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Augustine vs. the Priscillianists

02/23/2011 Comments (321)

My esteemed friend and colleague Steven Greydanus remarks:

The rubric “Lying for Jesus” seems unnecessarily glib and dismissive. Granted the gap between a straightforward self-defense rationale for deceptive falsehood and Live Action’s more complicated deception, I would object to a critic of the Church’s nuanced definition of stealing with respect to the owner’s “reasonable will” using the rubric “Stealing For Jesus.” Ditto self-defense / just-war theory and “Murder (or even Killing) For Jesus.”

I appreciate the concern about this and can only say that I honestly have no intention of being flip, glib, or dismissive here.  Nor, by the way, was my mention of Screwtape the other day intended to somehow imply that those who disagree with me are in league with Old Scratch any more than Jesus means to say that Peter is satanic (Matthew 16:23).  Rather, my point, as with Jesus’ words to Peter, is to warn that Satan is seductive and none of us, least of all me, immune from his wiles.  We wrestle not with flesh and blood, but with powers and principalities, etc.  So I am, in fact, trying to be exact with my language.  I deeply believe that the seductive idea the devil dearly wants us to buy into is Lying for Jesus.  I believe this for three reasons.

First: see if this scenario sounds familiar.  There is a growing movement whose dangerous error is insinuating itself into society and bringing (spiritual) death to many innocent people.  Fear and anger spread as decent Catholic folk find that God doesn’t seem to be answering their prayers to quell the menace.  Finally, somebody says, “We need to take radical action and infiltrate the group in order to expose what they are doing.  We are AT WAR!  And precious souls are at risk if we don’t take radical action NOW!  I’m not going to stand around quibbling about a few little lies while innocent lives are facing a horrible fate!”

That was the situation—in the fourth century—when the Priscillianist heretics were endangering, not bodies, but souls and leading them (as Catholics believed) to the everlasting fires of Hell.  So as the heresy grew and Catholics got desperate, somebody proposed lying about their identity and purpose in order to infiltrate the group, expose the lies, and “lead people out of error”.  Here is what St. Augustine did:

“I wrote a book Against Lying, the occasion of which work was this. In order to discover the Priscillianist heretics… it seemed to certain Catholics that they ought to pretend themselves Priscillianists, in order that they might penetrate their lurking places. In prohibition of which thing, I composed this book.” - St. Augustine

I call it Lying for Jesus because I cannot, for the life of me, see the slightest difference between Lila Rose lying to infiltrate Planned Parenthood and Augustine’s flock wanting to lie to infiltrate a heretical group.

Augustine knew (as we admit in *every* other situation where somebody walks up and lies about their identity, occupation and purpose) that this is lying, not “enhanced dialogic strategy” or whatever we want to call it. Indeed, propose to the average person in their simplicity the question, “Is it okay for undercover cops to lie about their identity?” and he will not say “Undercover cops aren’t lying about their identity.” He will say, “Undercover cops are lying about their identity for a good purpose.” So yeah. We’re talking about lying, just as discussions of waterboarding are discussions about torture and not about “enhanced interrogation”.

Second, I believe we are talking about lying because “lying” is the word that defenders of Live Action use to describe what they are defending.  In other words, I am not unfairly putting the word “lying” into people’s mouths when they are actually saying something else. As I noted on Monday, Gerard Nadal makes that abundantly clear by stating frankly:

“If some modern-day SS were looking for our family with murderous intent, would any of us lie to save them? Or would we watch them all get slaughtered?

I’d lie; and if that so offended the majesty of God so as to cut me off from Him for all eternity, then He’s not the God I was raised to believe in.”

 
Likewise, Peter Kreeft says,

If lying is always wrong, then it is wrong to lie to a nuclear terrorist (the “ticking time bomb” scenario) to elicit from him where he hid the nuclear bomb that in one hour will kill millions if it is not found and defused. The most reasonable response to the “no lying” legalist here is “You gotta be kidding”—or something less kind than that. Thomas Aquinas said that even torture is sometimes justified; in emergency situations like that; if torture, then a fortiori lying.

