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Faustian Bargains

Monday, February 21, 2011 2:55 AM Comments (310)

Well, I’d hoped (as you no doubt did) that I could put the Lila Rose controversy behind me.  But I continue to ponder the moral reasoning that has come to the fore with the advent of the campaign LiveAction has conducted against Planned Parenthood.  Let me reiterate, first and foremost, that I think the reward of the Hebrew midwives will (and should) be the reward of Lila Rose and her companions.  The big fact here, which must not get lost in all the hurly burly of argumentation, is that Lila Rose fears God and, like the Hebrew midwives, deserves the reward they received from God.  I fear that in all my talk-the-hind-leg-off-a-donkey verbiage about the specific question of lying for Jesus, that will be obscured.  Indeed, with the passage of the Planned Parenthood defunding bill, I feel gratitude, as much as anybody, for the well-timed blow that she landed against this monstrous organization.  Who cannot rejoice when the evil are brought low?

So let me say it up front.  My purpose is not to condemn Lila Rose (may God give us a million more like her) but rather to deal with (as my post tried to discuss on Friday) the many, many bad arguments swirling about the blogosphere which are being put forward to defend, not her fear of God, but lying. 

The question of the legitimacy of lying was dealt with a long time ago by St. Thomas.  Namely, “Is lying always a sin?”.  Much as I’d like to report that Thomas says, “Not in cases of life or death” the fact is, he answers in the affirmative: lying is always a sin.  I’d like to make the dodge, “Yeah, but he’s just one guy.”  The problem is the Church—always and everywhere in its magisterial teaching and even after the Holocaust—agrees with him.  That’s what “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned” (CCC 2485) means and that’s what “A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just” (CCC 1753) means. Indeed, St. Thomas specifically addresses the matter of lying in order to save the lives of innocent babies:

Objection 2. Further, no one is rewarded by God for sin. But the midwives of Egypt were rewarded by God for a lie, for it is stated that “God built them houses” (Exodus 1:21). Therefore a lie is not a sin.

Reply to Objection 2. The midwives were rewarded, not for their lie, but for their fear of God, and for their good-will, which latter led them to tell a lie. Hence it is expressly stated (Exodus 2:21): “And because the midwives feared God, He built them houses.” But the subsequent lie was not meritorious.


In exactly the same way, I cheer for Lila Rose in the hope and confidence that she will likewise receive abundant rewards for her fear of God.  But I also say that her lies are not meritorious.

To be sure, some folk are trying to figure out a way to say that lying isn’t really lying when you lie to bad people for Jesus.  Various stabs have been made at saying that since it’s not a lie to deflect, mislead, or evade when the Nazis show up looking for the Jews, it’s also not a lie to walk up to somebody you deem to be doing evil, and give a false name, occupation and purpose. According to this theory, you aren’t “leading people into error” (i.e. you aren’t lying to make money, gain power, take vengeance or teach a false conclusion like “Satan is God” but are instead trying to show that PP is evil and stop sex trafficking), so it’s not lying.  But this is as persuasive as saying it’s not lying to falsely claim you were miraculously healed of cancer in order to lead a gullible occultist out of his error and to the ultimate good end: Jesus the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Good ends don’t make lies into “not-lies” just because we are trying to do a good thing by lying.

What concerns me is that some people, faced with this, frankly and simply acknowledge that, yes, we are talking about lying—and they will go ahead and lie and cheer for Lila Rose when she lies too.  I empathize, of course.  My own view (which is steadily evolving as my opinions dash themselves against the rock of the Catechism) has, until recently, been much the same.  i still think “lying to Nazis” is not something I’m inclined to lose sleep over and is obviously a very venial sin.  But I am finding that “embracing consequentialism” is something to lose sleep over.  So when the esteemed and justly admired Dr. Gerard Nadal, writes 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.

...it gives me pause.  For what (pardon the pun) lies behind this is the notion that, well, sometimes God just forces you to lie by putting you in some situation where there is absolutely no other option.  But this is the same God who says “no lie is of the truth” (1 John 2:21) and whose Church teaches that lying is intrinsically immoral and that “by its nature” it is to be condemned.  That gives me even greater pause, especially when James warns against the dodgy claim that God forces us into situations where we just have to sin against Him because “it’s the right thing to do”.  That’s why he says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.” (James 1:13-15).  Sinning is never the right thing to do and lying is always a sin.  Sorry, but that’s what the Church teaches.

