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.
My post the other day has generated a boatload of questions, comments and concerns. I can’t address absolutely everything, but there are several main questions that come up which I think it is worth playing whack-a-mole on (though, as “whack-a-mole” suggests, they are hardy perennials that lots of people seem to raise again and again, usually because they’ve never thought about it). In no particular order, here are some random thoughts about some of these moles.
First, isn’t it interesting how things that appear to be “elementary” moral teaching (“Don’t lie”) suddenly get complex when it’s Us and not Them who are pondering the problem. Case in point, not long ago we were all being told how peculiarly immoral Muslims were for their concept of Taqiyya or lying in defense of some sacred truth and how almost inhumanly different these barbarians are from us good Christian folk. Now we are rediscovering once again the ancient problem (common to all the great ethical monotheistic traditions) of trying to square the plain words against lying with the real world problem of how to speak the truth in a world that can visit horrendous punishment on honest people and their loved ones. Remember this discussion that next time you are tempted to harshly judge some Muslim who thinks you can lie in a good cause. We’re not so very different after all.
Second, please remember that the question I have been trying to treat is simply and solely the morality of lying in a good cause, not the question of whether Lila Rose, undercover cops, spies, wartime strategists, and husbands who don’t give forthcoming answers to “Does this dress make me look fat?” are going to hell. I take it for granted that a) there are all sorts of levels of gravity and culpability in lying and that the overwhelming number of lies we tell are fibs and white lies, not huge and grave ones.
Third, I’m still thinking this one through and I’m not entirely happy. But I don’t see how to avoid the conclusion that lying is, in fact, intrinsically immoral given that the Church says it is (CCC 2485 “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.”) The whole point of having a Magisterium is not that it is right where we are right, but that it is right where we are wrong. “By its very nature” means what it means, whether I like it or not.
Fourth, comparisons of Lila Rose’s sting to war or police work break down because, well, this is not war or police work. It’s not war because you are not authorized to spray your local Planned Parenthood center with machine gun fire, shoot bazookas into the offices of their national headquarters, or bomb the government institutions that fund them. You are a citizen. So are they. Your government has not declared war on them. No troops have been drafted to fight them. If you do take it upon yourself to shoot one of them, you will rightly and properly be arrested, charged with murder in the first degree, and jailed. Do not mistake metaphor for reality. For the same reason, comparisons with the cops don’t fly. The state had a right to arrest, detain, try and even execute Lee Harvey Oswald. That doesn’t mean that Jack Ruby does.
So, for instance comparisons of Lila’s tactic with ruses in war ignore the fact that ruses in war presuppose spying by the enemy. That is, they presuppose the attempt by an enemy to gain access to information to which he has no right. Depriving the enemy of information to which he has no right is not the same thing as lying, just as my refusal to share with you the contents of my last confession is not a violation of your rights. Lying is, as it were, aggressive. If I seek you out for the express purpose of telling you a falsehood, that’s a different thing than leading you to think something that you are already set on thinking (as, for example with the use of phony tanks to feed Nazi photographers misleading info, etc.) This is part of what bothers me about the tactics deployed against PP. Lila Rose went to them and, well, lied. They didn’t come to her demanding information to which they were not entitled.
As to the morality of police stings and lying in wartime, I am still frankly conflicted. My instinct is to say “They’re fine” but my instinct is not the measure of all things. Our culture’s absolute favorite moral heresy is consequentialism and I am highly distrustful of our tendency to err in favor of this heresy rather than against it. The extreme ease with which many American Catholics view even the use of torture and atomic mass murder for a good end as just ducky does not persuade me we are likely to be thinking clearly when it comes to much lesser (but still intrinsically immoral) means such as lying.
Fifth, please do not muddy the waters and poison the wells with absurd claims that somebody who expresses concern about the morality of lying for a good end is more worried about Lila Rose taking on a cover than about PP employees systematically covering up sexual abuse. I merely am saying that Lila Rose lying is not the way to end the monstrous evil of Planned Parenthood because, as Holy Church says, “CCC 1753 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.”
