Venial Sin as a Gateway Drug

Venial Sin as a Gateway Drug June 7, 2012

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.”

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  • “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.”

    Actually, the trick is to know that while this is the preferred option, if in real life and under the gun, you can’t come up with something like that and you default to telling the Nazi a lie in order to save an innocent life, that’s OK. You lied. But that lie is not grave. You had the right motivation. There are other circumstances outside of the famous ‘saving Jews from Nazis’ in which this would also apply. But that’s the point. It’s why the same Catechism reminds us that while lying is wrong, not all lies are created equal. Should that be a blank check to lie, lie, lie? No. But it’s to remind us that that we are people with the law written on our hearts, not on tablets of stone.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      Sure. Our culpability in sin is mitigated, and sometimes eliminated entirely, by the circumstances surrounding it. That’s a far cry from the claim that it’s not sinful at all, though.

    • Cinlef

      I’ve always thought the Nazi example is a bad one since it seems to me to be an instance mental reservation works better at deception than lying

      Scenario A direct lying
      “There are no Jews in my house”

      Scenario B Mental reservation

      “Jews? Hidden in my house? What kind of National Socialist do you think I am? No loyal German would have Jews hidden in their house. How dare you slander me with such an accusation. By all means search my house, of course you won’t find anything but I can’t abide the idea of being under suspicion and I’d like this cleared up once and for all.”

      Scenario B is more convincing more likely to remove suspicion and entirely true (albeit grossly misleading)

    • Ted Seeber

      A sin is still a sin whether it seems wrong or not in the instant and whether or not you are culpable for it.

    • “… that’s OK. You lied. But that lie is not grave.”

      Of course, the difference between venial sin and mortal sin is not “OK” and “not OK.”

  • Andy, Bad Person

    The difference between “letting someone draw their own conclusions” and outright lying is pretty simple. It’s the difference between:

    1. Q. Are you the King of the Jews? A. You say that I am.
    2. Q. Weren’t you with him in the garden? A. I do not know the man.

    Guess which one was sinful.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      P.S. But, but, Peter was just playing a role. He wasn’t actually lying.

      • beccolina

        Please tell me that’s a joke. Of course Peter was lying. He was frightened.

        • Andy, Bad Person

          Yes; it’s a joke. It’s a joke that’s exactly the same as what defenders of LA have claimed, that the people conducting the “sting” weren’t lying, just playing a role.

  • Andy

    I think the key in the LA issue vs. the Nazi issue is that LA is in a premeditated manner – planning to lie. Planning to set up another person to commit a sin or be an accomplice to a sin, for the greater good. Telling a lie to the Nazis prevents the Nazis from sinning, for the greater good. Rationalization at its best.
    However, the nuns who taught me in grade school had a simple rule – telling a lie is a sin. Not hard to figure that out. The goal of LA while laudable in many ways also presents many problems. Having been caught in lies, it is hard to believe anything they may present. That according to Sister Gregory, my 7th grade teacher who I remember fondly, is the other problem with telling lies. This from the same nun who on Friday afternoons often questioned the visual acuity of the referees during our football games, and maybe this is why what she said stuck with me. It is a sin, and it detracts from your character and believability. She also talked about the need sometimes to not tell the entire truth – she said although not good, not telling all that you know is not as serious as a lie. She really “drilled” that into my 7th grade brain at a time when football was of equal importance in many ways, that honesty about all is most important, and that deliberately misleading someone through an active statement that was untrue was in her words “an attack on God”. If my rather stubborn 7th grade brain could learn that and still remember it today, why is it so hard for others to accept this.
    A quick note about your above referenced LA story and mammograms – in our area, albeit a poor rural area, PP does in conjunction with local hospital provide low cost pre-cancer screening, including mammograms. I don’t know if this is a state level decision, but at least on this local level it is done. This does not excuse PP from its other “shortcomings”, but …

    • Ted Seeber

      “PP does in conjunction with local hospital provide low cost pre-cancer screening, including mammograms”

      The key there is “in conjunction with local hospital”. Wouldn’t it be better to give the money *directly* to the local hospital and simply advertise low cost pre-cancer screening, including mammograms, for everybody from the hospital? Thus cutting the abortionists (and their overhead) out of the loop entirely?

