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.”