More Debate Club at Auschwitz

Ed Mechmann takes on Live Action’s tactics at his blog for the Archdiocese of New York.

“Another response to [Christopher] Tollefsen’s argument [against the tactics of Live Action] . . . is less legitimate under Catholic teaching, and is actually quite dangerous.  This claims that Live Action’s tactics are necessary to serve a higher purpose — exposing the evil of Planned Parenthood.  These proponents cite the analogy to the need to lie in order to effectively engage in activities like undercover police work or in spying.

“While this argument is superficially compelling, there are several problems with it. . . . the most significant problem, is that this argument is openly consequentialist (“end justifies the means”) and proportionalist (“the good outweighs the evil”) — neither of which is an acceptable Christian position.  Indeed, both of these approaches have been specifically condemned by the Church, most clearly in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on moral doctrine, Veritatis Splendor.”

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  • David Nickol

    In Catholic thought, lying is intrinsically wrong, and one may never resort to it for any reason. It’s like other intrinsic evils such as abortion and artificial contraception. LiveAction engages in lying. It’s wrong. For Catholics, it should be as simple as that.

  • gisher

    No matter, the hard core right will navigate around Veritatis Splendor on this like they do with all other doctrine that conflicts with their political agendas.

    Meanwhile, their continued insistence on using the same tactics, political tactics, that have not worked for decades will continue to not allow other methods ( that might actually put a dent in the number of abortions ) to ever gain any traction.

  • Thales

    The morality of lying is a very difficult one for me to figure out. I understand the notions in Catholic thought that lying is instrinsically wrong and that one can never do evil to accomplish a good. On the other hand, I tend to think that some distinctions have to be made (for example, those instances where someone does not have a right to the truth). But I’m not intelligent or studied enough to clearly articulate these distinctions.

    -the undercover police agent
    -the military feint
    -the “Nazis knocking at the door, while hiding Jews” example
    -Santa Claus or tooth fairy
    -a bluff during poker

    Perhaps CCC 2491 can justify some of these examples, as the linked article suggests.

    The linked article is thoughtful, though I have two quibbles. First, the article says that “undercover agents and spies are actually who they claim to be — they actually are drug buyers, for example”. I’m not convinced. The undercover agent is obviously not who he claims to be; he might be a drug buyer, but he is not a person who will be using the drugs for personal use or for re-sale or whatever lie the agent is forced to concoct. If the agent is not lying because he is actually a drug buyer, then LiveAction is not lying because she is actually a woman seeking abortion advice – clearly, a bogus argument. The article’s other arguments (that the agent can justifiably protect a professional secret, and that the agent acts under the color of authority) are better arguments.

    Second, the linked article argues that a defense of LiveAction is consequentialist and proportionalist. Fair enough – I understand why the article says this and why consequentialism/proportionalism ought to be condemned. But the article doesn’t explain why the undercover agent example is not a conseq./propor. situation, also.

    • gisher

      Just as a thought Thales, I am familiar with at least 2 undercover agents. Both men did their jobs very well, but while in the course of their work, both became addicted to drugs, and also committed several crimes themselves.

      A truly ethical quandary and perhaps food for thought on undercover police agents and the concept of employing lies to perform an act of good.

    • JohnMcG

      I think the recent stress on “intrinsic evils” in moral arguments has left us in a bad spot when it comes to some forms of moral analysis. The goal now seems to be to fit one’s adversaries actions into an “intrinsically evil” box (or get your own actions out of one), and our task is done.

      Again, not to say that two wrongs make a right, but if Live Action’s misrepresentation does indeed fall within the category of intrinsically evil lying, this pales in comparison to the evil of PP’s abortion as well as enabling child prostitution.

      If I tell my wife I loved her Valentine’s Day present when I really didn’t care for it, that is also a lie. LiveAction’s lies are on a but more substantial matter, but then one also needs to acknowledge the Live Action’s lies are less substantial than PP’s abortions or enabling child prostitution.

      If such an argument is deployed to say that LiveAction’s actions are justified, then that is bad conequentialism/proportionalism. But to demonstrate what the real story here is, I tend not to think so.

    • David Nickol

      It seems to me that an undercover agent or a spy at times could do his or her job without lying. If you merely walk up to someone on the street and buy drugs, you may not need to lie. But to pretend to be a drug dealer yourself and set up a sting operation definitely requires lying.

