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Sundry Mop Up Remarks

Friday, February 25, 2011 3:00 AM Comments (79)

I’m just about talked out on the whole “lying for a good cause” thing.  Indeed, I thought I was talked out a week ago.  But since people keep asking what I think about this and that, I thought I’d give answers

To begin, lot of folks ask what I think of the whole undercover cops issue. Here goes:

Briefly: I’m not much use here because

1) I haven’t seen any ecclesial teaching on the matter (recall that my interest was sparked by current events, not by some long work of study of the matter, so there’s lots I don’t know),
2) I don’t know what the rules of engagement for cops are, and
3) I don’t know what is legitimate for the state to do vs. what the private individual can do (ie. agents of the state can legitimately arrest and jail people but I, as a private citizen, can’t lock people in my broom closet because that’s called “kidnapping”).

Till that’s settled by wiser heads then mine, I remain mute. 

The problem is, people who appeal to the undercover cop as automatically legitimizing Live Action’s sting simply *assume* it’s a given that since cops are allowed to lie by Catholic moral teaching, Lila Rose can too.  This is problematic, since we haven’t really established that cops are allowed to lie by Catholic moral teaching, and the more I contemplate “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned” the more I doubt that case can be made.  As to what cops, in fact, do: so what?  Since when did the cops become the measure of all Catholic morality, even if they do lie (and even that has not been established)?  What most of us (including me) know about undercover work comes from movies, not from actual knowledge, so most of this conversation is between an ignoramus like me and various other people who, for all I know, haven’t the slightest idea what they are talking about.  So I conclude that if we are going to get our moral theology about lying from movies, may I suggest we watch Donnie Brasco, which shows just how corrosive lying, even for a good cause, can be to the soul?  That’s been my point all along: what gets overlooked in the matter of lying, even for a good cause, is that lying doesn’t just mislead others and bring the gospel into disrepute.  It corrodes the soul of the liar (and the soul of the person making excuses for lying).

To illustrate what I mean about the corrosive effect of attempting to defend lying: here is an actual serious comment by somebody who actually seriously thought he was making a coherent defense of the concept of the “good lie” in my comboxes yesterday:

Every actor who has ever uttered a line, every author who has written a novel or short story, every Congressional Budget Office staffer who has written a financial impact statement (okay, I threw that in for laughs) is a dam**d liar.  Christ spoke in parables - stories that in and of themselves were untrue - in order to lead people to the truth.

Constructing arguments in favor of “good lying” which don’t merely invite but attempt to compel us to conclude that Jesus Christ is a “dam**d liar” is an… infelicitous… way of defending the proposition that lying is compatible with Catholic teaching.  I think this has to be the most desperate, not say blasphemous, attempt at rationalization I have yet encountered. But that’s my point: once you set out to defend sin as “the right thing to do sometimes” you wind up saying this sort of nonsense.

Another issue raised by some readers was the matter of detraction. The notion is that to discuss the morality of lying to Planned Parenthood was to unjustly besmirch the characters of the people pulling off the sting if they were not approached first.  I don’t see how this can be.  For one thing, I’ve repeatedly said I think Lila Rose is great and heroic. So I certainly don’t think I’ve committed detraction. But above all, their act was emphatically in the public arena. Indeed, Live Action was going out of its way to trumpet its work far and wide. Once you make it a subject for public discussion, it’s not breaking any confidence to take you at your word and discuss it publicly. To me, the charge of “detraction” is like saying I’m trying to blacken Obama’s name by criticizing what he does in the public square. He’s a public figure. As such, his public actions are fair game for discussion. Same with Lila. She invited public scrutiny of her actions. I and others obligingly scrutinized.

A further difficulty with the claim of “detraction” (for the defenders of Live Action) is something Scott P. Richert points out:

You commit detraction if you make known the “faults or failings” of another. If [the defender of Live Action] is serious in accusing those of us who criticized Rose’s actions of detraction, then he’s admitting that she did wrong.


Next, some folk are urging me to ponder Newman, which I will try to do when I come up for air.  But I suspect that looking to Newman with a sort of hopefulness that he will point the way to a new theology of lying for a good cause is a greatly exaggerated hope.  Newman is, after all, the man who famously said that the Catholic Church “holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse.”  Not too much help in the “lying to Planned Parenthood” department, I reckon.

Next, I want to dissent from an opinion expressed by an ardent supporter of my arguments, who said, “Truth is more important than human life.”

I think this is a dangerous false dilemma.  I don’t believe God forces us to choose between the two.

Finally, let me reiterate that I think these are deep waters and I don’t claim to have all the answers.  Much of this is mysterious to me and the more I think about it, the more struck I am by the curious fact that I empathize (though I am still compelled by the Church’s teaching to disagree) with Chesterton, who wrote:

it was absurd to say that Catholics introduced a horrible sophistry of saying that a man might sometimes tell a lie, since every sane man knows he would tell a lie to save a child from Chinese torturers; that it missed the whole point, in this connection, to quote Ward’s phrase, “Make up your mind that you are justified in lying and then lie like a trooper,” for Ward’s argument was against equivocation or what people call Jesuitry. He meant, “When the child really is hiding in the cupboard and the Chinese torturers really are chasing him with red-hot pincers, then (and then only) be sure that you are right to deceive and do not hesitate to lie; but do not stoop to equivocate. Do not bother yourself to say, “The child is in a wooden house not far from here,” meaning the cupboard; but say the child is in Chiswick or Chimbora zoo, or anywhere you choose.”

That passage, probably more than anything else in this controversy, gives me pause.  It doesn’t ultimately change my mind, but it gives me pause and makes it impossible for me to think that the average person who supports the idea of lying in a good cause is a bad person.  Indeed, I think it reflects Chesterton’s love of plain speech—and yours and mine.  It’s an odd quirk I haven’t figured out, but there is a part of me that says, “Either tell the truth plainly or lie plainly.  But don’t give me Clintonian parsing and nice euphemisms and roundabout and elaborate deceptions.”  I have no idea where that comes from but it does resonate with me deeply.  The paradox is that such a full-throated commitment to a good solid lie in a case of necessity seems to me to be deeply rooted in a fundamental sense of honesty.  That doesn’t make a lie right.  But it does make the person advocating it (like the great Chesterton) a deeply good and noble (albeit, I have to conclude in light of the Catechism) mistaken person.

Filed under consequentialism is always a faustian bargain

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.