So, once again, it is Drs. Kreeft and Nadal who use the word “lying”.  I’m just quoting them.  But (and this is my third point) they use it in the middle of long defenses of the proposition that Christians, in fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ, not only may but must concede that lying in order to defend the unborn is legitimate and that, if we don’t grant this, we are “morally stupid” according to Dr. Kreeft. In short, they are defending Lying for Jesus.

In addition, I would be remiss if I did not note, by the way, Dr. Kreeft’s argument is, with all due respect, a bad argument. For while Dr. Kreeft does cite Thomas on torture, he does not consult St. Thomas on lying, with the unfortunate effect of appearing to affirm St. Thomas’ teaching on torture [which the developed teaching of the Magisterium rejects as intrinsically immoral], while ignoring his teaching on lying, which the Magisterium—and the whole of the Catholic tradition—affirms: namely, that lying is, you guessed it, intrinsically immoral.  Beyond this, Dr. Kreeft simply says, “Go with your intuition” and simply ignores what the Church says about lying.  Now I’m quite happy to affirm along with Kreeft and Thomas that our natural moral intuitions are an important touchstone for forming our consciences.  But I am astonished that Dr. Kreeft simply pays no attention to the fact that revelation exists to augment and purify our fallen human moral sense.  After all, fallen human reason, unaided by revelation, says not “Love your enemy” but kill your enemy, preferably as slowly and painfully as possible if, like Ted Bundy (who nearly slaughtered my cousin—true story), you deem him to be a piece of human debris unfit to use up space.  With a moral sense that badly in need of the help of revelation and grace, I cannot for the life of me understand why Dr. Kreeft makes no inquiry in to the Church’s teaching on the matter of lying but simply commends us to unaided moral instinct.

Now eventually, people are going to have to face three facts:

1) we really are talking about lying (as Augustine, and Drs. Kreeft and Nadal make extremely clear);

2) lying really is intrinsically immoral (as the Catechism makes extremely clear), and;

3) the tradition has always said this.

And, indeed, some are facing that fact.  However, when we realize that the Catechism really is saying what it says about an error we have been attempting to defend, that is not the end of the discussion, for we are still faced with a choice.  We can say, “Okay.  I’m wrong.  Lying is intrinsically immoral” (as I have had the unpleasant duty of doing) and proceed from that day forward forming our thinking in light of the Church’s teaching on that point. Or we can say, as someone recently wrote me, “If lying is always wrong, then what Lila Rose did was not lying.”  That is, we can continue the attempt to justify something the Church condemns by calling it something else.  If so, we begin a fresh effort generate euphemisms for lying, just as discussions about the intrinsic immorality of abortion turned to euphemisms (“fetal material”) and the discussion of torture did likewise (“enhanced interrogation”). There’s a sort of inevitability to it as the human urge to rationalize kicks in. It’s just the way things go in these kinds of discussions.  But the fact remains that such an approach to moral analysis, applied liberally, will go a long way toward emptying our confessionals by euphemizing all manner of sin. (“If gluttony is a sin, then eating an entire chocolate cake is not gluttony but ‘celebration of creation’.”  “If fornication is a sin, then having sex outside marriage is not fornication but ‘incarnational sexuality’.” “If gossip is a sin, then whispering about the pastor’s visits to that cute blond’s house is not gossip but ‘concern’.” “If vengefulness is a sin, then running that guy off the road was not vengefulness but ‘citizen justice’.”)

Nonetheless, the fact remains, when we are talking about marching up to somebody and giving a fake name, occupation and purpose, we are not talking about mere “legitimate deceit” like hiding the Jews well and saying, “Look for yourself!”.  We are talking about lying, just as Drs. Kreeft and Nadal insist we are.  And when I see the exact parallel between what Augustine is talking about and what enthusiasts for LA are talking about, I find it, as Augustine did, impossible to disagree with Drs. Nadal and Kreeft.  Like them and Augustine, I describe the act as lying and the rationalizations for it as rationalizations for lying. Indeed, the irony of the situation, from my end, is that I honestly feel that I would be lying not to call it Lying for Jesus. (So there’s a moral conundrum to tax some Jesuit’s brain. :)) Given this, as well as the normative use of language about lying in all other situations where we are not making strained excuses for Live Action, I think the burden of proof is not on me to demonstrate that LA’s tactics are lying, but on the defender of LA to show that this is not lying—and I think the attempt is obviously doomed.  Augustine certainly thought such actions to be lying and, frankly, so do all ordinary people, so far as I can tell, whenever anybody else walks up to them and gives them a false name, occupation and purpose.  Bottom line: When even the defenders of LA like Drs. Nadal and Kreeft call it lying, it’s lying.  And the Church says, “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.”