Sixth, comparisons of Lila’s sting to acting break down because acting (like fiction writing) is a particular kind of speech act in which both parties agree that the speech being spoken is pretend, not real. If I portray a character on the stage or in a film, I’m not lying to you because the credits say, “Mark Shea as Innocent Smith”. If I come to your house, tell you I’m Innocent Smith, vacuum cleaner salesman, and gain entry so that I can snoop around and photograph your property without your permission, I am lying to you.
Seventh, Lila Rose’s claim that she is justified in lying about her identity, occupation and purpose because she “represents” underage girls abused by Planned Parenthood is a formula for vigilante chaos unless she can show that she has power of attorney for the people she assumes the mantle of representing. I could just as easily announce that anything I write in this space “represents” the belief of all my readers. As my grandmother said, “Your sayin’ so don’t make it so.” Further, even if she did have actual legal claim to represent somebody, that would still not give her the right to mispresent herself by lying about her identity, occupation and purpose.
Eighth, those who are looking for some sort of ironclad dogmatic ruling from the Church on the general problem of what, precisely constitutes lying in every conceivable situation will wait long. From what I can tell, the Church has not made up its mind about how to apply its teaching about lying in every conceivable case, and you can get a real good argument among theologians about what, exactly, constitutes lying. My remarks on this represent a “good faith effort” to apply the Catechism’s teaching and are still, in part, provisional. I suspect that if you put a roomful of bishops together to chew this one over, you’d not get a monolithic verdict. That does not mean it’s impossible for us to come to any conclusions here. It means that the Church expects us to have the sense God gave a goose thinking these things through, not to pretend that every act not formally condemned by a papal encyclical—(“Pope releases formal statement condemning Mark Shea for eating bagel he knew his wife was saving for lunch”)—is opaque to our capacity for moral reasoning.
Ninth, another thing I note is that the speed with which a discussion has to hurry to remote hypotheticals (“Suppose you suffered from a rare condition which required you to wear a condom?” “What if you have an ectopic pregnancy caused by an incestuous rape and are dying of uterine cancer?” “What if you have the guy who planted the bomb under the orphanage in your custody and there’s ONLY FIFTEEN MINUTES TILL THE BOMB GOES OFF?????” “Suppose the NAZIS ARE AT YOUR VERY DOOR WITH THEIR CHINESE TORTURER FRIENDS AND YOU’VE ONLY JUST HAD TIME TO HIDE SWEET POLLY PUREBREAD IN YOUR CUPBOARD????”) is generally a sign of how desperate somebody is to justify something the Church condemns. That makes me very nervous.
Hard cases make extremely bad law. And desperate scenarios tend to make bad reality. Now to be sure, it’s only when it comes to the specific question of lying to Planned Parenthood (or “lying for Jesus” in general) that I have been directing my conclusion that it’s wrong and there’s no persuasive justification for it. Indeed, my views on the proverbial “lying to Nazis” issue are rather more nuanced. But since I don’t anticipate meeting many Nazis, I think it more profitable to deal with real world questions of lying for a good cause rather than remote hypothetical scenarios. Given the enormous popularity of consequentialism as the Number One Favorite Form of! Moral Heresy among Americans in general and Catholics in particular, I think it is best to emphasize the fact that lying is intrinsically immoral rather than to focus on remote hypotheticals that give Americans license to speed off in the direction they are already champing at the bit to go. Should the Nazis and their Chinese torturer buddies with the red hot pincers show up at the door looking for Sweet Polly Purebread who I have only just hidden in my cupboard, I would likely lie (not being able to think fast on my feet) and refer them to the non-existent cab she just drove off in, complete with license plate numbers and a convincing tale about her non-existent aunt’s house in Tacoma.