Which leaves us where?  Well, the first thing it leaves us with is a choice.  One can say, “The hell with all this theology stuff. I’ll just lie in a life or death pinch.”  The problem is that lying, says Holy Church, is intrinsically immoral (CCC 1753).  One can alternatively say, “I must keep my prissy conscience pure by telling the SS where the Jews are hiding.  Thousands of innocents may die, but I will go to my grave knowing that I am way more moral than the common herd.”  That is both immoral and insane, not to mention narcissistic and evil.

But these do not exhaust our options.  For one can also note that, in our panic about being accused of idiotic callousness toward innocent victims we have failed to notice that the notion that lying will save the Jews from the Nazis is dubious to start with.  In other words “Lie or die!” is a false dilemma. Does anybody think that if I lie, the Gestapo will say, “Oh! Okay! Sorry to bother you! Have a nice day!” and not look in the attic anyway? Clearly the *real* trick is not to lie well but to *hide your Jews well*. Then you can say, “Look for yourself”, offer the Nazi a nice cup of tea, and speed him on his way with a “Seig Heil” without rousing suspicion, looking sweaty and guilty, and having to remember what you said.  In short, a little forethought about what is morally permissible can actually help you do a better job of protecting your wards than just seat-of-the-pants “Let’s lie!” gut responses.  Does this cover every possible situation? I doubt it.  But it tends to get overlooked in the rush to create the dilemma for the sake of defending Lying for Jesus. 

Why does this point matter?  A couple of reasons.

First, though it seems like hair splitting, there really is a reason the tradition permits deception, but forbids lying, just as there is really a reason it permits NFP but condemns artificial contraception: namely the latter means do violence to nature but the former do not. Once you open up the floor to “You *can* do something intrinsically immoral that good may come of it”, it’s katie-bar-the-door.  There’s no bottom.  Add in the vigilante factor and you have a formula for lawlessness that will do a lot more than just trouble Planned Parenthood.  It will give license to zealous teens who suspect the pastor is gay to stash cell phones in his bedroom and post what they film on Youtube.  it will give Christian spouses the right to lie to each other and spy on each other in order to get bigger settlements (which they will call “justice”) in divorce court.  Students will feel licensed to lie to teachers so that the subsequent Youtube, in which the student’s lies provoke an angry response from the teacher, can be posted to “prove” that the teacher is unfit for duty and should be sacked.  There is literally a world of possibilities for Christians to lie to people they decide don’t deserve the truth and must be exposed by “citizen journalism”. The genie will not stay in the bottle once you grant that lying is not intrinsically immoral or that (which is the same thing) you can lie to anybody you deem unworthy of the truth.  Indeed, given fallen human nature, it’s not really very hard to foresee that Vigilantes for Jesus will soon feel morally permitted to lie, not only to, but about their targets if they can’t get the dirt on them they are certain must exist.

Second, the leap (and it is a leap) from the (ahem) Lying Dutchman to Lila Rose and Lying for Jesus is huge and the prolife movement is going to find itself in the role of Evel Kneivel halfway across the Grand Canyon with no parachute, plummeting to a Wile E. Coyote destiny as a puff of smoke on the canyon floor if we keep insisting that because a desperate man 70 years ago can be excused for lying in a pinch, we can therefore use him as a template for creating an entire campaign of Vigilante Lying for Jesus with premeditation.  We can’t.  We have leisure to work stuff out in our spare time.  We are responsible to use our heads, not to confine ourselves to imagining that everywhere and always it is Holland 1941 and that we are free to seek out and lie to anybody we think is a bad person.

