Over at Strange Notions, There’s Been a Three Way Debate About Lying

Really, it’s a two way debate.

On the one hand, James Croft, the atheist says, “Go ahead and lie if that seems like a good idea to you because Nazis.”

On the other hand, Deacon Jim Russell says, “Go ahead and lie if that seems like a good idea to you because Nazis.”

Oh. Wait. That’s the same hand.

Okay. It’s a little more complex than that, since, unlike the atheist, Deacon Russell, has to figure out a way to avoid the plain and obvious teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says, just like Augustine and Aquinas and countless other Catholic theologians, that “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” This involves deploying a number of strategies to achieve this goal in an endlessly rotating treadmill of rhetoric that has currently been operating for roughly two years around St. Blog’s.

Sometimes, Deacon Russell deploys the Definition Game so beloved by advocates of various things the Church teaches to be sinful. This consists of saying, “I agree that the thing the Church condemns is bad and wrong. But who even knows what that is anyway?” It’s all so confusing and impossible to define.” So the advocate of the sin thereby agrees that “in theory” abortion/mass murder in war/torture are wrong, but manages to remain eternally baffled about exactly what specific acts might constitute such sins.  Is it really abortion to kill a baby before the 40th day?  Is it really torture to waterboard?  Is it really mass murder to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  Who can tell?  Where is the formal dogma from the Church precisely defining these mysteries.  Golly, this is soooo complicated.  I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.  This positivist sophistry of pretending that you can’t make any moral judgments until the Church specifically defines whether a specific act is sinful is silly with big sins and it’s silly with small ones.

For, of course, lying is usually about something trivial and on rare occasions is about something desperate in a panic  situation.  That doesn’t make it “not lying” though.  It makes it (sometimes) “less culpable lying.”  For as Thomas points out, while lying is not always mortally sinful, it’s always sinful. And the trouble with justifying small sins is that it leads to justifying big ones (as the bishops demonstrated really well in recent years). Catholics, as apostles of the mercy of God, should be all about defending reduced culpability for sins where appropriate, not to mention praising heroism when they see it. So hooray for saving Jews from Nazis and Moses from the Egyptians and children at Sandy Hook!  Who would not applaud that?

But Catholics should not be about trying to call sins virtues.  Thomas strikes that balance by praising the Hebrew midwives as we would praise the teacher at Sandy Hook who lied to save her students.  He does not condemn the Hebrew midwives (who heroically did the best they could) but simply notes that their lies were “not meritorious”.  That is, they added nothing to the good thing they aimed to do and were therefore not necessary.  The implication is that, given sufficient presence of mind, they could have done something else since sin is never necessary.  The much more important implication is that we are not the Hebrew midwives, or bravely protecting Jews from Nazis, or faced with critical life and death emergency decisions that transform us into heroes.  Usually, we’re just looking for an excuse to lie to save our butts from something we fear or to get something we really want badly.  This is called “consequentialism.”  And consequentialism, the absolute number one favorite moral heresy in the world is something that the Church always and in every case condemns.  You may not do evil that good may come of it.  So we must stop searching for rationales for doing exactly that.

Things that are sinful, including venially sinful, are never truly necessary for the very good reason that God never tempts, much less forces us to sin and to suggest otherwise is blasphemy.  Our task is to therefore think of other ways to approach problems beyond, “What would be your first unthinking response in a life or death crisis?”  It turns out moral deliberations can be more sophisticated that that.  It also turns out that there were evil people before Nazis who threatened innocents and that Augustine and Thomas were as aware of that as we are.  They still said this was not sufficient justification to lie–as does the Catechism at this hour since that’s what “by its very nature, lying is to be condemned” means.

Because of all this, sometimes even the most strenuous denials of common sense fail to prevail and people have to admit that, yeah, freezing people into hypothermia is torture and tearing a baby, even a tiny one, to pieces is murder and incinerating a civilian population at Hiroshima is a crime against man and God–and when you walk up to somebody and lie through your teeth about your identity and purpose so as to get them to believe you, that’s what all normal people call “lying”.

