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February 25th, 2011

What Works: A lie is a lie is a lie

A look at the discussion about lying sparked by the Lila Rose videos



An interesting thing has happened because of the debate over Lila Rose’s tactics in going after Planned Parenthood. A serious discussion has erupted across the Catholic blogosphere about the morality of lying. As some of you will remember, I have written two columns here before about lying: “Radical Honesty” about two years ago and, last summer, “Are Affirmations Lying?

I have enjoyed and been educated by the healthy debate among moral theologians and other deep thinkers, which was kicked up in part by the wonderful article here in Busted Halo, “Building a Culture of Lie,” by Dawn Eden and William Doino Jr. I am not a theologian, but find the subject fascinating and for those of you not interested in reading tens of thousands of words on it, I’m going to highlight a few of the key points. (For those who are, I’ll provide links.)

(I will also add, though I think this goes without saying, that nothing about this discussion is to suggest anything bad about Lila Rose, Live Action or the motives of anyone of any view on this matter. I merely want to look at this discussion about lying.)

Just to be clear, while I think an exhaustive footnoted theological debate is helpful, I don’t think it is really necessary, and here’s why: the teaching of Christianity on lying is crystal clear: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.'” (Matthew 5:37)

“A lying mouth slays the soul”

The question of whether lying is intrinsically sinful has been addressed again and again in the Church. In my column two years ago, I mentioned my patron saint Augustine’s treatise On Lying, in which he reminds us that Wisdom 1:11 says “a lying mouth slays the soul,” and asserts that it is only with the “greatest perverseness” that one could argue it is right to lose your soul to defend a “temporal life.”

Mark Shea points to the same document by St. Augustine in what for me is the most decisive piece in this debate, his Wednesday blog post at National Catholic Register, “Augustine vs. the Priscillianists.” He also points out something I didn’t know: that St. Augustine wrote that treatise in direct response to a plan to infiltrate a heretical group using false identities.

Though St. Thomas Aquinas made the reasonable observation that lies come in various degrees, there is no escaping his conclusion that “every lie is a sin.” The Catechism is just as unequivocal:

“By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” (CCC 2485)

“A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny [slander], good or just. The end does not justify the means” (CCC 1753)

Ends do not justify means

In Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, a clergyman accused of a crime thinks it inappropriate to defend himself with lawyers who will bend the truth, even though their goal is to get him acquitted of a crime he did not commit, and even though that’s just how it’s done. We might think this absurd, as do his clergymen friends in the story, but he’s simply following Jesus’ teaching — not an absurd ideal we’re not really meant to attempt, but actual instruction. It’s not complicated: whenever you speak, speak truthfully.

Some in this debate defending this instance of lying make pragmatic arguments about the ends justifying the means. In philosophy they call this consequentialism — that the morality of an action depends on its results. This is the view of the world. It has never been the view of the Church.

One of the things that drew me to the Catholic Church as a convert is its respect for the idea of Truth. In the secular world and also much of the religious world, moral relativism rules the day. This debate reveals how strong it is even among Catholics, but that’s not surprising. We are immersed in relativistic thinking all day, every day. Our neighbors and friends react to our holding the line on principles which appear to go against our personal gain just as Trollope’s characters did: with frustration and bemused judgment.

Absurd extreme scenarios don’t prove anything

Another thing those arguing for lying have been doing is resorting to absurd extreme scenarios; for example, your child is about to be raped, or you’re hiding Jews and there are Nazis at the door. These examples do two things that seem to help their argument. First, they make the beneficiary not you, but a helpless other, making the lying seem more upstanding. As St. Augustine says, that makes no difference.

Second, they’re contrived to elicit a response along the lines of Dr. Peter Kreeft’s “You gotta be kidding.” Of course I’d save my child, lie to Nazis, etc., you think to yourself. These arguments are themselves bordering on deceptive because they obscure the difference between how we might react in a crisis when a situation is thrust upon us versus the current debate where the deceiver creates the situation and is planning from the start to lie.

And more basically, you can’t answer a basic question of right and wrong by proving that in some circumstance we might be tempted to do otherwise. That only proves the frailty of human fidelity.

As Mark Shea says in Monday’s blog post, Faustian Bargains, “the main issue is not ‘What do you do in really pressing and dicey circumstances like Nazis at the door?’ but ‘What is your habit of life?'”