Third, though I generally share John Zmirak’s tendency to regard mental reservation as the Catholic term of art for Bovine Excretions, I also note that Jesus nonetheless appears to have practiced it (“I am not [yet] going up to the feast” John 7:8).  Indeed, if that’s not a classic picture of a mental reservation, then I don’t know what is. Though, perniciously, this and other passages tend to suddenly turn up in conversations about the morality of lying, not to suggest that mental reservation is legitimate, but to suggest that even Jesus told white lies, so it’s no big deal if we do too.  To wit:

Do you think Jesus lied when he said, “However, no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.”  Because obviously, the Eternally Begotten Son of God knows when things are going to happen.

Such questions are, I think, deeply sinister when jammed sideways into a discussion of the morality of lying because they bid fair to metastasize the rationalizing from “It’s okay for Christians to lie sometimes” (which is already dubious and contrary to Church teaching) to “Jesus told lies too” (which is, you know, blasphemy).  To massively understate things, I have a feeling you’ll have a tough time getting the Church to acknowledge that Jesus was a liar.  God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

But (returning to the main point),  I note that not just Jesus practices mental reservation.  In fact, all normal people practice mental reservation when asked “Does this dress make me look fat?”  Ultimately, I think the main issue is not “What do you do in really pressing and dicey circumstances like Nazis at the door?” but “What is your habit of life?  Do you *constantly* talk as though you are full of crap like Bill Clinton carefully parsing the meaning of “is” or do you make it a habit to be plain spoken and honest?”  I have no big problem with Athanasius telling the cops who were looking for him “He is not far from here.”  In fact, I rather enjoy that reply.  But I have *grave* misgivings about the prolife movement embracing, as a core pillar of its thought, the new enthusiasm for actively running around and lying to people we deem unworthy of the truth.  If we clasp that to our bosom we will be indistinguishable from Muslim apologists for taqiyya.  Jesus does not need us to lie for him.  The Light of the World is not another taqiyya sunrise.

Fourth, a huge part of what concerns me is summed up in this little exchange from my comboxes:

Posted by Anonymous on Saturday, Feb 19, 2011 11:25 PM (EST):

I had way too much caffeine today so my brain is sort of ricocheting off the inside of my skull, but I need to get this off my chest so I’m just going to post it here and then change my identity.

Here goes:  in my heart of hearts, I feel like the people who say that what Live Action did is wrong, or is lying, are wimps and are just putting up an argument to make themselves feel better about not taking any real action against the greatest evil of our time. If two year olds were being torn limb from limb in the next room, I’m pretty sure I would do more than pretend to be someone I’m not.  I am ashamed that I don’t do more to end the evil of abortion.  Okay, I said it.

Posted by Kathy16670 on Saturday, Feb 19, 2011 11:40 PM (EST):

Anonymous, well stated.

And, there are plenty of Catholic Theologians who agree with you.


It’s a peculiar sort of courage to anonymize oneself for the purpose of recklessly calling others cowards.  I hope my readers will do me the kindness of giving the names of the many Catholic theologians who possess their gift of clairvoyance by which they know the personal histories of the critics of Lying for Jesus?  Please do tell me about how I, William Doino, Dawn Eden, the New Theological Movement bloggers, and the solidly orthodox priests and philosophers who have questioned LA’s tactics in these very comboxes and across St. Blog’s have “not taken any real action” against abortion.  I would like to share the fruits of my readers’ soul-reading with the folks I have supported and stood with at abortion clinics during 40 Days for Life, not to mention the many prolifers troubled by Lying for Jesus who have made great sacrifices and worked for years on behalf of the unborn.

Or do my readers mean that 40 Days for Life is not taking any *real* action and that means which do not involve lying (you know, prayer, fasting, sacrifice, political and cultural resistance, including civil disobedience, education, etc.) are worthless and Lying for Jesus is suddenly the only *real* way to go?

Those are the words of stampeding panic, a kind of moral giddiness, not reasoned moral discourse.  It’s one of the many reasons I am filled with increasing foreboding as more and more prolifers embrace Lying for Jesus as the New Hotness and spit on boring old anti-abortion tactics as, how did they put it again? “not taking any real action.”

