Pope Francis and lying to save life

In World War II, some people lied to protect Jewish individuals and save their lives. Was this right? Here's some information you might want to be aware of involving Pope Francis.
In World War II, some people lied to protect Jewish individuals and save their lives. Was this right? Here's some information you might want to be aware of involving Pope Francis. (photo: Register Files)

Back during World War II, some people lied to save Jewish lives.

More recently, Lila Rose has used undercover tactics to expose Planned Parenthood.

At issue is the question of whether it is ever okay to lie, particularly when you're trying to save lives.

We live in a violent world, and the issue keeps coming up in human history.

Here is some information you might want to be aware of involving Pope Francis.


On the One Hand

Before we get to the Pope Francis material, we should note that there is a strong view in the history of Catholic thought that says lying of any kind, for any reason, is always wrong.

This view has been endorsed by some of the biggest names in Catholic theology, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

There have been other views proposed as well, though they have not been the majority view, and it does not appear that  the Magisterium has infallibly settled the question.

Indeed, the original edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church contained a definition of lying that seemed to endorse a proposal made some decades ago that restricted what counts as a lie to telling a falsehood with the intent to deceive a person who had the right to know the truth.

If this was lying in the technical sense, then it would imply that some cases of lying in the broader, everyday sense (telling a falsehood with the intent to deceive, without specifying whether the deceived person has a right to the truth) would not be morally wrong. Some such acts could, potentially, be justified if the person to whom the (broad-sense) lie was told had no right to the truth.

The fact that the original edition of the Catechism included this statement is a notable indicator that the matter has not been infallibly settled, and advocates of the lying-is-always-wrong view should bear in mind that the history of the question is not uniform and does not appear to be infallibly settled.


On the Other Hand

Although the original edition of the Catechism seemed to endorse the restricted view of what counted as lying, they changed it.

Now the relevant passage defines lying this way:

To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error [CCC 2483].

(Remember the "or act" part. It's going to be important.)

When the Holy See released the changes to the original edition of the Catechism, they did so without commentary, and so Catholic moral theologians have tried to discern the significance of this change.

Was the Holy See endorsing the historical majority view? Or was it simply not wanting to endorse the restricted view and defaulting to a more general formulation of the kind one would expect in a catechetical text, leaving the technical questions to the experts to hash out over time, under the guidance of the Magisterium?

Whichever was the case, the publication of this new wording would not constitute an infallible determination of the issue any more than the publication of the original wording of the Catechism did.

Indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger was at pains to explain that the treatment of a subject in the Catechism does not change the weight the Magisterium assigns to a particular teaching.

Whatever weight it had before the publication of the Catechism, that is the weight it had afterwards.

Read more about that here.

However, advocates of the lying-is-sometimes-not-wrong view should bear in mind that the historical majority position and at least the wording in the current edition of the Catechism is against them.


Part of the Problem

Part of the problem here is that we are torn between two powerful intuitions.

On the one hand, we have an intuition--planted in human nature by God himself--that lying is wrong.

That's a human universal. It appears in every culture. Indeed, cultures could not even form among people who didn't have the level of mutual trust that the anti-lying ethic is meant to foster.

On the other hand, we also have an intuition that in some cases deceiving another person is not wrong, particularly when that person is an aggressor and the stakes are high.

Thus police officers adopt ruses when trying to catch criminals. Spies do it to serve their nations. Military forces do it to achieve victory on the battlefield.

How precisely these two intuitions--the need to tell the truth and the need to save lives--are to be squared is something too complex to go into here.

I will not be proposing any solutions to this question, and I await further guidance from the Magisterium.

However, I would like to call the reader's attention to some material that has recently become available in English.


The Actions of Church Officials

It is well-documented that during World War II, various Church officials, including some at the Vatican, and including Pius XII himself, hid or authorized the hiding of Jewish individuals to protect them from the Nazis.

Hiding, though, doesn't always involve a clear case of lying.

It does deprive the aggressor of knowledge of where their intended victims are, but unless they show up at your door, ask you what you know, and you lie to them, it doesn't deceive them.

At least it can be argued that it doesn't.

I've read accounts of Church officials doing more than just hiding Jews, things that actually would involve lying or facilitating lying (in the broad, colloquial sense), such as supplying them with false identification papers or false baptismal certificates so that they could pass as Christians.