Besides the fact that I think Jesus and two thousand years of Church teaching say lying even in such an example is not OK, the other problem with this kind of argument is that the “need” to lie is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a slippery slope. Every harmful act done neither in a moment of passion nor by a sociopath probably was performed by someone who believed they were justified in their action.

It’s not a falsehood, it’s a lie

The final resort of those trying to justify a lie is to claim it’s not a lie after all. Perhaps the most absurd statement I’ve come across in this debate about lying was this one, in an article from the Catholic News Agency:

[Dr. Christopher] Kaczor suggested that falsehoods in that instance might not formally constitute lies.

There has been an interesting discussion in this context about things like acting, undercover work, spying and the like. But I don’t think there’s any real debate. Those arguing that actors are not lying and therefore vigilante citizen justice video sting characters are also not lying are simply ignoring the obvious difference: with theater the audience knows it’s fiction; with stings, the whole point is that the stung one is being lied to.

Caring about this is not legalism

Another fallback argument made by some defending lying is to say those arguing this issue are making a big deal about nothing; or distracting from the real issues; or caught up in arcane legalism rather than addressing real world problems.

This points to perhaps the most important of all the issues raised by this current debate. In our current culture, we tend to see things like moral absolutes as dusty things crafted long ago by men who don’t know what we’re dealing with now. We even tend to see direct teachings of Jesus as nice ideals that we aren’t really expected to live up to.

But the reason the Church teaches that lying is to be condemned by its very nature is that there is a profound difference between, on the one hand, occasionally telling a lie and knowing it’s wrong and confessing it, and, on the other hand, deciding it’s OK to lie if you determine it’s justified. As Shea says, once you go in that direction, “there’s no bottom.” Moral rules are the result of collective wisdom and divine guidance; they are there to protect us, not cramp our style or get in the way of a cool idea. And one of those rules is: “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.”

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Ron Turner

    You “actors defense” is easily demolished. When a man dresses up to play Santa Claus, his INTENTION is to fool kids. When a young woman dresses up to be “a friend of Cinderella” at a Disney park, her INTENTION is to deceive kids.

    • Phil Fox Rose

      What a silly argument. No intellectually serious person would argue that participating in children’s’ fantasy lives is equivalent to acting for adults or to spying and sting operations. A meaningless point. To your main comment, the catechism lays out a number of related points about lying, drawing from Augustine, Aquinas and other sources. There is no single definition. I assume you refer to the one that requires the lie be told with an intention to lead someone into error. (Though I’m only guessing here because your potshot comment didn’t say.) I agree this is the worst kind of lie, but it is not the only kind.

  • Ron Turner

    FAIL! You conveniently left out what a “lie” is in the Cathechism

  • Margot

    Many of the worst crimes in human (and church) history were justified by the notion that the end justifies the means.

    Moreover, we live in a curture of truth-challoenged individuals and institutions (think Enron, the increasing number of people discovered to have lied about their credentials, doctorates etc, the advertising industry… So in our day and time a witness to the truth is a vital part of Christian life.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Jairo, I believe you answer your own question. You say the undercover police or journalists you know “fear what they are doing” but decide to do it because the results are so rewarding. But why do they fear it? Because it is corrosive to their souls and they can sense that. As I said before:

    undercover police work and espionage are corrosive to the souls of the people practicing them, and that over time it leads to an erosion of the person’s clear boundaries concerning right and wrong.

    I would say that even more forcefully for investigative journalists because they typically make their own rules, or many more of them than military and police, so the chance of going off-course morally is all the greater.

    Your Nightline example is another where the force of the argument is not in facts, but in emotions. It’s another case of consequentialism, where you’re suggesting that what they did has to be good because the outcome is so apparently selfless and noble, so the ends justify the means. We could come up with dozens of such examples. They don’t change the basic argument.

  • Jairo


    You mentioned lying in connection with Police work, etc.. as corrosive. What about investigative journalism ? Which is really what was carried out.
    Do you suggest that all investigative journalism is corrosive as well ? What about the Nightline sting that was used to capture child molesters ? Was that corrosive to the people doing the lying ? I agree in that lying is wrong. However, I actually do know of people who do undercover work. They fear what they are doing, but when they see the people the help they know what they are doing is for a greater purpose. When they see the faces of the women, and children they help, they know even though its wrong, the blessing they provide to those they have helped is worth the self sacrifice.