Still more, upon reflection, I reckon I would not be such an idiot as to assume that if I lie, the Gestapo would say, “Okay. Sorry to bother you. Have a nice day!”. So the real trick is not come up with a lie but to hide Sweet Polly Purebread very well. Then, instead of trusting to a lie to save her and me, I could simply say “Look for yourself!” in the confidence that my non-lying answer would in fact help to protect her by lending credibility to me while misleading her evil persecutors. So, while I’m willing to bet fibbin to Nazis is a venial sin, I’m even more willing to bet that I am eager to think all my lies are venial sins and to look for justifications for lying more than I am willing to look for ways to take seriously the Church’s teaching that lying is intrinsically immoral. I’m also willing to bet that a prolife movement that bets the farm on lionizing the use of lies for a good end is a prolife movement that will soon experience another James O’Keefe public relations catastrophe and have nobody but itself to blame since we were warned by the Church that lying is intrinsically immoral.
Tenth: you know that story about Pius XII or John XXIII making fake baptismal certificates to save Jews? Turns out it’s an urban legend. In fact, Rome urged clerics who were doing this to stop and find other ways to save Jews that didn’t involve lying. Pius XII was no slouch at saving Jews, by the way. At any rate, that what William Doino, who co-authored the piece with Dawn Eden and who is an expert on this writes me:
On the one hand, it is absolutely true that Pius XII urged and encouraged Roncalli to save Jews, as you can see in my commentary on this-quoting Roncalli’s assistant—in the anthology, The Pius War, of which I am the lead contributor:
On the other hand, there is no evidence of which I am aware—not a single statement, much less document—that shows Pius XII ever personally authorized his representatives, or anyone else, to lie or forge baptismal certificates in rescue operations (I have discussed this at length wit my Jesuit friends in Rome, in charge of Pius XII’s cause, and they concur
—that said, Pius XII was a fantastic rescuer, who DID enthusiastically instruct Catholic to rescue Jews by every possible MORAL means—that’s the key, moral-and they did, saving hundreds of thousands of persecuted Jews in the process. There were some rescuers among them who, out of doubtless good motives and intentions, forged baptismal certificates, which may or may not have helped in given circumstances (falsifying documents could also backfire, and lead to Nazi reprisals and even more death) but this was NOT authorized by Pius XII—-and as regards Roncalli, the latest and best evidence is that he did NOT utilize false baptismal certificates to rescue Jews, but rather immigration certificates and protective Vatican visas—a completely different thing, and this strategy was successful and fully endorsed by Pius XII: see the comments about that at this link here:
Eleventh: Yes, the Hebrew midwives, Rahab and Judith lied. Not only that, Israel slaughtered men, women, children and cattle in ancient semitic warfare. Care to appeal to that aspect of Old Testament morality while we’re at it? St. Thomas tells us (just like the Church today) that lying is always a sin. Honest. That’s what he says. Yes, he is nuanced in his approach (like I am) and recognizes that not all speech acts must be in conformity with flat-footed literalism. But he does not tell us “Bible characters are allow to lie and so are we.” He says:
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 short, he takes pretty much the pastoral approach that any sane confessor would by saying “No, it wasn’t right to lie, but they did the best they could in a pinch.”
Twelfth, one particularly confusing appeal to the Bible as a justification for lying ran this way:
“Were the Apostles who denied Jesus immoral or were they simply unable to summon courage from their faith at that desperate moment.”
This is a rather infelicitous way of trying to make the case that lying is just fine under certain circumstances. Were the apostles immoral cowards when they denied Jesus? Hell yes! And they felt the burning shame of it. That’s why Peter wept when the cock crowed. Trying to make the case for the morality of lying by appealing to the denial of Jesus as a precedent is like trying to make the case for the morality of murder by saying that Caiaphas’ judicial murder of Jesus ended well for us, so it’s all okay.
It is therefore a bit a of a shell game to suddenly introduce the radically different question (as my reader then did), “Will God punish them for denying Jesus on that day?” to the discussion. Again, I’m not talking about the culpability or the eternal destiny of people who lie, whether for a good cause or to save their own skins. Obviously, God has forgiven the sins of the apostles in denying Jesus. What he has not done is say, “It was morally right to deny Jesus. After all, you were saving yourself and your fellow apostles, Peter.”