I've never been able to obtain the kind of documentation of those claims that I would want, and so I've never brought them to this discussion.

Recently, however, I've come across documentation of a much more recent but similar set of circumstances, and they involve our new holy father . . .


Pope Francis

It is well-known that during his lifetime, Pope Francis's homeland of Argentina has been wracked by problems, including a brutal dictatorship that kidnapped and killed large numbers of its own citizens.

This caused the Argentine people to face situations similar to those in Nazi-controlled territories, and some of them arrived at some of the same solutions in dealing with them.

Recently, a set of interviews with then-Cardinal Bergoglio was published in English as Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words.

It's a fascinating read, and it contains some passages pertinent to our subject:

[Interviewer:] Apart from hiding people, did you do anything else?

[Cardinal Bergoglio:] I once smuggled a young man out of the country via Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil.

He looked quite a bit like me, carried my identity card, was wearing priest’s clothing, with the clerical collar, and in that way I managed to save his life.

I did what I could for my age and, with the few contacts I had, to plead for people who had been kidnapped.

I got to meet with General Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera twice.

In one of my attempts to talk to Videla, I managed to find out which military chaplain celebrated the Mass and persuaded him to say he was sick and to send me in his place.

I remember that I celebrated Mass in the residence of the commander in chief of the army, before the whole Videla family, one Saturday afternoon.

Afterward, I asked Videla if I could have a word with him, with the intention of finding out where the arrested priests were being held.

. . .

It is true that Jalics—who was born in Hungary but was an Argentine citizen with an Argentine passport—wrote to me while I was still the provincial superior to ask me to do this for him because he had a justified fear of coming to Argentina and being arrested again.

So I sent the authorities a written request—not mentioning the real reason, but stating that the trip was very expensive—for him to be able to get it seen to at the embassy in Bonn.

I delivered the letter by hand, and the civil servant to whom I gave it asked me what had caused Jalics to leave so suddenly. “He and his friend were accused of being guerrilla fighters, but they had nothing to do with any such thing,” I answered. “Give me the letter, then, and you’ll get the reply in due course,” he said.


What Was the Nature of these Acts?

Cardinal Bergoglio seems in these situations to have used methods that bear a striking similarity to the kind of tactics used to save life in other situations.

Now that this information is available in English, it's going to be part of the discussion of this question. People of the view that lying (in the colloquial sense) is permissible to save life will bring these passages up, so it's worth asking the question: Did he lie or was he complicit in lying in order to save life?

In the case of the letter he wrote, perhaps not. He might have phrased himself in such a way that what he did counted as a mental reservation rather than a lie.

What about persuading the other priest to say he was sick? It could be that he was in some way under the weather, but what Cardinal Bergoglio says does not suggest this.

One might try justifying giving the young man his passport and dressing him in priestly clothes on the grounds that these didn't involve speech acts on Cardinal Bergoglio's part, but--as we saw in the Catechism's current definition of lying--lying doesn't have to involve speech. It can be speaking or acting against the truth in order to lead someone into error--the error, in this case, being believing that the young man was then-Fr. Bergoglio.


What to Make of This?

We should be cautious drawing implications from this.

One might hold that these situations do not, in fact, involve lying or complicity in lying, though that is not obvious from what Cardinal Bergoglio said.

Also, if they did involve lying, people can and do make mistakes. It's possible that Pope Francis now regrets having done some or all of these, though he does not indicate that in the interview. In fact, he seems pleased of having saved the young man's life by helping him pose as Fr. Bergoglio.

Furthermore, at the time of the original events and the interview, he was not yet pope and did not have the responsibility and the graces of that office, which might lead him to take a new view of these matters. As Ed Peters has pointed out, we have to be cautious in reading statements made by pontiffs before they are in office and drawing conclusions from them.

Furthermore, nothing the future pope did in these passages was an act of the Magisterium.

These passages are noteworthy, though, inasmuch as they provide a first-person, by-the-man-himself account of the use of these types of tactics to save life by a churchman of some note then and of even more note now.

They provide the kind of account that I haven't found for similar situations in the World War II period, and now that they're available in English, they're bound to come up in future discussions of this subject.

We should be careful, though, not to make too much--or too little--of them.


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