      • Andy

        Ted – All I know about the PP activities with the local hospital is that they do so. I have no idea how the money aspect works. I am not condoning PP, I am merely pointing out that what happens at the state level is not always practiced at the local level, in any organization that has multiple levels.

  • Adolfo

    Kick. Ass. Post.

    • What Adolfo said.

  • Andy — Re: PP and Mammograms — The point was that PP claimed that they DID mammograms, like they had machines on their premises and doctors that performed them (and implied that they were free) when in fact there’s not a single PP location that has a mammogram machine.

  • kmk

    OK, Serious question. Lila Rose is a featured speaker at the Stand up for Religious Freedom Rally tomorrow in DC. We were planning on attending. I guess we still should–but don’t want to sanction her organization. WWJD?

    • B.E. Ward

      I would just refuse to clap and cheer when she boasts of LA’s exploits. If there’s a convenient place nearby, sitting down for her speech would work too!

      • Ted Seeber

        And if you feel really strongly about it, heckling works too!

    • Mark Shea

      Go. Lila Rose is mistaken in some of her tactics, but she is still on the side of the angels.

  • Melody Lane

    Not to be obnoxious, but I’m bringing up another Nazi example. I have heard that Pius XII authorized the use of baptismal certificates for hundreds of Jews (to claim they were not Jews, but Christians) in order that they might board ships and escape Europe. Would this be a positive example of lying?

    I understand and appreciate the points made on Live Action’…actions. I’m mulling it over. I have never seen a problem with espionage, so this is a big shift for me.

    • Kirt Higdon

      It’s my understanding that what the Vatican issued were passports and travel documents. The same was done by Spain and Portugal and even Iran. A government can issue passports and travel documents to whomever it wants. These documents would have afforded some protection to the bearers since they were issued by countries with whom Germany was not at war. A baptismal certificate would have afforded no protection whatsoever since the Nazi definition of Jewish was based on ethnic ancestry, not religious affiliation. St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) was not just a baptized Catholic, but a Carmelite nun of Jewish origin. That didn’t stop the Nazis from murdering her at Auschwitz.

      • Melody Lane

        I believe that is true too, but this is the instance to which I am referring – From Wikipedia: “Pius later engineered an agreement — formally approved on June 23, 1939 — with Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas to issue 3,000 visas to “non-Aryan Catholics”.
        However, over the next eighteen months Brazil’s Conselho de Imigração e Colonização (CIC) continued to tighten the restrictions on their issuance — including requiring a baptismal certificate dated before 1933, a substantial monetary transfer to the Banco do Brasil, and approval by the Brazilian Propaganda Office in Berlin — culminating in the cancellation of the program fourteen months later, after fewer than 1,000 visas had been issued, amid suspicions of “improper conduct” (i.e. continuing to practice Judaism) among those who had received visas.[3][4]”.
        I remember Sister Marchione on one of EWTN’s programs recounting the popes personal knowledge of the issuance of these certificates.
        Given Andy’s criteria of premeditation, how would this square? This seems a legitimate action to me.

    • ivan_the_mad

      Pius XII did not do that.

      Go to the tenth item.

      • Melody Lane

        Ok. Good catch. I see that the clerics who did issue them were urged to find other ways that did not involve falsifying documents.

    • Escalonn

      This is sometimes repeated but not true; baptismal certificates were issued, but against the Pope’s urging, not according to it.

    • Mark Shea

      Urban legend. Google Doino+Pius+XII

  • beccolina

    Can a priest attest that someone did NOT confess something in the confessional (providing, of course, that he really did not), or are priests supposed to refuse to confirm either way? I’ve always wondered about that.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      I think the safe route would be refusal to confirm or deny whether a confession even happened or not.

      • Ted Seeber

        A priest once used information gained in the confessional against me politically. I never went to that priest for confession again; even at the extent of lengthening my time between confessions to avoid him.

        It is a dangerous thing indeed to play with information gained in the confessional.

        • Andy, Bad Person

          It is a dangerous thing indeed to play with information gained in the confessional.

          More than dangerous; I’m pretty sure it includes automatic excommunication.

    • Mark Shea

      Of course, priests are bound by the Seal. But as a priest friend once told me, he can truthfully say that the contents of a confession were not said to him. They are said to Jesus.

      • Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered

        Rather jesuitical, no?

        • Mark Shea

          Do you have anything to offer besides snark?

  • Ted Seeber

    One of these days I’ve got to look up the difference between venal, venial, and venereal and the entomology of the three. To my autistic brain, this is one of the few sets of words that I get as mixed up as my wife who has definition dyslexia (to the point that one of her coping skills, to over use pronouns rather than risk getting a definition or a name wrong, drives me crazy).

    But that all said, a sin is still a sin even if nobody is culpable for it; the act itself still causes great damage to relationships (between either human beings and God, or between human beings and other human beings) and to society in general, damage that must be repaired or it WILL lead to violence.

    And that’s true of ANY sin.

  • Mary

    Mark, I’m curious about why you are bringing this up again. When I watched one of the most recent videos…which I confess I haven’t watched very carefully…I remember thinking: “They learned from the uproar last time and avoided direct lies.” Or, at least, they avoided anything we might be able to easily identify as a direct lie…some things could be a lie…but there’s no way to tell without knowing the “actor”. Perhaps you could point out specific instances of lies instead of just implying that they are still lying.
    You make an interesting point about the “enticing”. I’m going to have to think about that one. I’m on board with the lying but thought that if they managed to let PP draw erroneous conclusions it would be alright.

    • Scott W.

      I’m going to suggest that something worse than a lie goes on in the video: when the covert LA agent laughs with the PP women about her abortions, thus confirming her in her sins. As a commentor Joe Gabowski put it, “Gut-wrenching video, in every respect. The horror of what’s being discussed, the horror of how it’s being obtained, all converging to make for one great sadness. It hits at one of those finer points in the objection against lying for a good cause though: that laughter in the moment when the woman mentions that she’s had two abortions herself already – it should haunt us in our sleep. I cannot even conceive of laughing, even in a ploy or a conceit. That’s the moment my cover would be blown. How even to act laughter, when the angels are weeping? It would tear apart one’s own moral metaphysical nature to attempt it. And that’s the upshot: we cannot employ these tactics because even if they’re not sins for which we are culpable they are actions which engage a kind of violence against our moral nature within the act. This is, of course, to say nothing of all the positives evils done by this kind of activity, which I’ve noted before and won’t labor to elucidate here: the treatment of the ‘other,’ so wounded, so exploited, who more than anyone needs truth herself. To laugh at a woman who’s had two abortions herself, and all the damage its done her – to join her in her laughter at it! – all for the sake of some ‘evidence’ which is inadmissible in any serious legal application, unconvincing in any shrewd argumentative sense (because it can’t be demonstrated or proven to be “typical”). It pains the soul.”

  • Observer

    The defense for LA means bluring the definitive lines of lying in order to justify and even defend their reputation. Suppose, for a moment, the question was asked to those who defend LA for their actions along with protecting their reputation:

    Why won’t you accept LA’s lie was wrong? That is, what deeply bothers you if you had to accept LA’s actions were terribly wrong? What would your re-action be in the event you had to admit they had done something wrong?

  • “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.”

    Actually I consider that lying. But nonetheless, direct questions would have been asked: “Have you seen any jews?” “Are there any jews on the premises?” “Are you hiding any jews?”

    Is a Catholic priest obligated to turn in an illegal immigrant if he has knowledge of such and is being asked?

    • Mark Shea

      Yes. Lots of people equate allowing somebody to draw the wrong conclusion with lying. But they are not the same thing, or Jesus is a liar. (“Are you the king of the Jews?” “You have said it.”)

      In answer to your question: No.

      • I’m not sure saying “no” to whether He was king of the jews is lying. He was the King of all humanity and beyond, not specifically of the jews. Such a specific question of a demographic implies an earthly king. Even so, doesn’t that prove my point. There are times when you have to lie.

        And deception is a form of lying.

        So if a priest (or any Catholic) is asked about the person next door who he knows is an illegal immigrant (and he knows it outside of a confessional situation), he should lie and say he doesn’t know?

        • Mark Shea

          That’s my point. I’m *extremely* sure that Jesus did not lie. And yet he did not clarify for Pilate what sort of king he was, which was what the whole conversation was about for Pilate.

          And no: the priest should not lie. That’s what “lying, by its very nature is to be condemned” *means*.