      • gisher

        Dave I might find a way myself to overlooking a lie to save a life of another, that said, could anyone say that the lies of LiveAction saved anyone’s life?

  • Common sense

    Do any of the posters who place an absolute prohibition on lying wish to condemn Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty for his antics in Re during WWII (if you don’t know of him watch the movie “The Scarlet and the Black”)?

    After all, there’s no doubt that he engaged in lying and deception to attain his goals. Did that make him a consequentialist?

    • gisher

      It would make him a liar. I really do find it amusing seeing the relative weight of lies being considered by mere mortals. Amazing what one can justify when one feels the need to.

      • JohnMcG

        Really, gisher, you don’t think mere mortals are capable of considering the relative weight of say, me telling my wife I loved her Valentine’s Day gift, or me telling my wife I was away on a business trip when visiting a lover?

        And if we’re not capable of making such distinctions, I hope to never hear arguments against “dogmatic” proclamations from bishops on matters like abortion, since we’re apparently not ready for anything less.

        • gisher

          Telling your wife you were away on a business trip when visiting a lover is combining another sin with a lie to make the lie seem worse.

          A lie is a lie JohnMcG.

          • JohnMcG

            Yes, “a lie is a lie,” and both lies would be appropriate subjects for confession.

            A sin is a sin. Yet, the Church teaches us that there are venial sins and mortal sins.

            I am not saying that some lies are OK. I am saying that adults should be able to say that some lies are graver than others.

            And, I would go so far as to say that some abortions are worse than others. The abortion in Phoenix, while wrong, probably isn’t as someone who gets an abortion to maintain an upper middle-class lifestlye, or what the doctor in Philadelphia did.

            Both abortions, both wrong, but we should be able to say some are worse than others.

          • Pentimento

            I’m not sure that the notion of a sort of moral menu, offering varying degrees of sinfulness for abortions, based upon different reasons for their procurement, is at all theologically tenable.

        • gisher

          What you have been doing on this thread and others is trying to lesson the level of sin so that you do not have to condemn the actions of a group or political cause you support. You sir are not alone, as both polar extremes do the exact same thing all the time.

          This is happening because you are placing your political cause above the doctrine of your church, and anytime you confront a place where your church calls for something that conflicts with your political dogmas you appear to choose your politics over your church.

          What you have to decide good sir is whether you are a Catholic or you are a creature of partisan politics. I cannot make that decision for you, that is yours alone, but when you choose partisan politics over church doctrine it is my job as a Catholic to point you toward church doctrine.

          Now you have sweetened the pot by offering varying degrees of sin with abortion. Trust me when I tell you that the Roman Catholic Church does not offer a cafeteria for views on abortion.

          You sir, need to decide what you are and stop attempting to ride the fence, because in the RCC there is no fence.

          • JohnMcG

            I detect a bit of projection. Nowhere in this series of conversation have I suggested anybody vote Republican. I myself did not vote Republican in either the last Senate election in my state or the last presidential election. I am quite comfortable with the notion that a Catholic will not be comfortable in either political party.

            What I will resist is this a sloppy “evil is evil” evaluation where we say, “PP carries out thousands of abortions and is apparently willing to cover up child prostitution to do so; LiveAction lied to PP workers. Both are evil. Comes out about even. Pox on both their houses; I better keep out.” That is moral idiocy.

            The pro-life movement has committed sins, and will likely continue to do so, as long as it is populated by fallible humans. This requires honest examination of conscience, but does not mean it is unworthy of our support.

        • gisher

          JohnMcG you may or may not have voted with the GOP ever, but you sure do bring forth talk that sounds like it was lifted straight from GOP bullet points.

          And yet again, you have ignored what I have said numerous times and are still trying to elevate the misdeeds of LiveAction.

          This is not football sir, there is no keeping score and he who has the most points does not win. Wrong is wrong, Church doctrine is Church doctrine and you need to decide whether you are Catholic or a tool for political causes outside of the church.

          The pro-life movement itself is guilty of the same thing the GOP is guilty of:

          almost 40 of promises not kept and abject failures, but both still prey upon and profit from good Catholics that are seemingly unable to grasp that there may be better methods out there to lower the number of abortions, without accepting numerous additional sins in the bargain.

          I might also repeat again that 27% of all abortions are performed on Catholics who only represent 24% of the population. I think it’s best of we fix our own house first before we go outside wagging our finger telling everyone else to fix theirs.

