I’ve been swamped in recent weeks with work and so could not reply at the time, but I thought I should try to respond to this. In an odd turn of events, John Zmirak has launched an angry assault on Yr. Obdt. Svt. for allegedly calling Lila Rose an “evil temptress”, for allegedly thinking it a more serious sin to lie to Planned Parenthood than to kill babies, and for allegedly calling the rescuers of Jews “sinners”. Here’s the thing: None of that is true. I have neither said nor do I believe any of that, just as when St. Thomas Aquinas said that all lying was sinful, he did not mean the Hebrew midwives were culpable for sin or that lying was worse then killing the firstborn of Israel. I think it is obvious that all these parties are trying to honor God, and I reckon they will hear “Well done” at the Pearly Gates. My attitude toward them has always been that of St. Thomas toward the Hebrew midwives:
Reply to Objection 2. The midwives were rewarded, not for their lie, but for their fear of God, and for their good-will, which latter led them to tell a lie. Hence it is expressly stated (Exodus 2:21): “And because the midwives feared God, He built them houses.” But the subsequent lie was not meritorious.
What is odd is the timing of Dr. Zmirak’s salvo. As a survey my blog will show, I have had very little to say about the ethics of the Noble Lie during the recent flap over the PP vids and (the horse being out of the barn) have instead focused primarily on the most excellent damage those vids are doing to PP. If anything, the overwhelming bulk of what I have written recently has been supportive of CMP’s results, though with a caveat against their methods, including a hearty hope that CMP ignores the court order to stop releasing their vids. To be sure, I have (along with Augustine, Aquinas, and the Catechism) continued to maintain that “by its very nature, lying is to be condemned” because that is, you know, what the Church says and I have this tic about agreeing with the Church even when it is unpopular with My Tribe. But it has not really been the focus of my comments on the CMP vids. Just read what I’ve written. One might then ask why Dr, Zmirak feels the sudden need to attack me now in an amazingly late contribution to an argument that spent its force four years ago. Particularly since I am by no means the only person to have made the case against the Noble Lie:
02/03/11 – It is a sin to lie, even to Planned Parenthood, by Reginaldus. The New Theological Movement
2/19/11 – Response: On Zmirak on Lying by Brandon Watson. Siris.
02/23/11 – More Zmirak on Lying by Brandon Watson. Siris.
02/09/11 – Lying to Planned Parenthood, or is it mental reservation?, by Reginaldus.The New Theological Movement.
02/09/11 – Truth, Love, and Live Action by Christopher O. Tollefson. Public Discourse:
02/10/11 – Building a Culture of Lie The exorcist and Lila Rose, by Dawn Eden and William Doino, Jr. BustedHalo.com.
02/22/11 – Did Pius XII Lie to Save Jews? by William Doino, Jr. A historian looks at how one man sought to serve both truth and love. The Public Discourse
02/12/11 – Pro-life group’s video stings spark ethical debate, by Benjamin Mann. Catholic News Agency
02/14/11 – Why Lying is Always Wrong, by Christopher O. Tollefson. Public Discourse. “Lying, even for laudable reasons, is wrong.” – A response to Christopher Kaczor and other critics.
02/15/11 – Life and Truth, by Robert P. George. Mirror of Justice:
02/21/11 – Response: Speaking Truth to Evil: “The Live Action case is very different from the Nazis-at-the-door problem, but lying is justified in neither situation”, by Christopher O. Tollefsen. Public Discourse:
02/22/11 – Political Responsibility and Exceptionless Moral Norms, by Carson Holloway. Public Discourse What exceptionless moral norms are we willing to discard for the sake of a good cause?
Given this huge paper trail of disagreements with the Noble Lie, several of them aimed directly at the frankly terrible arguments of Dr. Zmirak, I am puzzled at why he has chosen to suddenly focus on me, particularly when I have only given passing mention to the problem of CMP’s methods and have largely focused on the delightfully disastrous impact the vids have had on PP.
That said, let us attend to Dr. Zmirak’s complaints. Interestingly, my critics have not been CMP or LA (who I assume are too busy and I too obscure to have a public controversy with). Consequently, it has always been people like Dr. Zmirak and various other denizens of St. Blog’s who offer defenses of the Noble Lie and who have been my typical opponents (and opponents of all the now-mysteriously-ignored critics of lying above.
