Is It Ever Permissible to Lie?
The recent uncovering by Lila Rose and Live Action of morally unjustifiable practices on the part of Planned Parenthood has led to a long-delayed discussion as to the morality of federal funding for this organization. Not only is Planned Parenthood one of the leaders in abortions and pro-death propaganda, but the undercover work of Live Action has demonstrated that some of their employees countenance child prostitution and other truly inhuman practices. For Catholics, this laudable exposure of the depth of evil in this organization, with the prospect of finally removing its federal funding, has been generally greeted with great rejoicing.
However, coupled with this very wonderful development, a very acrimonious debate has arisen over the morality of the actions of Live Action. This is right and just. The question of using falsehoods as a tactic to arrive at a good end is an extremely important one.
Truthfulness is a very important virtue in any human relationship, for several reasons. First, it is a virtue. Second, lying is opposed to the purpose of speech, a gift that God gave us to reveal our minds to each other. Third, all natural human community would be greatly disturbed if there were no trust. This is true in marriage and the state; regrettably, a strong reminder has recently been given that it is especially true in the Church, in light of the recent cover-up of clerical sexual sins. Fourth, the good of the one who hears the truth is attacked by a lie. Fifth, the welfare of the one telling the lie is at stake, since though he may gain some advantage from his lie, greater evils often result.
Not every false speech contrary to the truth, however, is morally what would be defined as a lie. Just as not every death of a man is murder (for example, killing in self-defense), so not every false speech is a lie. For example, if someone asked me if it was raining because I had just come in from outside and was wet and I answered, “Yes,” when in fact it had stopped raining, this is speech contrary to the truth but is not morally a lie. The false speaking must be contrary to reason, which would include the common usage made of speech in the context. False speaking contrary to the order of reason is aggravated if it is also contrary to justice, which occurs when someone has a right to know the truth. Depending on the depth of the truth and its importance, it would be a mortal or a venial sin.
For this reason, lying has been variously defined by Thomas Aquinas or by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as: “a voluntary utterance contrary to intellectual conviction” or “speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving” (St. Augustine). What Live Action representatives did certainly were statements contrary to the truth. Are they therefore lies?
Two contrary schools of thought have arisen in a highly charged atmosphere about this question. The one holds that Live Action did not do what morally falls under the definition of a lie because its members in fact were rooting out an evil organization from our society that itself is based on a denial of rights and that also practices deception. Priests for Life, Peter Kreeft, Hadley Arkes and other very orthodox and intelligent Catholics hold this opinion.
The other maintains that lying is never permissible, even for a good purpose, and considers that anyone who approves of Live Action’s tactics is mistakenly invoking something like what some say is a Muslim practice, where Mohammed maintained one could lie to defend the faith, though this is debated. William Doino, Dawn Eden and Mark Shea, among others, hold this opinion.
For the former, prohibiting the very effective undercover tactic of deception would end an effective tool to defeat abortion, which is the greatest moral evil of our time. For the latter, affirming this deception would affirm the greatest moral heresy of our time, consequentialism, the teaching that the object of an act can never be determined as intrinsically evil until the consequences (circumstances) and intention are considered. This way of thinking was roundly condemned by John Paul II in his encyclical The Splendor of Truth.
In response to this debate, some red herrings must first be put aside. Apparently, some of the Live Action proponents and some conservative politicians have maintained that Live Action was rightly adopting tactics towards Planned Parenthood which have their origin in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, which approves all tactics that accomplish the goal as good and fair. This cannot be sustained. It is not Catholic or Christian.
Other authors have maintained that, though the tactics of Live Action will not stand up to reasonable ethical analysis, there is just an intuitive knowledge that these tactics are good. This cannot be sustained. It is not reasonable. If the actions of Live Action are justified, it must be under the rubric that though their statements were contrary to what was the case they were not contrary to truthfulness, let alone not contrary to justice.
Those who maintain that lying is always wrong are correct. The Catholic Church has always taught this since the Middle Ages, following Augustine and Aquinas. However, there has been some question as to what constitutes a lie. This is the origin of the doctrine of mental reservation. Moralists have customarily distinguished between broad and strict mental reservation. When one must make a statement about something, one may use what the Catechism calls “discreet language” (2489). This is not outright lying to another, but use of language in such a way that the ambiguity in the words is due to the objective external world, not just the words of the speaker himself. Examples of this have often been determined by special meanings from use, custom or special circumstances. For instance, when a defendant pleads “not guilty” in the modern laws of jurisprudence, everyone should know that he does not mean he did not do the deed, but that the burden of proof in court is on the accuser. Undercover cops and spies have been classified under this rubric.
In addition, a lie (which is, by definition, contrary to the truth) may not be contrary to justice, in which case it is a venial sin or perhaps no sin. This would be the case with one who does not have a right to know the truth. This is not consequentialism, as one is not judging the nature of the lie by the results but by the objective right of another to know. Nor can this be equated with the alleged Muslim doctrine that one does not have to tell the truth about his faith to an unbeliever in self-defense. In the former, the natural law and doctrine of right is affirmed; in the latter, it is denied.
If Live Action is justified, it cannot be because the end justifies the means. It must be on the principle of broad mental reservation and the lack of the right of Planned Parenthood to pursue such despicable practices. If Live Action is to be condemned, then it must be because the group practiced strict mental reservation yet had no right to deceive in the context.
I suspect the answer is that of Thomas Aquinas’ analysis of the midwives who saved the Hebrew children in Exodus. “The midwives were rewarded not for their lie, but for their fear of God and for their goodwill, which latter led them to tell a lie. Hence, it is said in Scripture: ‘Because the midwives feared God, he built them houses’ (Exodus 2:21). But the subsequent lie was not meritorious” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 110, 3, ad 2).
Dominican Father Brian Mullady is a mission preacher and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
- March 13-26, 2011