In sum, I greatly fear that Lying for Jesus is rapidly revealing itself as a classic Faustian Bargain.  C.S. Lewis once remarked that the devil is quite happy to concede a little ground if he can win the battle, to cure our chillblains if he can give us cancer.  Embarrassing PP for a few days—indeed, passing a defunding bill (good as that is)—is curing chillblains (for, of course, the bill will either die in the Senate or most certainly be vetoed by Obama) and our feel-good moment will pass. Embracing the notion that ordinary resistance to abortion is “not taking any real action” and that the prolife movement can only survive by Lying for Jesus is cancer.  Precisely the problem with placing our hopes on things the Church calls intrinsically immoral is that you tend to lose your soul and, as Screwtape gleefully notes, get nothing in return. In the same way, what is increasingly troubling to me is that the short term gain of Lila Rose’s action has been to temporarily embarrass Planned Parenthood (which I celebrate) and induce a sort of moral giddiness among prolifers. But the long term effect will be to give Planned Parenthood the extremely effective tool (already being deployed to good effect in their fundraising letters) of being able to say, “Now those evil prolifers are resorting to lies to attack us” and, as this very controversy demonstrates, is to transform the prolife movement into a huge number of people whose top priority is to staunchly defend the notion of Lying for Jesus.  Added Screwtapian bonus: while latching on to lying as the New Hotness more and more prolifers are speaking of those in their ranks with moral qualms about lying who support more traditional forms of resistance as contemptible Do Nothings, Pharisees and legalists. It’s only going to end in disaster and sorrow, I fear.

One last point.  Passions tend to run high on this and it’s easy for people to break into factions.  I’ve watched in horror on Facebook and in comboxes as some people who agree with me have adopted the pose of the prophet Elijah and stridently denounced anybody who even slightly disagrees as a “cafeteria Catholic” and worse.  I’ve seen people say absurd things of Peter Kreeft (whose sandals I am unworthy to untie) like “I’ve read some of his books with what I thought was profit to myself and have used one of them as instructional material in RCIA instruction.  Now I wonder if I can trust anything he says.”  And, conversely, I’ve gotten hate mail from folks suggesting or saying that I am not merely mistaken, but an evil Pharisee and legalist secretly bent on supporting Planned Parenthood, destroying the Church, and killing the unborn.  And so forth.

Some perspective.  Everybody involved in this discussion—Lila Rose, Peter Kreeft, Dawn Eden, William Doino, The New Theological Movement, Frank Beckwith, Fr. Pavone, John Zmirak, Christopher Tollefson and the host of prolife Catholics chewing over this problem—are friends of the unborn, serious disciples of Jesus Christ and lovers of the Catholic Faith.  We all want what’s best for both the Church and the unborn. Hurling epithets like “Pharisee” and “Cafeteria Catholic” or presuming malice instead of honest moral disagreement is destructive.  So: a word to those who agree with me: These matters are *hard*.  Everything is *not* cut and dried.  Those with grave misgivings about my points are good people, not fifth columnists bent on subverting the Church.  Peter Kreeft ended his essay (which I urge you to read) by saying, “I could be wrong.”  Permit me to say the same.  I could be wrong.  But I don’t think I am and I am therefore obliged to speak my conscience as best I can just as those who disagree with me are.  For that reason, I also ask those who disagree with me: cut some slack to those with moral qualms about lying and don’t presume we are stupid or evil.  If you feel compelled to make the Pavlovian charge of “Pharisee” to those troubled by Lying for Jesus bear in mind that the Pharisee you are attacking is, in my view, Paul, who has tart words for consequentialist reasoning: “But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.” (Romans 3:7-8).

I once asked a great man what to make of the fact that St. Thomas was wrong to reject the Immaculate Conception.  He told me, “Even Michael Jordan misses layups sometimes.”  That great man was Peter Kreeft.  He taught me the all-important lesson that just because somebody makes a mistake doesn’t mean that he is either bad or totally unreliable.  I think Dr. Kreeft makes a bad argument.  I think so for two reasons: First, because in discussing the morality of lying, he (mysteriously to me) consults Thomas’ teaching on torture, but not Thomas’ teaching on lying, which says “Lying is always sinful”.  Indeed, he specifically eschews discussion of what the definition of lying even is.  As Scott P. Richert pointed out to me:

The problem with Kreeft’s piece can be found right here:

On some other occasion I may take the time to argue logically against the serious arguments of the pro-life critics of Live Action, and about the proper definition of ‘lying.’”

