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Noodling the Eighth Commandment with a Priest Friend

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 7/11/13 at 10:59 PM

 

A dear priest friend of mine writes me concerning my book about the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life :

Your discussion of the Eighth Commandment was particularly powerful, but I do have a question in that area:  What about deception that aims not at cover-up, but exposing the truth?  Three examples: 

1. Our Lord on the road to Emmaus where he pretends not to know about the recent events and in effect lies about his identity.

Jesus cannot lie since he is God and God, according to his own word “cannot lie” (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2). Jesus not only speaks truth, he is the Truth. It would contradict his very nature to do otherwise. That said, what he can (and often does) do is not put all his cards on the table as he speaks in elliptical ways for various purposes.  So, he often

 

So likewise he does not reveal his identity immediately on the Emmaus Road, but he never lies.  He does not present himself under a false name, he merely does not give his name.  He is (very mysteriously) not recognized, but why this is we are not told.  Luke describes it as "their eyes were kept from recognizing him". It is a phenomenon that occurs three times in the gospels--and one of the stronger evidences that the Resurrection was not a hallucination since wish fulfillment fantasies would not conjure up a wish fulfillment that does not fulfill the wish. The sense we get from the text is that there is something different about the Risen Jesus so that he is not immediately recognizable, not that he is wearing a wig and a mustache to disguise himself.  (Though, by the way, disguises are also morally acceptable since we can dress as we please and if others draw wrong conclusions from that, that is up to them.) He asks questions, but never says he does not know what happened.  The Catholic moral tradition likewise says that we are under no obligation to volunteer everything about our private affairs or knowledge.  Some things are properly secret, which is why you, Padre, not only need not, but in fact must not, reveal the content of somebody’s confession (a matter to which we will return in a moment).  In Jesus' case, he keeps the secret of his identity and asks the disciples questions as any teacher does: not because he needs the information, but because he is drawing understanding out of his disciples and trying to get them to make the connections themselves.  It's very rabbinic.

2. The Catch a Predator program where agents lie (pass themselves off as adolescents) in order to trap pedophiles.

Here again, the Church makes a distinction between allowing somebody to draw the wrong conclusions and positively lying to them.  The Church is clear:

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.

Likewise, when he addresses this St. Thomas addresses the question of whether lying is always a sin, he answers in the affirmativeSo does Augustine.

So while it is permissible to allow a predator to assume he is talking to a kid, I would argue that it is not permissible to directly lie about one's age and identity and still less to lie in order to try to get somebody (even a grave sinner) to agree to commit grave evil. If a person volunteers to do grave evil under an impression they have themselves formed that they are talking to a kid, that's one thing.  But to deliberately entice somebody to evil (by,say, telling them "I'm a 14 year old runaway who is interested in posing naked for you to make money.  Will you take my picture?") is the sin of scandal.  As the Catechism says:

Respect for the souls of others: scandal

2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor's tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.

2285 Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea."86 Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep's clothing.87

2286 Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion.

Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to "social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible."88 This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger,89 or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values.

2287 Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged. "Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!"

The "weak" here refers not merely to, say, vulnerable children or impressionable teens or simple souls who are gullible.  It also refers to those who are deeply enmeshed in slavery to sin.  So, for instance, a porn addict is among the "weak" and we would be irresponsible to give him access to our Dish network-enabled apartment while we go on vacation if we know he will use it to feed his addiction.  Likewise, a gesture like offering a beer can constitute a deadly act of temptation to somebody we know to be in the grip of alcoholism.  We never see an instance of Jesus deliberately trying to get somebody to commit a grave evil.  That includes Judas Iscariot, whom Jesus repeatedly and discreetly warns and to whom he even hands the sop at the Last Supper (a gesture of friendship) as a sort of final, last-ditch attempt to reach him with grace.  Judas, of course, refused.  But he does not refuse because Jesus tempts him to betray him.  Judas' own sin leads him to evil, not Jesus.  Jesus' every effort is ordered toward salvation, not temptation.