Dr. Zmirak’s complaints and accusations are common ones: I am allegedly giving aid and comfort to the enemy in a war against Planned Parenthood and am thus only a “putative” (read: fake) prolifer who needs to be rejected by all right-thinking Catholics. Only me, mind you. Not all the other opponents of the Noble Lie above. It seems intensely… personal… for him. And if I thought what Dr. Zmirak says I think, I might agree with him. But as we shall see, I don’t say or think the things he falsely attributes to me.
My critique of Zmirak’s arguments (and those who share them) has always been twofold.
1. It is consequentialist thinking to argue “Let us do evil that good may come of it.” It does not matter to the Church that the evil is a small one and the good end a large one. Because once you grant the premise that you can do evil for a good end, you have given away the farm and granted the very premise that ultimately makes abortion thinkable in the first place. After all, as any number of people will tell you, a fetus and a zygote are just teeny tiny things too. What are they compared to a lifetime of poverty and suffering for a teenage girl who just made a mistake?
2. It is what the Church means by “scandal” to try to get somebody to agree to commit grave evil for the sake of a photo op. And, indeed, it is more serious to do this when you know that they are likely to agree to it due to habits of sin, just as it is a sin to press a drink into the hands of an alcoholic when you *know* he is an addict, while there is no sin to offer a friend a beer.
Now, of the two, the latter is much more serious when it comes to the concrete case of LA’s and CMP’s tactics, which is why Thomas basically regards the Hebrew midwives as heroes but remarks that their lie was “not meritorious”. In the same way as Thomas is happy over the good effect the Hebrew midwives intended, I’m quite happy that the vids are turning stomachs and changing hearts and minds and damaging funding. I’ve been cheering for that effect on my blog.
But at the end of the day, that’s not an argument that lying is a good. It’s just an argument that good things can, in God’s Providence, sometimes result from morally wrong acts. And lying, according to Augustine, Aquinas, and the Catechism is “by its very nature…to be condemned”.
(In addition, it’s far too early to say “It worked”. Sure, there’s been massive embarrassment for PP and some funding cuts for the nonce. But that’s happened before and then it’s all been restored, with bonuses from fund drives shouting “Prolife liars are attacking us!” When the prolifers are themselves strenuously arguing for the goodness of lying, that’s hard to argue with.)
Part of the frustration folks like Dr. Zmirak feel with irritating simpletons like me is the impatience that comes of the “CAN’T YOU GET IT THROUGH YOUR HEAD THAT THIS IS *WAR*, DAMMIT?” mentality that has oppressed long-frustrated prolifers, particularly during this Administration.
And indeed, Dr. Zmirak makes much of the Just War analogy. This is how my criticism of the Noble Lie is so easily conflated in his mind with defenses of Nazis–and in turn how critics of the Noble Lie are so easily damned by him as moral morons who think fibbing worse than killing babies. The problem, of course, is that all conflict is not war and the struggle against abortion is not, in fact, war. If you think it is, then it is you and not me who is the gutless coward without the strength of his convictions since you are not out there right now, rifle in hand, blowing the heads off abortionists and bravely willing to face jail. But, in fact, we all know that this is *not* war and if somebody does treat it like war and kill an abortionist, he deserves prison for first degree murder.
But because the charge “You’d hand Jews over to Nazis and condemn their rescuers as sinners, you moral moron” is so delectable, it becomes irresistible for the polemicist–who is *finally* seeing some real punches landed on Planned Parenthood–to use that line against anybody who seems to him to demonstrate Lack of Unit Cohesion. And so, Zmirak makes this absolutely false assertion:
[Shea] also said that families sheltering Jews during the Holocaust would have sinned by deceiving the Nazis who hunted those Jews.