The more than 2,000 words that he writes from that point on are essentially irrelevant, because he has stated that he does not intend to take up the only question that really matters in this discussion.

Second, while Dr. Kreeft exhibits the healthy Thomistic respect for ordinary human common sense, he simply ignores the fact that part of what revelation does is augment and provide course corrections to our fallen human reason: corrections like “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.”  In this, his argument resembles greatly John Zmirak’s statement in the comboxes here last week:

the new Catechism makes no claim, on its own, to teach infallibly (though where it repeats previously defined doctrines and dogmas, it participates in their authority), and the result is something of a mess.

So we should follow our moral instincts, and realize that Augustine wasn’t infallible (he placed unbaptized infants in Hell), nor was Aquinas (he allowed for torturing suspects but not deceiving them), nor were the editors of the new Catechism.

Here’s a simple test: If someone presents to you as the “teaching of the Church” something so repugnant that it MAKES YOU CONSIDER LEAVING THE CHURCH, it probably ISN’T the teaching of the Church.


The startling notions that 1) the Catechism is *not* the teaching of the Church, 2) teaching which is in a state of development can be safely blown off as “a mess”, 3) the Catechism, Augustine and Aquinas (not to mention a ton of other theological authorities who insist lying is intrinsically immoral) can all be ignored in favor of our instincts, and 4) teaching which you find personally repugnant is therefore in all likelihood not authentic Christian teaching is something I cannot, for the life of me, tell apart from Anne Rice’s reasoning for dumping Church teaching. 

After all, the Church’s teaching on how to regard the phenomenon of homosexuality is in flux too.  Can she therefore declare it a mess and trust her moral instinct that homosexual acts are actually just fine?  If it’s just a matter of trusting gut instinct over things I find repugnant or troubling, then I doubt I’m alone in saying that I find yesterday’s gospel reading about loving one’s enemies (meaning Osama bin Laden, Ted Bundy—who nearly slaughtered a cousin of mine—child rapists, and the Green River Killer), deeply repugnant. The disciples in John 6 found the Bread of Life discourse deeply repugnant (“This is a hard saying!  Who can hear it?”).  Many find the teaching that abortion is wrong, even in cases of rape and incest, to be repugnant.  Others find the idea that it is anybody’s business who marries who to be repugnant.  Others find it repugnant that the Church forbids those in loveless marriages to ditch their spouse and marry the Love of Their Life.  Others find it repugnant that Bp. Olmsted won’t allow abortions for dangerous pregnancies.  Others find repugnant the notion that only men can be ordained.  Still others find repugnant the notion that a quadriplegic who just wants to die should be denied the blessing of a mercy killing.  Lots of people have, in fact, left the Church over these and other areas.  Indeed, Dr. Zmirak has ably written a fine and hilarious book (The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins.  Read it!) which is all about how Catholic moral teaching is Jesus’ way of spoiling the fun of just going on our natural gut instincts. Jettisoning Aquinas, Augustine, the Catechism and an army of theological authorities who speak with one voice on the question of whether lying is intrinsically immoral in favor of gut instinct seems to me to be an epically bad argument that flings the door open to a host of catastrophic side effects.

But (mark this) though I think Drs. Kreeft and Zmirak make bad arguments in this case, I think they are—like St. Thomas rejecting the Immaculate Conception—great men making bad arguments.  Indeed, I think all the people I mention above are great people in whose company I am not worthy to sit.  I also think several of them are wrong on this point.  It does not follow that they are wrong about everything, untrustworthy, bad, etc.  I love them as brothers and, particularly in Dr. Kreeft’s case, as mentors—and I remain the loyal opposition who pledges them my prayers and beseeches theirs and the prayers of all people of good will.

“Be kind to everyone you meet.  For everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” - St. Ephraim the Syrian

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory will swell when again touched as surely they will be by the better angels of our nature.” - Abraham Lincoln

PS. Joe Grabowski has a fine and sober analysis of the argument here.

Filed under consequentialism on parade

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.