In addition to the effect of lies and scandal on the personto whom we lie, there is another factor to consider: the effect of lies and scandal on the one telling the lies.  No small part of this warning against lying and scandal is due to the effects they have on the soul of the liar. And that goes even for one who is attempting to lie in a good cause (see the film “Donnie Brasco” to get a sense of how corrosive a life of lying can get, even for the good guys).  So, for instance, we can see the phenomenon of law enforcement officials who 1) pass from trying to fight fire with fire to becoming participants in the evil they are trying to stop or who 2) even come to manufacture evils that would not have existed had they not tried to entice people to evil. 

An example of the former is seen in a recent FBI sting on a child porn ring in which the FBI actually wound up running a website that offered this filth to consumers.  On the one hand, you can see what they were trying to do, of course: nab bad guys.  But here is the problem, every time one of those pictures is downloaded and recirculated, the child in the photo is victimized again.  That's not me talking, that is the victims themselves:

“Distributing of child pornography – images and videos of real children experiencing the worst moments of their young lives – is not a ‘victimless’ crime, and the heinous nature of this offense should never be diminished by referring to it as ‘just pictures,’” Ellsworth told the court.  “The children portrayed … suffer real and permanent damage, for the rest of their lives, each and every time their exploitation is shared over the Internet.”

One of those children – a girl whose father shared images of her being abused that has since become widely shared online – put it more bluntly in a statement to the court filed last year.

“I wish I could feel completely safe, but as long as these images are out there, I never will,” she said in a victim impact statement.

“Every time they are downloaded, I am exploited again, my privacy is breached, and my life feels less and less safe,” she continued. “I will never be able to have control over who sees me raped as a child. It’s all out there for the world to see and it can never be removed from the internet.”

And when you think about it, that's perfectly true.  Indeed, to deny it is to completely deny the need to arrest people distributing and downloading this stuff at all.  If we try to argue that the child is only harmed by the person who photographs them and not by the person(s) making their images available to others and to those who download those images, then we are saying the whole project of destroying porn distribution rings is a waste of time and we should solely focus our energies on the manufacturers of those images, not their distributors and consumers, which is nonsense.  The truth is every one of those people is guilty of exploiting those children.

But that must, therefore, include the FBI agents who take over distribution of those images.  So the consequentialist contract the FBI entered  into boiled down to "We will do what the child abusers do to these children and help re-exploit some of these kids by re-circulating their images in order to achieve the good end of catching the child abusers". A classic case of doing evil that good may come of it.

Even more problematic are cases where use of the lie to find bad guys instead becomes use of the lie to create bad guys, as in this story of the FBI recruiting and training some hapless stumblebums, supplying them with weapons, helping them plan an act of terror--and then arresting them for doing what the FBI urged them to do.  These schmoes who would never have thought to blow up anything, nor known how to do it if they had till the FBI recruited them, egged them on, held their hands and helped them do it.  And while this farce was happening, the FBI was diverting support and resources to this foolish program instead of looking for actual terrorists.  Our tax dollars at work.

A final point to consider: In addition to the dangers of soul law enforcement officials face, there is an even greater danger posed when private citizens internalize the ethos "Cops lie, so therefore I can too."  Witness the recent work of a "citizen journalist" who decided to lie her way into a crisis pregnancy center in order (allegedly) expose the evils of the prolife movement. This turnabout on the tactics of some in the prolife movement shows where this tactic will inevitably lead as the culture wars escalate.  It will not be all that long before somebody shows up in, for instance, your confessional, Father, offering some outrageous false confession of some horrible crime in order to record your response on their cell phone, edit it who knows how, and then publish it to the internet with who knows what charge that you are (by observing the Seal of the Confessional) complicit in aiding and abetting some heinous crime.  A little imagination shows that the potential for abuse and invasion of privacy by "citizen journalists" is almost infinite and will not be surprised if the day arrives when Churches will require metal detectors in confessionals in order reduce the chances that the Seal will be broken as "citizen journalists" either give false confessions or record the confessions of others for broadcast.  Particularly troubling is the fact that, with the right technology somebody *else's* cell phone can be turned into a recording device, even when it is off, allowing unscrupulous people to record the confessions of others.