No. I said nothing of the kind for the reason given by St. Thomas about the Hebrew midwives. Listen for yourself (the relevant point is around the 35 minute mark but listen to the whole thing):
I don’t make judgments about the sinfulness of heroes who save lives–men and women whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. And Dr. Zmirak, who recently pled for civility in argument and not presuming the absolute worst about one’s opponent, knows that. I make an argument about the Faustian Bargain of Christians enshrining the Noble Lie as a core value in their hope for quick culture war victories and warn that it is a danger. I do not and would never say or think that rescuers of Jews were sinners. This is a lie.
And a very effective one. It “works” judging from the mail I’ve gotten and the combox denunciations I’ve received. I am judged to be, in Dr. Zmirak’s words, a “putative” prolifer by a significant portion of Dr. Zmirak’s readers, because the lie confirms what they need to believe about me and moral idiots like me who need to be ostracized. And besides, people don’t have a right to the truth about what I and moral idiots like me actually think, since we are obviously not Team Players but only “putative” members of the team: fifth columnists working to hurt the prolife movement.
This brings us to Zmirak’s second strategy: to redefine lying as “lying”. Time was when defenders of the Noble Lie spoke plain English and called it a lie. My friend Peter Kreeft, a man of many excellent intellectual virtues and character that will, I hope, get him canonized a saint one day, wrote a straightforward (and I think, wrong) defense of the Noble Lie back in 2011 in which he clearly and without tergiversation called lying lying and not ‘lying’. No scare quotes. He manfully declared that lying was okay sometimes.
Since then, though, the custom has become to try to put everything in scare quotes, as though this changes the nature of what is being done. It is, curiously, the same strategy always used by people who want to deny that they are defending sins. Torture has been, for 10 years, “torture” whenever torture defenders write about it. Murder is always “murder” when Planned Parenthood speaks of it. People always put their favorite sins in scare quotes when laboring to rationalize them.
Dr. Zmirak’s claim is that a lie ceases to be a lie when you tell it to the person you have decided is unworthy of the truth. This is simply rubbish. A lie is a lie and it is a lie to deny that a lie is a lie. Now it is perfectly true that if someone has no right to the truth you are not obliged to give them every piece of information you know. I don’t, for instance, have to tell you my wife’s social security number. And indeed, there is in the Tradition all sorts of wiggle room, much of it modeled on Jesus and the apostles themselves, for speech acts that are other than total naked declarations of fact about everything we know (including the question of whether we are hiding Jews in the attic). As I pointed out some time ago to a priest friend puzzling about all this stuff:
Jesus cannot lie since he is God and God, according to his own word “cannot lie” (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2). Jesus not only speaks truth, he is the Truth. It would contradict his very nature to do otherwise. That said, what he can (and often does) do is not put all his cards on the table as he speaks in elliptical ways for various purposes. So, he often
- equivocates, (“Are you the King of the Jews?” “Thou sayest.”)
- evades, (“Why do you call me good? There is none good but God”)
- uses ambiguous language, (“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”)
- allows people to draw wrong conclusions (as when he does not contradict the witnesses at his trial who use his saying about destroying the temple to claim he is a sort of terrorist.)
- speaks in paradoxes designed to provoke questions (as when, for instance he commands us not to engage in meaningless repetition and then immediately prescribes a prayer we are to endlessly repeat, or when he tells the Syro-phoenician woman that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and then turns around and answers her prayer for exorcism from an unclean spirit–all directly on the heels of preachments about how all foods are clean. In other words, his point is that Gentiles are “kosher” now and are being called into the Church which is the house of the Israel of God–a house that is open to all peoples.)
- or keeps silent–or commands silence, as at his trial, or when he tells demons to shut their traps about his true identity or tells his disciples to keep the Transfiguration under their hats.
