty of them that are more subtle than these! Because I must, because what’s at stake is the dignity of the people I serve, the integrity of the priesthood I’ve been given and the eternal salvation of my very soul. Telling the truth without breaking confidences? Please. Bring on the Nazis.
(Double bonus points if you recognize that this is a critique of the objective evil of lying, not a stance in judgment of those who have chosen to lie for whatever cause – say hiding Jews from Nazis. We have the power to know the good and evil value of acts no matter who they apply to – we can very rarely only know the weight of guilt of sin in the acts of others. But for me and my house….)
“But Father, but Father….. abortion!”
One word: proportionalism. Look it up, learn it and then avoid it.
You may never – ever – use an good goal to justify a evil act. Period. Lying is intrinsically evil. You can’t do it. And neither can I (see above example). That something is a great(er) good doesn’t make any evil less evil.
- I am of course aware that I am just as susceptible to this as any other. Which is why I will be referencing any assertions I make and relying on the authority of the Church’s teachings, rather than my own.↵
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition (current)↵
- On the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II↵
- In Defense of Live Action’s Goals, by Mark Shea↵
- Fighting Abortion by Just Means: It’s Right *and* Smart, by Mark Shea↵
- There is only one Lord of the Ring, only one who can bend it to his will. And he does not share power. (Gandalf, Lord of the Rings)↵
- According to Many of My Readers, This Person Should Have Been Lied to and Tempted to Sear Her Conscience Even More, by Mark Shea↵
- A caution re reading Bergoglio as a proto-Francis, by Dr. Edward Peters (“Moral of the story: Something about being pope forces men to approach issues not as intellectual exercises, both sides of which can be argued, but as articulations of the doctrines and disciplines of the universal Church. Rather more weighty.”)↵
- Godwin’s Law (Wikipedia)↵