Does God forgive lying for a good cause? Of course he does. Nor am I particularly persuaded that lying in a desperate situation (because you can’t think of what else to do and are doing the best you can) is much more than a venial sin (called, in English, “fibbing” or “telling a white lie”). I, at any rate, would not lose much sleep over it.
But constructing a carefully planned strategy of aggressively lying is not like that and is, I think, a very morally precarious scaffolding upon which to build the future hopes of the prolife movement. We’ve already seen it come crashing down once with Lila Rose’s friend James O’Keefe. We shouldn’t be surprised if it explodes in our faces again since, as the Church has warned, lying is intrinsically immoral. Those who do not know their master’s will and do not do it (like the person who is suddenly in a desperate situation where he can’t think of anything to do but lie to save a life) will be beaten with few blows, says our Lord. Those who do know the Master’s will (like the person who knows that it is intrinsically immoral to lie but set out to create an entire prolife strategy based on lying to Planned Parenthood) will be beaten with many blows, says our Lord. I think the prolife movement should consider strategies which do not involve us in telling lies and inviting judgement. We’ve got enough on our plate and a lot of other ways of fighting the Father of Lies than adopting his tactics. Indeed, the swiftness with which many defenders of Lila Rose are beginning to say, “Well, what else *can* she do?” is pernicious—as though all the thousands of other prolife initiatives (prayer, fasting, sacrifice, civil disobedience, political and culture involvement and persuasion, 40 Days for Life, anyone?) that do not involve our lying to anybody are old and busted and lying is the New Hotness that we must place at the core of the prolife movement. I am filled with foreboding that such thinking will only end in tears.
Thirteenth, it appears to me that a huge number of people still don’t really get what “consequentialism” (the Number One Favorite Moral Heresy of Americans) means. It does not mean “If I tell a lie in order to get rich, hurt my enemy, or gain fame that’s bad, but if I tell a lie to help somebody that’s good.” It means “There is no justification for telling lies or doing any other intrinsically immoral act.” No. Really. That’s what it means. To repeat: “CCC 1753 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.”
The problem with saying “We can lie for Jesus to save lives” is that it’s also an argument that we can lie for Jesus to save souls. There are plenty of religious zealots who have no desire for self-advancement and no intention of personal monetary gain who would argue that if you can fake a miracle for Jesus that will “win souls” then you should do it. Paul says “their condemnation is deserved”. That’s because, as he says, you cannot live by the principle “Let Us Do Evil that Good May Come of It.” That is, in the end, what is being argued for when you say that you can lie in a good cause.
Fourteenth: it’s important to understand what is and is not being said here. What is emphatically not being said is “Lila Rose’s sin of lying is equal to or greater than the sin of PP.” Of course not. Personally, I think both the gravity of and the culpability for the sin of lying here is mighty small and I hope God gives us a million more like Lila Rose.
But I also note that the attempt to deny that consequentialism (such as the theory that lying is not a sin when done by Our Team for a Good Cause) is wrong destroys Catholic moral teaching down to its very foundations. That’s what’s at stake here. That’s why it’s extremely important to be careful what we say. Again, consequentialism is The Favorite Moral Heresy of Americans (including the majority of American Catholics). As long as something “works”, Americans are typically fine with it. The problem is, this thinking undergirds not just the people who support Lila Rose, but the people Lila Rose opposes. Abortion “works”. It solves a problem. Embrace ends-justifies-the-means thinking and you destroy the logical basis for opposition to abortion (and all other Catholic morality) too.
Fifteenth, one other false theology tends to rear its ugly head whenever the subject of abortion comes up. It is summed up in this comment from a reader:
Let’s see, Lila maybe lying. We can not judge her heart. We can judge her actions.
And on the other hand, 50+ million dead due to the intrinsic evil of abortion in the US since Roe v. Wade. We can judge the actions of PP personnel.