So likewise he does not reveal his identity immediately on the Emmaus Road, but he never lies. He does not present himself under a false name, he merely does not give his name. He is (very mysteriously) not recognized, but why this is we are not told. Luke describes it as “their eyes were kept from recognizing him”. It is a phenomenon that occurs three times in the gospels–and one of the stronger evidences that the Resurrection was not a hallucination since wish fulfillment fantasies would not conjure up a wish fulfillment that does not fulfill the wish. The sense we get from the text is that there is something different about the Risen Jesus so that he is not immediately recognizable, not that he is wearing a wig and a mustache to disguise himself. (Though, by the way, disguises are also morally acceptable since we can dress as we please and if others draw wrong conclusions from that, that is up to them.) He asks questions, but never says he does not know what happened. The Catholic moral tradition likewise says that we are under no obligation to volunteer everything about our private affairs or knowledge. Some things are properly secret, which is why you, Padre, not only need not, but in fact must not, reveal the content of somebody’s confession (a matter to which we will return in a moment). In Jesus’ case, he keeps the secret of his identity and asks the disciples questions as any teacher does: not because he needs the information, but because he is drawing understanding out of his disciples and trying to get them to make the connections themselves. It’s very rabbinic.
Which brings us to an interesting point: namely, that the reason the Church is so adamant on the distinction between the kinds of speech acts Jesus does and lying is that to call lying–even the smallest lie–“good” is to say that Jesus approves of lying. And as arguments for the Noble Lie gather steam and passions are inflamed against moral morons like myself, it soon becomes inevitable that somebody will claim that Jesus therefore blesses lying and even lies himself. I have seen it done on numerous occasions–often by Catholics who, in other contexts, have strenuously denied atheist claims that Jesus was a liar. But when the fever for defending the Noble Lie of anti-abortion activists is on such people they completely forget themselves and start claiming Him Who is Truth as himself practicing the Noble Lie for the Greater Good.
Dr. Zmirak does not, himself, do this so far as I know. But he does excoriate as “verbal pacifists” those who think that Jesus’ model is to be followed. In doing so, he necessarily excoriates Jesus as collateral damage–and as we shall see in a moment, Jesus is not the only collateral damage to Dr. Zmirak’s Take No Prisoners approach.
When this is pointed out, ardent defenders of the Noble Lie often suddenly profess bafflement over semantic complexities and declare “Who even knows what lying is anyway? Who made you the judge of what is and is not lying?”
Answer: Holy Church made us all judges, when she defines lying for us and commands us to use our noggins to avoid it:
2482 “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.”281 The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.
“But,” says the defender of the Noble Lie, “people presenting themselves as fetal parts buyers are trying to lead people into truth when they give a fake identity and purpose, so they aren’t lying.”
Uh, yeah. They are. A lie does not cease to be a lie merely because you do it for a good purpose. When you give a false identity and say, “I want you to help me get an abortion/buy your harvested tissues” when that is false, you are lying. Moreover, you are lying, not to lead someone to truth, but to get them to sin so that you can then expose their sin to somebody else.
And this brings us to the second lie Dr. Zmirak tells for his good purpose of reinforcing unit cohesion on the prolife ranks: he says that I call Lila Rose an “evil temptress”. False. What is say is that–though I doubt Lila Rose or the other people who sought to get PP workers to agree to commit sin for the camera have given it any thought (and are therefore likely not culpable or guilty of any conscious sin)–it remains a fact that to try to get somebody to commit a sin is to share in that person’s sin. That is, once again, not me but the Church talking:
2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.
When you deliberately urge somebody you *know* is already prone to grave evil to commit more grave evil, you assume the guilt of their sin–as when you deliberately urge a drink upon a known alcoholic. That is a heavy price to pay for a photo op.
I get it. It’s galling to hear that. “We have to stop these bastards by any means necessary!” is the cry. They are the Enemy and they must be destroyed–as must the putative pro-lifers such as me and other critics of the Noble Lie. No quarter! And indeed, that is exactly the attitude Dr. Zmirak has expressed in other sectors of the Culture War:
Consider yourself a Marxist of any kind? Then you are my personal enemy. I will not engage you, dialogue with you, try to see the world through your eyes, any more than I would try that with a Social Darwinist or a Holocaust Revisionist. I will try by any means that is not sinful or illegal to DESTROY you. That is where we differ, you see. As a Marxist, your only morality is that of class conflict. You are a Machiavellian to the core. I am a Roman. I am Coriolanus, and I am coming for you.
What Dr. Zmirak fails to grasp is that it is already sinful to wish to destroy those whom he has deemed an enemy. We wrestle not with flesh and blood and the Son of Man did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved. In *real* Just War teaching, destruction of an enemy is not something we *get* to do, it is something we tragically have to do.