That said, let me note something else.  I got the Augustine quote from Joe Grabowski, a formidible Catholic thinker who posted it on his Facebook page. Somebody responded to him:

Do you equate investigating heretics with abortion?

I find that fascinating.  For, of course, what that question signals is one of the essential differences between modernity and antiquity: the notion that the death of the body is of far graver import than the death of the soul.  Augustine and his flock took it for granted that the Second Death was a far greater thing to fear than the first death.  They believed Jesus when he said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  So Augustine felt keenly (as his flock did) the danger posed by heretics and the urgent desire to protect people from them.  On this score, it was as real a temptation to lie for a good end to the Priscillianists as lying to Planned Parenthood is for us.

We don’t feel that temptation when it comes to heresy.  Priscillianists are, for us, some dusty footnote in the Catholic Encyclopedia.  So we moderns can, with cool heads, say “Augustine’s right.  You can’t lie in order to defeat heretics.  The weapons of our warfare are truth, etc.”  After all, heresy’s not *that* big a deal to us.  So we don’t feel his flock’s sense of panicky urgency that something desperate has to be done NOW and if it means cutting moral corners to fight the threat of heresy, then so be it.

But, in our own time, we are saying exactly the same thing about lying to people at Planned Parenthood as some in Augustine’s flock said about lying to Priscillianists, because we worry much more about the first death than the second.  Augustine looks across the ages at us with a similarly cool head and says, “You cannot lie for Jesus.  You can’t do it to save bodies and you can’t do it to save souls.”  He doesn’t attempt to pretend that the Priscillianists (or Planned Parenthood folks) can be lied to because “they aren’t entitled to the truth”.  He doesn’t say lying to the Priscillianists is not leading them into error but back to the Faith, so it’s not really lying.  He (and the entire Catholic moral tradition) says, “Do not lie.”

Moral: The notion that this stuff is new, as though grave dangers to body and soul began with the Holocaust or Planned Parenthood, is one of the many ways our culture demonstrates its innocence of history.  There has, in fact, never been a time when people have not felt the temptation to lie for a good cause.  And there has never been a time when the Church has not said, “You can’t do that.” 

One final note: as I mentioned the other day, I think that, in the end, Lying for Jesus, like all consequentialist thinking, is a Faustian Bargain.  This has everything to do with why the Church warns of intrinsically immoral acts.  Many people seem to have the notion that when the Church says something is intrinsically immoral it is often just arbitrarily deciding that something is “wrong” as a child randomly decides that stepping on a sidewalk crack is “wrong”.  That is, such folk don’t really believe lying is, you know, wrong wrong, like murder or rape.  it’s just… church wrong because some theologian a long time ago had a weird scruple about it and we have to play along (until things get serious, in which case we need to brush aside the unrealistic theologians in their ivory towers and let gritty practical men take over and do the thing that needs done (which isn’t really, you know, wrong wrong and is, in desperate circumstances, actually the Right Thing to Do—so emphatically Right in fact that not to see this is to be, in Dr. Kreeft’s words, “morally stupid”.) 

But, in fact, the reason the Church warns against intrinsic immorality is because, in the end, intrinsically immoral acts, in addition to being wrong, don’t work because an intrinsically immoral act is a Faustian Bargain proposed to us by the Seducer who said, “Hath God *really* said you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?  What a strange arbitrary rule!  And here you could have all this Wisdom and be like God if it weren’t for that absurd arbitrary rule that is hindering you from doing the good that so desperately needs to be done.  Break free and find your true happiness!” 