  • Maureen

    There are some situations when the person has no right to the truth – the examples about the Nazis or protecting an innocent person from a killer –

  • sue

    Phil, this was a great article. It gets one to think about all the real incidents humans run into where they would lie for various reasons.

    Lying to avoid a horrible outcome seems to be a complicated topic for most to get. I’d say I would lie if a stranger came to my house looking for someone to kill. I wouldn’t let them know that innocent person is in my house. Seeing any gun would prompt me to do nearly anything to get the gunholder away from me and my family.

    Would I go undercover for any reason? Probably not. I am not good at that type of involved lie. Once you start on that path, things get too complicated real quick and you have to remember everything you lied about…what is the real thing and what is your “contrived reality.”

    Lying to benefit me for selfish reasons, is mainstream, and that is what I think leads to all the other more involved lying. Countries that lie about things to other countries, whereby undercover CIA and FBI agents have to put their lies and LIVES on the line, seems to demonstrate the corrosiveness you mentioned.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Beth, a “pressing and dicey circumstance” — and those weren’t my words but a quote, FTR — refers to something urgent like the Nazi knocking on the door, not an ongoing situation, such as the legality of abortion. Many who see this as an ends-justify-the-means situation use the “this is a war” argument, as if, through something like martial law it absolves us of having to live up to normal moral codes. I reject that. And I implied nothing negative in the slightest about the habits of Live Action members. It’s unfair to suggest that.

    As to your question about undercover police work, I do not have a well-thought-out response, but I will say this: The anecdotal evidence I’m aware of suggests that undercover police work and espionage are corrosive to the souls of the people practicing them, and that over time it leads to an erosion of the person’s clear boundaries concerning right and wrong. So that would suggest that it is problematic, but I’d have to study that more. Obviously though, a key difference is that the situation we are discussing does not involved government workers implicitly sanctioned by the society to perform undercover work.

  • Beth

    “The main issue is not ‘What do you do in really pressing and dicey circumstances like Nazis at the door?’ but ‘What is your habit of life?'” The argument, in the case of Lila Rose and LiveAction is that we are in a pressing and dicey circumstance — thousands of people are dying every day. You seem to be implying that LiveAction members live in a habit of lying.

    Also, you addressed the point about the difference between acting and lying, but let the situation of undercover police work slide. Can a faithful Catholic work in any sort of undercover investigation?

  • Dawn Eden

    Tony, I think a key point about Bonhoeffer is that he actually reflected upon his decision to lie, deliberated it, agonized over it, admitted he might be wrong, and was prepared to cast himself upon God’s mercy. Engaging in sincere, reflective moral deliberation doesn’t excuse making a wrong decision, but, as a regular practice, it can help forestall one from making a habit of wrong decisions.

  • Tony

    I agree with Mark Shea’s comment, “‚Äúthe main issue is not ‚ÄòWhat do you do in really pressing and dicey circumstances like Nazis at the door?‚Äô but ‚ÄòWhat is your habit of life?‚Äô‚Äù

    Then you lost me when you said, “Besides the fact that I think Jesus and two thousand years of Church teaching say lying even in such an example is not OK…”

    It strikes me as ivory tower theology that doesn’t account for real world situations when you say that lying to hide someone from the Nazis was wrong. It’s also not realistic to call the Nazi example contrived because many people were put in that situation. Granted, it’s completely different from the Live Action stings that started the discussion, but it’s also not unrealistic. I’ve been reading Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor in Germany who was executed for his part in trying to overthrow Hitler. For him to play the role of a double agent involved lying and deception. Bonhoeffer didn’t take his lies lightly, but in light of the situation, he came to the conclusion that they were necessary in this case because of the extreme situation of evil perpetrated by Hitler. He also acknowledges that if what he is doing is wrong, he casts himself on God’s mercy for forgiveness. It was a decision, however, that he felt called to by God.

    Reading Bonhoeffer’s justifications for lying in this instance from the comfort of my living room allows me to look at his situation and rationale with distance and a critical eye. That’s much different from someone who is in the situation and needs to make hard decisions. Therefore I don’t think it’s fair to make blanket statements like lying to the Nazis was not OK. There are many complex situations in this world where coming up with a good answer is not so simple.

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