Now what was that Catechism section on the gravity of sins?
Nobody’s saying the sins are of equal gravity. What I am saying is that lying is called an intrinsically immoral act by Holy Church because, you know, it is. The pernicious and newly minted moral theory that opposition to abortion taketh away the sins of the world is rank heresy. Declaring that something the Church says is intrinsically immoral to be A-OK just so long as you are prolife is a peculiar new form of idolatry in that it declares that opposition to abortion, not Jesus, takes away our sins. I still hold with the old-fashioned Catholic doctrine that the Lamb of God, not our opposition to abortion, takes away the sin of the world.
Sixteenth: the repeated attempt to argue, “According to the CCC, the intent has to be to lead someone into error. Lila’s intent was not to lead PP into error, but to reveal their error to themselves and the world. Thus, according to the CCC, her actions fail to satisfy the criterion of intent in order to qualify as a lie” breaks down quickly as soon as we use another example. To wit:
“I don’t want to lead anybody into error. I want to lead them to believe in Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life, which is vastly more important than saving mere mortal life. Therefore, I will be telling sinners (who have no right to the truth anyway) that I was miraculously healed of cancer after an apparition of the Blessed Virgin (even though I wasn’t and there was no apparition). I hope to make many converts from this and to help them expose and renounce their error of disbelief to themselves and to the world for the glory of God. Thus, according to the CCC, my actions fail to satisfy the criterion of intent in order to qualify as a lie.”
Seventeenth: One of the things I have discovered over the years is that when you accurately quote passages like Veritatis Splendor 80 or CCC 1753 in order to point out that consequentialist arguments are bad, it won’t be too long before somebody declares that you reading these texts like a Pharisee. The charge is, in fact, true. And I can even name the Pharisee. He is called Paul (Romans 3:8).
And finally, there seems to be perennial confusion over the distinction between deception (which can be permissible) and lying, which never is permissible. Repeatedly, people have attempted to invoke the Church’s caveat that we are not bound to give the truth to people who have no right to it as a justification for Lila Rose’s tactics.
It just ain’t so.
Saying that we are not bound to give the truth to people with no right to it does not mean “You have carte blanche to lie to anybody you regard as bad.” It means that when people demand information of us to which they have no right, we have the right to deny them that. The logic that this covers marching into PP and lying to their faces means that Christians are free to march up to anybody and lie whenever they like just so long as they tell themselves, “I didn’t owe that person the truth because he’s a sinner.” It’s a formula for moral chaos and the nullification of the word of God for the sake of an extremely dubious human tradition of moral reasoning. We are not authorized by the Church to go knock on the doors of people we deem to be sinners and lie to their faces while telling ourselves we are doing it for a good cause. Once more with feeling: “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.” How you *feel* about lying to bad people may be an interesting insight into your personal subjective mood at the moment, but is valueless in determining how, as Catholics, we are to respond to the teaching of Holy Church. I myself share the gleeful mood over exposing PP, but so what? Who made you and me the measure of all things?
The distinction about the hoary “Nazis at the door” analogy and this situation is precisely who is doing the knocking on the door. In this case, it’s prolifers knocking on PPs door for the express purpose of coming in and lying to them, not hapless victims trying to fend off people with no right to the truth. I just don’t see how that can be justified by any reasonable understanding of what the word “lying” means in English nor by any reasonable understanding of what the Catechism means when it declares: “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.”
Believe me. I’d love to find a loophole here because my loathing for PP is intense. But, well, I can’t get around the fact that what I’m desperately looking for is a loophole in much the same way that every other clever person who wants to dodge the bleedin’ obvious meaning of clear language does whenever they want to do something they know perfectly well is wrong. So I’m forced, even in the attempt to bend language out of all recognizable meaning, back to the fact that I know what “lying” means, I know what the Church says, and I know this is lying for a good end, which is as wrong here as it is when faking up a miracle to save somebody’s soul.