It is significant that Dr. Zmirak has, no doubt for what he believes the greater good of the prolife movement, twice in one piece, told two documentable lies about what I have said and what I think for the express purpose of winning a Culture War fight by any means necessary. And that he has invoked Greco-Roman paganism, not Christ, to justify it. And it is right at the heart of why I continue to have grave misgivings about the shortsightedness of the embrace of the Noble Lie.
Here’s the deal: The devil is happy to cure your chillblains if he can give you cancer. We’ve had a happy nine days wonder in which PP has taken some hits (always a joy to see). But in the end, what will come of it? The last time, they saw a tidy jump in donations because they could, in all truth, say, “Liars are attacking us.” They will do that again. If the videos I have seen are any indication, they will not be convicted of any felonies for the very good reason that the vids don’t establish anything like that as fact.
Meanwhile, though prolifers and PP are acutely aware of the videos, according to Robert Royal, 70% of the American people are completely oblivious to this tempest. And as to the 30%? Well, the normal breakdown of American opinion on abortion is 20% favor it, 20% oppose, and the other 60% don’t like it, think it should remain legal, and never want to hear or think about it again. There is very little indication that those numbers are changing as a result of the videos. It’s a feel good, affirming moment for the 20% who oppose abortion. But in terms of changing the culture, I’m highly skeptical that is happening. I could be wrong, of course. But show me some numbers.
However, within the prolife movement there *has* been a sea change. Thanks to the work of people like Dr. Zmirak, Christians have enthusiastically embraced the Noble Lie as a brilliant strategy. Christians mesmerized by hunger for short term culture war victories will continue to cultivate in their hearts and minds the cancerous conviction that the way to *really* get things done–to WIN!–is to lie through our teeth whenever we want to, and to define a larger and larger circle of people as having “no right to the truth”: including audiences one wishes to manipulate against Perceived Internal Enemies of the Movement.
The problem is this: though Dr. Zmirak sets his bomb sights only on me, the reality is that his carpet bombing attacks all those in the prolife movement who oppose the Noble Lie: good, honest workers in the Vineyard who have done years of labor on behalf of the unborn. Take, for instance, Abby Johnson, who posted this on her FB page the other day:
Abby is, as most prolife people know, a former clinic worker who has become a Catholic and ardently prolife. She has begun an apostolate called And Then There Were None, which seeks to form relationships with, not lie to, clinic workers and help them transition out of this work and into something good. It is, frankly, impossible to square what she does, with “I will try by any means that is not sinful or illegal to DESTROY you. I am a Roman. I am Coriolanus, and I am coming for you.” Abby gets that the goal of the Church is not to win Culture War raids and public relations coups, but to act with integrity so as to gain the whole world and *not* lose one’s soul.
Our fascination with flashy culture war coups and celebrity is not healthy. A couple of years ago, when a celebrity priest imploded, some of his fanboi lamented that “the last voice for the faith” had been silenced. In saying this, they inadvertently insulted and dismissed the literally millions of other Catholics who bear witness to the faith in big and little ways around the world. In a similar way, Dr. Zmirak’s attack on me is not, despite his attempt to make it so, simply an attack on me. There is a lot of collateral damage to every other prolife worker out there who rejects the Noble Lie, as well as to Augustine, Aquinas, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And, of course, it is an attack–a call for the destruction of all the other conflicted Abby Johnsons, Carol Everetts, and Bernard Nathansons still out there, working in clinics and struggling with their consciences.
And for what? A brief thrill, followed by the continuing necessity of the long, slow patient work of winning hearts and minds, not through lies, but through the splendor of the Truth. Indeed, the surest way to make the gospel incredible to the next generation will be for Christians to hug to their breasts the Islamic theory of taqiyya and make it a permanent feature of our life and practice. A faith that enshrines the Noble Lie at its heart is a faith that is begging to be rejected by lovers of Him who is Truth. It’s the essence of the Faustian Bargain, and it will yield death.
As Screwtape puts it: “To get a man’s soul and give him nothing in return–-that is what really gladdens Our Father’s heart.” Good luck with that.
“For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Co 10:3–5).