          • JohnMcG

            I’ll remind you that the context of this discussion is LiveAction’s sting operation on Planned Parenthood.

            There’s a lot one can say about these tactics, which we have said. But I don’t think it would be true to say that they represent a continuation of the past 40 years of failed pro-life efforts. It is innovative. It may not be innovative in the direction you or I would prefer, but I don’t think it’s a valid criticism of those who defend them (or stop short of condemning them) to say we’re wedded to the same 40 years of failed strategies.

            I continue to believe, and in fact find it difficult to understand how anyone could not believe that the government saying that abortion is a Constitutional right has an impact on cultural acceptance of abortion, and the practice thereof. I also believe that considering abortion to be “health care” would be another cultural benchmark that ought to be resisted.

            This is not to say that this is all that needs to be done. I agree that there is much cultural work in the vineyard for us to do to reach a point where we reject abortion. But I am also convinced that the law helps shape culture.

            Finally, I would request that if you are characterizing me that you point to posts of mine that support that chracterization. It seems that you are debating some image in your mind of what a pro-lifer who supports legal restrictions is like rather than the human person in front of you. It is tiresome to have to continue to dodge and explain different charges that do not apply to me, and cannot be supported by anything I have written.

          • gisher

            John I stand by everything I said to you above, I will agree with you that having abortion constitutionally supported does send a horrific message.

            I will also say that abortions need to stop, but LiveAction did not save any lives and might have even jeopardized some, and certainly destroyed credibility.

            Whenever you wish to talk of tactics that may work, you know where to find me.

    • David Nickol

      Common sense,

      Let me quote in full a message DarwinCatholic wrote to me recently:

      Perhaps what you’re confusing here is the matter of what is right with what is something one would expect an ordinary and rational person to do.

      You’re certainly right that an ordinary and rational person would almost certainly be willing to personally kill one innocent person if doing this could avoid a nuclear war — or come to that torture one person if that would succeed in defusing a “ticking time bomb”.

      Similarly, most ordinary and rational people would say it would be fine for a woman who was raped to get an abortion.

      I don’t question whether these reactions are ordinary and rational, but I do question whether they are morally right. Something might seem so entirely necessary that virtually any person would do it, and yet still be a wrong thing to do which stains the person who commits the act and thus requires forgiveness.

      And in my own example of hypothetical brinksmanship, I think that picking something more viscerally heinous than the rather rhetorically antiseptic “kill one innocent person” brings out the basic human understanding that these acts are still wrong even if their consequences would result in most people choosing to commit the one evil in order to avoid the greater one.

      Now, my personal view is that something virtually anyone would do under the given circumstances (tell a lie to save the whole world, or deceive the Nazis into believing you are not hiding Jews, or kill one innocent man to prevent a nuclear war) would not be morally wrong. But I don’t believe that is what the Catholic Church teaches.

      What I am seeing here and on Mirror of Justice is people who would say–in a debate about abortion or sexuality–that one must never, ever do something intrinsically evil, saying in the case of the intrinsic evil of lying to embarrass Planned Parenthood that there must be some way deceiving people can be justified. Maybe the definition of lying has to be changed. Or maybe we shouldn’t talk about intrinsic evil. People who can find no reasoning that would have justified the (direct? indirect?) abortion in Phoenix are looking to find a way out of the Church’s absolute prohibition on lying when it comes to LiveAction.

      It looks very consequentialist to me. As I have said before, I think there’s something to be said from consequentialism. But for people who condemn consequentialism in debates about abortion and sexual ethics and then make what are in essence consequentialist arguments in other areas, it’s special pleading, and at best it’s inconsistent.

  • David Nickol

    After all, there’s no doubt that he engaged in lying and deception to attain his goals. Did that make him a consequentialist?

    Common sense,

    This web site just ate a very long response to your question. I will try to re-create it in much briefer form. DarwinCatholic in a recent message to me on another topic argued that just because anyone might do something under given circumstances (kill one innocent man to prevent a nuclear war, for example) doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do.