In short, the growing culture of free lance "citizen journalists" lying to people and recording each other with no more editorial oversight than the Internet is a step toward creating, not a civilization of love and trust, but a civilization something more like an Orwellian police state in which citizens are encouraged to spy on and inform on one another: a civilization in which all bonds of love and friendship are replaced with relationships of suspicion, fear, and paranoia; a civilization where you simply never know whether the conversation you have with a neighbor or a priest about your struggles with the the bottle, or porn, or your marriage will wind up on Youtube for the delectation of millions. 

This popular embrace of the culture of surveillance and deceit is, I believe, no small reason why it is dangerous to appeal to undercover work by police as a sure-fire argument for the moral legitimacy of lying for the greater good.  The truth is that undercover cops are, like the rest of us, subject to the effects of original sin and it is not established that the mere fact they do it makes it okay to do. It think the wiser approach is to evaluate what is done in light of Jesus Christ.  And, by the way, I am skeptical it is always the case that even undercover cops "lie for a living".  I suspect a good number of them find ways to do their work without it, precisely because they sense the corrosive effect of embracing lies as a way of doing life.  But the bottom line is this: it is Jesus, not the police, who is our model for this as for all moral behavior.

3. Pope Francis, when he was head of the Jesuits, asked one of his priests to lie (pretend to be sick) so he could take his place and have a conversation with the Argentine junta leader.

I had not heard of the details of this till Jimmy Akin mentioned this here at the Register a couple of weeks ago and had, I thought, an interesting and balanced take on it.  I don't know that Cdl. Bergoglio's example, as reported, particularly means something in terms of evaluating the Church's teaching though.  It was neither a papal act, nor an infallible one.  Just a judgment call made by a good man who is not a perfect man.  I think perhaps St. Thomas' approach to the Hebrew midwives is the best one.  He acknowledges with Scripture that God rewarded their good intentions, but discreetly remarks that their lies were "not meritorious".  In this, I think he takes the wise route of not trying to sit in judgement of obviously good and virtuous people.  I think the same approach is best as a rule of thumb.

So, for instance, it should be noted that Thomas also says that while all lying is a sin, it is not always—nor, I would add, usually—a mortal sin. Indeed, I suspect that in a huge number of cases it is barely culpable (such as when, say, a big brother takes the rap for his little sister getting in the cookie jar.) This is something I would particularly like to emphasize since, in my sometimes intemperate remarks on the question (intemperance I deeply regret), I fear I have given the impression that I think white lies to be gravely evil, or given people the impression that, say, a teacher who lied to save children at Sandy Hook Elementary School was anything other than a hero of blessed memory.  I think nothing of the kind. As a general rule, I assume circumstances are often such that the person telling a lie is barely culpable if at all, and is doing the best they can, as for instance, were the Hebrew midwives or the teacher at Sandy Hook.  Caught flat-footed in such a situation I strongly doubt I would have done any differently.  The point here is not to sit in judgment of people doing the best they can in extreme sudden death situations, nor indeed to sit in judgment of anybody, but to think about what we should do as we make considered moral decisions. This is true particularly in situations where the temptation is to lie, not to save lives from maniacs, but in our own ordinary lives.  Thomas' model with the Hebrew midwives seems to me like the batting coach confronted with a hitter who has a bad stance, but who nonetheless knocked one out of the park.  He doesn't deny that the midwives knocked one out of the park.  He merely says that the bad stance did not help that happen.  "Not meritorious" is therefore not a condemnation of the women or a denial of their obvious heroism and good intentions.  He refrains from such a judgment.  Instead he basically says to us, "Imitate their grip, their swing, their eye, their power, but not their stance.  That didn't help them get that hit."

Thanks for the time on this question – and blessings on your work, Mark!

Thanks, Father!  God bless your wonderful work in the Vineyard!