When common sense washes away that dam, the next loop of the treadmill is to say, “If you don’t like the second edition of the Catechism, whose language was specifically tightened up to avoid the truck I am about to drive through this loophole, just stick with the first edition and tell yourself that so long as the person you are lying to has no right to the truth, you can lie your head off, because Nazis.” The idea here is that what we would in *any* other case call a “lie” magically becomes “not a lie” when you lie to somebody you have decided has “no right to the truth”.

Now it’s true that if you decide the Nazi at the door (a constant problem we all face) is unworthy of the truth you can keep mum, or misdirect, or evade, or equivocate and this is not lying. But the reality is, if I walk up to you, give you a false name and purpose and try to deceive you into believing me, that’s called “lying” and it doesn’t magically become “not lying” because I think you are a dirtbag. Nor does it become “not lying” if you instead walk up to me, ask me a question, and I lie to you–even if you really are a dirtbag. It’s just me lying to a dirtbag.  If you are a dirtbag with a gun who is trying to kill my students and I can’t think of anything else to say, I expect I would lie because I’d be panicked and couldn’t think of anything else to do.  I expect God would forgive such a lie and say, “Well done, thou good and faithful” as I expect he said it to the teacher of blessed memory who lied at Sandy Hook.  But I don’t expect God would say, “You didn’t lie.”

More to the point, if I lie to you in order to try to get you to be an even worse dirtbag than you already are, I am not only lying, I am giving scandal, which is much more serious and is potentially a mortal sin depending how big of a dirtbag I’m trying to get you to be with my lies.

The editors of the Catechism, realizing this well-meaning “no right to the truth” loophole essentially allowed every liar in the world to unilaterally declare that their victim had “no right to the truth”, fixed it in the second edition, so the Catechism’s teaching unambiguously underscored what moral theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to the present have overwhelmingly affirmed: “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned”.  Take it from a professional writer, when you very carefully edit a text like that, it doesn’t happen in your sleep and you don’t do it in order to say, “Feel free to ignore this edit that has gone through a dozen committees and stick with the previous looser language.”  In much the same way, when the Church at Nicaea beefed up the Apostle’s Creed to specifically say, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father”, they didn’t mean “Feel free to go ahead and keep reading the Apostle’s Creed as an Arian might.”  The clarification and tightened language existed to govern how the earlier and looser text was henceforth to be read.

Once this elementary fact is made clear, this leads to the final loop of the treadmill, which is to say that there are “two traditions” about lying in the Church (despite this super clear teaching of the second edition of the Catechism.) The “two traditions” thingie is a strateegery much beloved by advocates of dissent on the Pelvic Issues too. It goes like this: There’s the Magisterial teaching in the Catechism (if you are into that kind of thing) and then there is the “sensus fidelium” or the “primacy of conscience” tradition (meaning “Whatever I feel like doing regardless of what the Church’s magisterium says in the Catechism“). (Lefties like to appeal to “primacy of conscience” while Righties love to appeal to “prudential judgment” to blow off the Church’s clear, obvious, and authoritative teaching.) Of course, “sensus fidelium”, “primacy of conscience” and “prudential judgment” don’t actually mean any of that, but never mind.  This approach to the Church’s teaching on lying is, as near as I can tell, indistinguishable from Charles Curran’s approach to Humanae Vitae on artificial contraception: “Ignore the clear, obvious and authoritative teaching of the Magisterium since it has not been dogmatically defined and do as you please.”

Bottom line, both Mr. Croft and Deacon Russell are agreed that Church is wrong to say “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned” and both argue that sometimes you can and even should lie. The atheist has the excuse of his atheism to at least temper the fact that he may well have no clue what the Church says and no reason to see why he should care if he did. But one would expect a Deacon to side with the Church’s clear, obvious, and authoritative teaching against an atheist, not clasp hands with him in warm agreement against the Church. In my view, that also is “giving scandal“, something numerous clergy and laypeople, including Yr. Obdt. Svt, have vainly tried to get Deacon Russell to acknowledge over the past two years.

Leah Libresco, in contrast, actually writes an argument that reflects the teaching of the Magisterium and honors well her confirmation name: Augustine). She is the actual other side of the debate.  Well done, Leah!

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