    It seems to me what is going on among many Catholics over the issue of LiveAction lying to Planned Parenthood to expose them is a temporary suspension of the rule that an intrinsic evil is something that may never, ever be done. This is an ironclad rule in discussions of abortion and sexual morality. But unlike in the Phoenix case, were “dissidents” argued that there had to be a better way than allowing a mother and her unborn child to die instead of saving the mother, and the “orthodox” said, “Sorry, rules are rules,” in the case of the intrinsic evil of lying, the “orthodox” are now saying there must be a way to permit lying when the purpose is to expose such a great evildoer as Planned Parenthood.

    When the shoe is on the other foot, those who believe in exceptionless rules about abortion and sexual morality start finding exceptions for the exceptionless rules they find too onerous.

    • JohnMcG

      And so, because of that, we can carry on doing nothing about abortion…


      Not that this makes lying OK, but have you considered the possibility that killing an innocent unborn child may possibly be a graver matter than leading someone to believe you are running a prostitution ring. Could it be?

      The position on the Phoenix case isn’t “rules are rules.” Masturbation is also intrinsically immoral, but I don’t think anyone would be excommunicated or hospitals not declared Catholic for them tolerating masturbation.

      Nor was the position of the hospital that there “had to be a better way.” The hospital chose a specific way, one that they knew was at odds with Church teaching. Indeed, I would say it is Bp. Olmsted’s position that there must be a better way to solve the problem than to kill the child.

      Likewise, I am inclined to believe that there is a better way to establish a Culture of Life and break the image of PP as a benevolent organization that just wants to help women than LiveAction’s deceptive stunts.

      Are you with us in helping to find it?

      • gisher

        “And so, because of that, we can carry on doing nothing about abortion…”

        By this you appear to infer that the only way to stop the deaths of the unborn is to embrace the right to life movement, and all of it’s tactics, tactics which have not succeeded for decades, and many tactics which run counter to our own doctrine.

        “Likewise, I am inclined to believe that there is a better way to establish a Culture of Life and break the image of PP as a benevolent organization that just wants to help women than LiveAction’s deceptive stunts.”

        Yes there there might be a better way to establish a Culture of Life and it does not involve supporting either LiveAction or the GOP or the highly profitable nest of associations that surround the pro-life movement.

        It is called following the Catholic doctrine and demonstrating through acts of love, kindness and compassion to others just what our doctrine is, and how we are called to love each other.

        I might add that 27% of all abortions are performed on Catholics so perhaps if we spent less time supporting efforts that do not work, and spent the time instead making sure we taught our own children about the love of Christ in the home, right there perhaps we could cut almost one third of the abortions.

      • David Nickol

        Not that this makes lying OK, but have you considered the possibility that killing an innocent unborn child may possibly be a graver matter than leading someone to believe you are running a prostitution ring. Could it be?

        John McG,

        If you accept the concept of “intrinsic evil,” there are some things that are always wrong, no matter what. As we should all know by now, identifying something as an intrinsic evil says nothing about the gravity of the evil. There are lies that may be very small evils (“Mmmmm, honey, this is delicious!”) and lies that may be very grave evils (“There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq”). However, let me quote John Henry Newman once again:

        The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

        I have not seen anyone argue that LiveAction’s sting was more evil than killing unborn babies. However, if it is always evil to lie, then what LiveAction did was evil, if perhaps only slightly evil. And the saying about never doing evil so that good may come of it doesn’t seem to make exceptions for doing small evils to prevent grave evils.

      • gisher

        Hopefully you do not mean this alternate method of curbing abortions:

  • brettsalkeld

    The standard Catholic response to the Nazis-at-the-door-Jews-in-the-attack dilemma has been to point out that it’s not lying if the person who is denied the information had no right to it because of their intended evil.

    Now, I’m not saying this is even close to being a parallel situation. Most obviously, there is a difference between the bad guys coming to your door and putting you on the spot and you going to someone else’s door.

    But I’d still be interested to know of some version of this justification for withholding the truth holds water with anyone regarding LiveActions work.

    • David Nickol


      There is a question in my mind as to how Catholic the “standard Catholic response” is. As I noted over on Mirror of Justice, I ran across the following while googling on this topic. It is from Charles Curran’s Moral Theology of John Paul II:

      In the early twentieth century, however, some moral theologians proposed a different reason for the moral malice of lying. . . . . The newer approach recognizes that the faculty or power can never be viewed in itself but only in its relationship with the person and the person’s relationship with the other person. The ultimate malice of lying does not consist in going against the God-given purpose of the faculty of speech (the perverted faculty argument) but in violating my neighbor’s right to the truth. If the other does not have the right to the truth, what I say is false speech, but it is not the moral act of lying . . . .

