John was only an eight-year-old boy when he had the situation first explained to him: “The judges who run our country just decided that a mother who’s pregnant with a baby doesn’t have to have that baby if she doesn’t want to.”
“So what can she do instead?”
“She can go to the doctor and pay him to kill it.”
“And that’s legal?”
“Yes, that’s the law now, son.”
“In America . . .?”
The controversy over Live Action’s ingenious use of investigative journalism to expose the criminal behavior of Planned Parenthood has gone wide and gotten ugly. Here I’ll break one of my cardinal rules (“Never apologize, never explain”) and admit that I’ve expressed myself intemperately concerning theological traditions that I find fundamentally unconvincing — such as the distinction between mental reservation and literal false speech. I’m a lit professor, not a theologian, and would prefer to leave this question to professionals.
Furthermore, I don’t believe this discussion should even be taking place; there was no prudent reason for Catholics to publicly question Live Action’s tactics, and doing so was at best an act of sinful detraction worse than any “lies” Live Action told. Objections to the use of investigative journalism tactics should have been raised with the members of Live Action privately, and then with their local bishop. Then, and only then, if Live Action had continued in such tactics despite the warnings of appropriate Church authorities, it would have been worth raising the question of their tactics — but in a charitable manner, without publicly calling these pro-life heroes “liars.”
The procedure I just outlined sounds tedious. It would not have helped the bloggers who cooked up this needless, scandalous controversy to build their careers by defaming others. It might not have worked. But if we are going to hold Live Action to the strictest standards of Catholic morality, what’s sauce for the goose . . .
Now to the question of “lying.” My first instinct in dealing with people who insist that a consistent theological tradition, in itself, is enough to close this question is to suggest that they call the police on their local Protestant banker and insist he be arrested for usury, then burned for heresy. There was a strong theological tradition, which was broadly accepted for hundreds of years by great theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas, that lending at interest was intrinsically evil. Not excessive interest, or abusive interest, but any interest. Now, this uncompromising position had certain advantages; it goaded Catholic bankers such as the Medicis to build exquisite churches as a way of atoning for the “sin” of running a bank. But historical circumstances, the change in the Western economy, and the rise of investment — all very, very good things that rescued millions from regular famines and made Christendom finally strong enough to fight off the Turk — necessitated a nuancing of the doctrinal tradition that condemned all lending at interest.
Likewise, for more than a thousand years (following St. Augustine), the Church held that heretics had no right of religious liberty, and that Catholic states could and sometimes should persecute them and forbid them public houses of worship. The fact that Protestant churches are legal now in Spain (as they weren’t into the 1970s) is a fruit of yet another (and quite a recent) development of doctrine — one traditionalists violently contested at Vatican II.
Is Augustine’s absolute prohibition on the use of explicit falsehood to those with no right to the truth an irreformable doctrine? No. Is it a long-standing, widely accepted theological tradition? Yes. So it deserves initial deference, but is finally open to questioning and revision — like the traditions on usury and religious liberty. If this were not true, then the editors of the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church would not have included the line that proposed such a development, which specified that a lie is a false statement made to someone with a right to the truth.
The rise of totalitarian states and the mass persecution of innocents by illegitimate authorities made the question of truth-telling more pointed for the Church in our time. At papal orders, during World War II, hundreds of thousands of Jews were hidden in monasteries and convents. Were those religious superiors all experts at mental reservation, or did some of them tell falsehoods to the murderers at the door? If they did, were their consciences tormented by their “sins”? Pope Pius XII cooperated directly in the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, transmitting messages among men he knew were employing deceit in an attempt to kill a tyrant. Should Catholics such as Klaus von Stauffenberg, if they could not succeed in this plan using only mental reservation, have abandoned it? When it failed, and their deceptions were exposed, did Pius XII denounce them for their tactics — as some are denouncing Live Action today? No, he didn’t. Perhaps these critics consider themselves purer than Pius XII. Perhaps if they’d been pastors in Holland in 1942, they would have spent their sermons warning their congregations against the danger of committing venial sins against the virtue of truthfulness — and won thereby the applause of the occupying authorities.
Such people act as if they wish to preserve Pius XII’s good name from the charge that he endorsed falsehoods to save the innocent. So they raise doubts about firsthand accounts of falsified baptismal certificates issued by papal nuncios during World War II and statements from those nuncios that they were acting under Pope Pius’s orders. Since Bl. John XXIII was one of those nuncios, I am contacting the promoter of his cause for canonization to see if more direct evidence is available. The only doubt I have seen raised about the account of then-nuncio Angelo Roncalli’s use of these baptismal certificates comes in an aside in a book on John XXIII by notorious Catholic dissenter and ex-priest Peter Hebblethwaite — whose repeated sneerings at Pope Benedict XVI as an “Inquisitor,” and whose public campaign for the ordination of women, make me distrust his truthfulness. If Hebblethwaite told me, “Some objects move,” I would check out his assertion with a scientist.
Keep in mind that Aquinas described falsehoods told for good purposes (such as to protect the innocent) as “officious” lies and held them to be venial sins. Some people in this controversy have compared falsehoods told to save the unborn to other, much graver intrinsic evils like adultery or blasphemy. There’s one key difference, of course: At no point does Aquinas speak of “venial” adultery or blasphemy. As one Thomist theologian with whom I discussed this controversy explained: “Clearly, the best thing would be if one saved the innocent through ambiguous speech or mental reservation. That is what we should strive to do — the best thing, in the best way. The less good thing would be to save them through an officious lie. St. Thomas would hold that the worst thing to do would be to refuse to save the innocent in order to keep our consciences ‘clean.’ That is a complete failure of charity.”