As our First Parents discovered, such Faustian Bargains never give us something in exchange for our soul.  They always, in the end, give us nothing in exchange for our soul.  The good thing we hope to gain by cutting corners turns to ashes and we are left with the devil’s laughter.  It’s a lesson we could learn from a dozen Twilight Zone episodes if not from the Church.  So, for instance, in these debates, we speak often of the legendary Lying Dutchman who is to be revered for lying to the Nazis. He is (we are told) the great trump card to the assertion that you cannot sin that good may come of it and the proof that, sometimes, you can “do the right thing” by sinning.  Indeed, as we have seen some have attempted to make the same case that Pius XII “did the right thing” by allegedly forging baptismal certificates.  In reality, he did not do this and, in fact, the Vatican urged clergy not do this for both moral and prudential reasons. Did this make Pius a Do Nothing Pharisee and prissy Legalist as critics of Lying for Jesus so frequently get labeled?  On the contrary, he saved thousands.  In the same way, Brandon Watson points out a neglected fact:

We don’t have to speculate in the abstract about what good and decent people do about lying in the Nazi-at-the-door scenario. We have accounts by these Amsterdam householders of the moral dilemmas they faced in this context, e.g., in the works of Corrie ten Boom; many of them were pious Dutch Calvinists, who were at least as strongly convinced that lying is wrong as Tollefsen. As such, they did not take the consequences automatically to justify them. Some of them refused outright to lie. Many lied but took themselves to be doing the right thing in a morally defective way, and they asked Christ for forgiveness for that defect and admired those rare souls who were able to face the same circumstances without having to stain themselves with a lie. Others did not know for sure whether they had done something that was strictly wrong, but stilled prayed to Christ to forgive them if they had. (All three of these would be legitimate options for Catholics in the same place.) And this was bound up in the very reasons why they were hiding Jews in the first place: it was the very same sterling characters that were often behind both their acceptance of the dangers of hiding Jews and their refusal merely to accept the rightness of a lie.

Did some embrace consequentialism and simply sign off on the notion that sometimes sinning is the “right thing to do”?  To be sure. Consequentialism is as alive and well in Holland as it is here.  But that’s the problem: for it can well be argued that, in the end, Hitler has had the last laugh in Holland), which has embraced consequentialism with a passion and, as a result, is now carrying out the work of euthanasia, abortion, and apostasy from the faith with a zeal of which Hitler would be proud.  That’s the thing about intrinsic evil: it corrupts.  Some Catholics will tend to say of venial sin (which lying in such a situation is, though rescuing Jews is not) not that it’s sin, but that it’s virtuous “in certain circumstances”. That, right there, is the germ of the cancer. The reality of our tradition is that “venial sin” does not mean “Go ahead and do it, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, if it’s for a good cause” but rather “This is the gateway drug to addiction to evil.”  And, indeed, sweetened by the memory of very real valor, it becomes extremely difficult to taste the poison of consequentialism wrapped in (perfectly just) national pride over a glorious chapter in Dutch history.  But the poison goes to work nonetheless.  A once thriving Catholic culture adopts ends-justify-the-means thinking and, decades later, Holland is a spectacular living laboratory for demonstrating the corrosive power of this moral heresy. It ain’t 1941 any more and the festering cancer of consequentialism in Dutch culture is rank and killing bodies and souls at a good clip.

In a similar way, my concern is that the seductive logic of Lying for Jesus will likewise reap us the whirlwind in the long run, whatever the short term gain might be.  For after the thrill of watching Planned Parenthood humiliated for nine days or so and the fun of watching the House talk about defunding them, then what?  Then the bill dies in the Senate or gets vetoed by the Prez.  They keep their Fed monies.  But in addition to the Fed monies they get a special bonus courtesy of our consequentialism: Planned Parenthood can now send out howling fundraiser pleas to the pro-abortion faithful shrieking that those evil prolifers are lying and committing fraud, thereby generating increased donations and making them richer and more powerful than ever.  End result: we embrace the festering cancer of consequentialism and get weaker; they get richer and more powerful: a perfect Faustian Bargain. The Catholic moral tradition—including its absolute prohibition on lying—is the cure for the cancer of consequentialism, the best way to defeat Murder Inc.—and the best prophylactic against the seduction of the Faustian Bargain.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.