      This was the view reflected in the first version of the Catechism:

      To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.

      Then Cardinal Ratzinger had it changed to the following:

      To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.

      Curran says:

      Ratzinger well knew that many Catholic theologians today use the analogy of lying to argue against the faculty-act analysis with regard to human sexuality.

      So did Cardinal Ratzinger change the Catechism because he considered the “right to know” argument not to be a legitimate way of looking at lying, or merely because he saw a slippery slope in moving away from the “perverted faculty” rationale for condemning lying? That is, did he change the Catechism’s definition of lying because he considered it not to be Catholic teaching, or did he consider it to be Catholic teaching but want to keep theologians arguing about sexual morality from using lying as an analogy?

      • brettsalkeld

        Interesting. Thanks David.

  • Common sense

    Mr Nickol,
    I’d appreciate if you would refrain from assuming anything about my motives.  I was just trying to point out an example where the Church has actually applauded work that involved deceit and thus was trying to make the point that we should avoid unduly simplistic rhetoric.
    Btw, here’s an excellent discussion of this topic

    • David Nickol

      I apologize if anything I said offended you, but I was not assuming anything about your motives. I was making a general comment about what I have seen so far in the debate about lying. There is a very lively debate taking place on Mirror of Justice in which Robert George takes the position that lying is forbidden no matter what the circumstances. My observation is that many who take an absolute position on the intrinsic evil of abortion are willing to justify the intrinsic evil of lying if it can be used to undermine Planned Parenthood or otherwise be useful in the anti-abortion battle. I think Robert George is among the top, if not the top pro-life public intellectual in the United States, but many people seem to be hostile to his position because he condemns lying as a tool inappropriate for use in the pro-life movement.

  • bathilda

    I think that there are lies that are not wrong. “Nazis at the door” is an easy reference to that. “These are not the droids you are looking for” is another. Yes, I would lie without any stain to my own conscience. What I think we are missing is that many people will rationalize, not “lie”, hence the “it’s okay if it’s rape” arguement for abortion. I am pro choice, but I’m not “pro abortion”, meaning that since I feel that the government should not tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body, ESPECIALLY in cases of rape (and any incest is rape in my book). I do wonder how any of these orthodox pro lifers and a “lie is always, always wrong” types would rationalize if it was their 13 year old daughter pregnant by a rapist.

  • JohnMcG

    Robert George has posted an eloquent article that lying in the service of good is unacceptable.

    Unfortunately, for reasons that escape me, Vox Nova has been on a campaign to ruin Prof. George’s reputation with guilt-by-association smears, so he may not be respected.

    • WJ

      This is quite snide. Speaking for myself, when Robbie George says things or does things that I think are wrong, or do not comport with how Catholics should be acting in political life, I disagree with him and criticize him for it. (Case in point: the absurd propaganda machine that is the American Principles Project.) However, this does not mean that I, or anybody else, am trying to “ruin his reputation” by “guilt-by association” smears. George happens to be right on the money here, and I applaud him for speaking out. But perhaps you have a particular smear in mind that I’m forgetting was posted by one of the contributors here. If so, then I’ll stand corrected.

      • JohnMcG

        Examining the record, it appears my memory may have conflated some of VN’s criticism of Dr. George with <a href="the more outlandish criticims of Micheal Sean Winters.

        I apologize.

  • Pentimento

    Just a remeinder to would-be commenters: if your comment is rude, personal, insulting, ad hominem, or gratuitous, it will not make it into this combox.

  • Pentimento

    Mark Shea has also weighed in against Live Action’s tactics:

  • JohnMcG

    Re: Pentimento and “moral menus”

    We are all faced with moral choices in our lives and need to do the best we can with them. We don’t get to choose abortion lite or abortion. That is a matter of the consequences that face a person. In either case, to choose abortion would be wrong.

    As a third party, in making prudential decisions on which evils to confront, I think the gravity is a factor. So, I might not confront my friend who tells his wife he loves the tie she gave her when I know that it’s not his favorite color, but I might if he told a more serious lie.

    Let me state again, I’m close to convinced that LiveAction’s tactics are not licit, and I hope we use more honest tactics going forward. But I can’t see their dishonesty as a crime crying out to heaven for vengeance, either.