There are several reasons so many supporters of Live Action are getting emotional about the attacks on the organization. The first is that it was never necessary, fitting, appropriate, or charitable to raise them publicly in the first place. It was an act not of fraternal correction but of detraction, and the manner in which it was presented was sensationalist. Those who raised this demoralizing controversy in time of war make me think of pastors in occupied Europe rebuking their congregants for lying to the Nazis, or 19th-century pastors who preached in favor of turning in runaway slaves. There were, sadly, Christians in both contexts who did exactly that. They have their reward.
But there’s a deeper reason, one that pervades all the talk of Nazis at the door demanding to know if Anne Frank is inside: We are deeply uncomfortable with the fundamental argument that truth-telling is so fundamental to speech that telling a falsehood — any falsehood, for any reason — is intrinsically evil because it perverts the nature of speech as sodomy perverts the sexual act. Using violence is not intrinsically evil. Hence Aquinas allowed interrogators in heresy trials to torture suspects but would not have allowed them to lie. Lying is supposedly “worse” than torture, since it does violence to the nature of human reason, not merely to the body. Sadly, the same argument was used to justify imprisoning and burning heretics.
I know that Augustine affirmed the absolutist position on lying. Aquinas toned down its moralism (introducing the distinction concerning “officious lies”) but basically followed it. Various non-infallible but trustworthy papal statements reaffirmed it. There’s a strong and healthy inclination to defer to authorities and tradition in the Church, akin to the Supreme Court’s principle of stare decisis. But other traditions have been almost equally strong, including the one that considered moneylending (usury) a perverted form of reproducing wealth. That’s why Dante, following as always Thomist theology, put the moneylenders in Hell in the same circle as the sodomites — each was perverting nature. I think of this every time I drop by my bank, St. Mary’s Credit Union, here in Manchester, New Hampshire, which was founded by a French Canadian priest. (It charges interest.)
So could a Church that once condemned all lending at interest, but now condemns only excessive or unjust rates of interest, someday develop her doctrine (as Janet Smith, among others, argues) to allow that untruths told to those with no right to the truth are not intrinsically evil? The editors of the first edition of the recent Catechism thought so, and considered it prudent to introduce that idea in the text. Evidently they thought it prudent to withdraw that idea from the second draft — though this doesn’t amount to condemning it. (Several of Aquinas’s arguments for capital punishment were also removed from the second draft of the Catechism; does that mean they were anathematized?)
This back-and-forth tells me that the issue is under debate even among the theologians at the Vatican. Given this fact, I think it is both uncharitable and destructive to label the pro-life activists who conducted a journalistic sting “liars” who threaten the moral purity of the pro-life movement.
I’m inclined in a future article to explore what would be the implications of a theology of truthfulness based on one’s conscientious perception of “the right to the truth” on the part of one’s listeners. Briefly, I think it would follow the lines of our moral theology of detraction — where we carefully and prudently judge the needfulness of sharing negative information about our neighbors, and where different standards apply to journalists than to ordinary citizens, just as different standards of non-violence apply to policemen and soldiers. We do not face a blank choice between absolute truthfulness and a slippery slope of unlimited lying. The Church’s embrace of religious liberty did not (as those who opposed it feared) cause the Church to teach religious indifferentism. An embrace of a nuanced theology of the “lie” need not turn us all into Machiavellians.
* * *
He never really wrapped his head around the facts of the situation, the bleeding flesh of the moral anarchy that masqueraded as the government of his country, until one Saturday morning in the early 1990s. Early Saturday morning was prime time at the clinics, so that was the hour you had to show up for sidewalk counseling and prayer. It started off almost festively — an early morning Mass, then a group walk over to the Park Avenue clinic that processed so many non-Park Avenue clients. He stood there, with the sweet old Irish ladies who formed the bulwark of the movement, the small and uncertain knot of college students, the Missionaries of Charity and Franciscan Friars of the Renewal who knelt on the asphalt leading the Rosary. On the other side of the line were all the attractive people — the hot young women on weekend trips from Wesleyan and Wellesley, and the tall, muscled lacrosse players who’d joined them that morning to earn their points as “nookie feminists.” All were there to “keep the clinic open,” even though there was no prospect of a Rescue, and they’d suited themselves up in hip little vests that said “Clinic Escort.” The vests were baby colors, pink and blue.
The beat up Chevy squealed its tires as it pulled up in front of the place. Driving it was a twenty-something Spanish guy with a strong sense of purpose. In the back seat was an older Spanish woman who was clearly a Problem Solver. In the passenger seat was the Problem: A shrieking, hysterical woman, her teased hair all awry, her long red-painted fingernails digging deep into the poor driver’s dashboard. The car stopped, and the Problem Solver in the back got out and opened the passenger door. She started to pull the Problem out, but the Problem dug in with her nails. So the Driver used both legs to shove the Problem out of the car. The Problem Solver caught her. The Driver came round and grabbed the Problem’s left arm, and the Problem Solver her right. They carried the Problem 30 feet down East 28th Street into the clinic. The Writer tried to intervene. He talked to the Problem, who sobbed hysterically as she moved through that Manhattan Saturday morning, her feet never touching the ground. Then one of the nookie feminists, a six-foot-three Aryan lacrosse champion, intervened and knocked the Writer to the ground. The Problem disappeared into the clinic, as the Writer flailed around and tried to alert the watching police. They shook their heads and looked away.
Image: Gustave Doré, Dante and Virgil with Brunetto Latini