Again and again, in the discussion of Live Action’s well-intentioned and youthful project of lying for Jesus, defenders of the LA tactics complain that telling a few little white lies to Planned Parenthood is nothing compared to the evils PP commits.
Very true. And quite irrelevant. Nobody says, and certainly I don’t say, that lying about your identity is on a par with sticking scissors in a baby’s brain. What fool would? Nor, as I have labored to point out, do I consider all speech acts which do not consist of flat-footed literalism to be lies. So constant attempts to claim that I am a fundamentalist who would condemn a novelist or an actor or Jesus for not speaking literalistically are all attacks on a straw man. Likewise are all claims that I believe the only course of action with the proverbial Nazi at the door is to prissily say, “I cannot tell a lie” and guide them to the cowering Jews behind the false wall boasting, “You will likely be gassed, but I have kept my precious moral purity! Ta ta!”
All of this is unserious and cartoonish. I get, like all people who are not brain dead, that there are times when you should not tell the whole truth. As I have said, again and again and again, the Catechism, in addition to saying that lying is, by its nature, to be condemned, also says:
2488 The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.
2489 Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.
2490 The secret of the sacrament of reconciliation is sacred, and cannot be violated under any pretext. “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore, it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason.”
2491 Professional secrets – for example, those of political office holders, soldiers, physicians, and lawyers – or confidential information given under the seal of secrecy must be kept, save in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very grave harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth. Even if not confided under the seal of secrecy, private information prejudicial to another is not to be divulged without a grave and proportionate reason.
2492 Everyone should observe an appropriate reserve concerning persons’ private lives. Those in charge of communications should maintain a fair balance between the requirements of the common good and respect for individual rights. Interference by the media in the private lives of persons engaged in political or public activity is to be condemned to the extent that it infringes upon their privacy and freedom.
So I get that while you cannot lie, neither are you obliged to reveal all truth to everybody. So the trick with the Nazis is not to lie well, but to hide your Jews well, then invite the Nazis in, offer them tea, invite them to search, and give them a warm “Heil Hitler” before they go. None of that is lying. It is merely allowing them to draw erroneous conclusions and not volunteering information to which they have no right. This is, in fact, smarter than lying since the SS will search your house anyway.
Similarly, I would have no problem with information requests which allow PP to describe what their policies are. LA, in fact, did exactly this with mammograms. They called and asked, “Do you do mammograms?” and were told “No”, thus demonstrating Cecile Richards is a liar when she claims PP clinics did mammograms. No lying necessary. Just a simple question. Way to go, Live Action! They let PP hang themselves.
But, unfortunately, that’s not all LA does. They also lie to PP, thereby giving Planned Parenthood a golden opportunity to claim they lie *about* PP. More than that, they lie to PP for the express purpose of tempting PP workers to commit mortal sin by cooperating (as they suppose) in helping the LA woman to obtain an abortion. I am skeptical LA people really have given much thought to the seriousness of that, and so I am inclined to think they are not very culpable for this sin of tempting somebody to be an accomplice to abortion, but sin it remains, and possibly grave sin if the person doing the tempting does do so with full understanding and freedom. It is, quite simply, very grave matter indeed to entice somebody to commit or to be an accomplice to the sin of murder.
Now, as the Catechism point outs, the gravity of a lie depends on the usual stuff–grave matter, freedom, understanding, etc. So in the example of the Nazis at the door, the fib told by the flustered teen makes the gravity of the lie almost non-existent. Likewise, when a schoolchum protects his innocent buddy by stammering out a lie to the school bully about his pal’s whereabouts because he can think of nothing else to do, the sin of lying is strongly mitigated by his good aim. This is all common sense, of course.
The problem, however, comes in when Christians, seeking to justify LA’s lies, appeal to such examples as a basis to argue that LA therefore has a right to embark on a campaign of premeditated lying. At that point we move from saying that somebody who tells a white lie in a pinch is not very culpable to saying that somebody who deliberately and carefully manufactures lies for the purpose of tricking someone into being an accessory to murder is permitted to do so by a sort of moral 007 “for the greater good”.
No. They are not. Saying that somebody’s culpability for a lie is mitigated by surprise and good intentions is not saying that good intentions henceforth give us a license to deliberately and carefully lie–and especially not to lie somebody into helping with a murder. That kind of logic is exactly how venial sin become the gateway drug to mortal sin.
And I don’t mean the mortal sin of LA. I mean the mortal intellectual sin of Christian cheerleaders trying to justify LA’s tactics. i’ve never spoken to anybody at LA. But I have spoken with plenty of comboxers who are allowing their commitment to justifying the (probably minimally culpable) action of LA kids to lead them into crazy claims that lying is like a priest acting in persona Christi, that tempting somebody to commit mortal sin is good, that Jesus was a liar so we can lie, and that we have to do evil that good may come of it. In just this way does venial sin become the gateway drug to mortal sin. It is breathtaking to see Christians spending vast quantities of energy asking not, “How do we fight PP with integrity?” but “How can we argue for the goodness of the Noble Lie? How can we euphemize lying as ‘pretending’ or (heaven help us) as indistinguishable from a priest acting in persona Christi? How can we pretend that tempting somebody to mortal sin is really ‘saving their soul’? How can we convince ourselves that when PP gleefully reports that LA’s tactics are a windfall to fundraising, we are “defeating” PP?”
My suggestion: stop pretending that any sin we commit that is not as bad as PP’s is actually good. Figure out that “venial sin” and “mortal sin” does not mean “sin you can commit for the greater good” and “really bad sins”. Nor does the Church mean that decreased culpability for a sinful act means “go ahead and do the same thing with deliberate planning and foresight”. Venial sin is a gateway drug that leads to mortal sin if not repented, not a license to go ahead and “sin responsibly, as long as it’s for a good cause.”