John Zmirak Says I Think the People Making the PP Vids are Sinning Gravely by Lying

John Zmirak Says I Think the People Making the PP Vids are Sinning Gravely by Lying August 18, 2015

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.

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 – , by Reginaldus. The New Theological Movement – Response to Joseph Bottum and Monica Migliorino Miller.

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?

2/20/11A Rhetorical Response to Dr. Kreeft and A Philosophical Response to Dr. Kreeft , by Joe Grabowski.

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).

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  • Dan13

    Why do you care what John Zmirak thinks? That is problem with the Catholic blogosphere, people listening to self-appointed authorities instead of their priests and bishops. Anyway as you pointed out the Catechism is fairly clear on so-called “lying for Jesus.”

    • chezami

      I care because a lot of people take seriously the idea that the Noble Lie is a legitimate part of Catholic teaching and that cancerous idea will have consequences when it is embraced and implemented.

      • Sue Korlan

        And of course the trickiest part of this question is that the first edition of the Catechism sided with Zmirak and was corrected by the Magisterium to side with you. So it depends on which edition of the Catechism you are using.

    • Jared B.

      “that the Noble Lie is a legitimate part of Catholic teaching and that
      cancerous idea will have consequences when it is embraced and

      That does sum up what’s at stake here, and it explains both Shea and Zmirak’s (and Kreeft’s & Tollefson’s) vociferousness on the issue: who ever is on the wrong side of this issue isn’t just incorrect on an obscure doctrinal point, but is actively encouraging people to sin by commission or omission, participate in sin by counsel/consent/praise/concealment/partaking/silence and especially defense.

      It’s bloody obvious that if Zmirak/Kreeft/Smith’s camp is wrong, then the whole situation is one of calling evil good, of rationalizing sin, of doing-evil-that-good-may-come consequentialism. That doesn’t mean that everyone or even most people on that side really mean it that way; I think most are sincerely following their consciences (just as I think there were plenty of people in WWII who could have lied/spied/deceived to protect some people, didn’t do so, and had to live with that guilt for the rest of their lives).

      And if Shea/Tollefson/Watson et al. are wrong, then the situation is at best one of bearing false witness and calling people out on sins they didn’t commit, at worst one of sinning by omission in refraining from achieving some good, out of a misguided notion of what the Catechism & the Church actually teaches.

      The former position is currently held by the Church as the “more probable” opinion, as Janet Smith admits and as the final edit to the Catechism bears out. It’s also the “safer” position, because the risk is not equal on both sides. Neither of those facts necessarily make it the truth, but it does mean that no one should be accused of being morally stupid or having a culpably uninformed conscience for taking that side. Understanding at least some of the merits of both sides of the argument is important for having a properly formed conscience.

  • Bryan


  • Joe

    I learned in high school that there were such things as morally tolerable acts (namely, that the moral object is always wrong, but the intent is good and circumstances are appropriate). So lying to Nazis looking for Jews you’re hiding seems to fall under this. However, I also learned that there were acts that could never be considered morally tolerable. Does lying fall under the latter category?

    • capaxdei

      “Morally tolerable act,” as defined here, is a category of “sin.”

  • Dave G.

    I don’t think lying is right. I think it would be better if we can find honest ways of exposing PP. Noted. Now, those who will use this to defend PP aren’t going to get me to take my eyes off the horror they’re trying to cover up. We shouldn’t have dropped the bombs on Japan. But that won’t keep my eyes off the millions who were terrorized and died under its reign of terror. Nor will Dresden keep my eyes off the gas chambers. And those are major breaches of morality – incinerating a city filled with innocents in the blink of an eye to defeat such horrifying empires. How much easier for me to accept that the lying shouldn’t happen, but set it aside to focus on the true horrors of not just what PP is doing, but what kind of a society we have become where so many people are not rushing to condemn it, but despite even the hint of what might be happening, are actually rushing to defend it. And even defend those who are defending it. That is my focus at this point.

  • Jim
  • Obpoet

    “Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After saying this, he remained in Galilee. 10 But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret.
    John 7: 9-10

    Is this a lie?

    • chezami

      As I say, it doesn’t take long for defenders of the Noble Lie to start trying to argue that Jesus was a liar. This is their favorite proof text, just as it is the favorite proof text of atheists attempting to demonstrate the same thing. You might want to re-examine your priorities when you are locking arms with atheists to shout “Hell yes! Jesus was a huge liar!” Good luck with that.

      • ManyMoreSpices

        Yeah, um, look: I don’t think Jesus ever lied, but would it kill you to do a more developed exegesis of this passage – which on its face appears to show Jesus saying one thing, then doing the opposite – than yelling “proof text!” and sprinting away? I can imagine several “outs” here, but I don’t know which one to supply.

        • Marthe Lépine

          Maybe Jesus simply changed His mind the day after, or something like that? Is a person who claims something one day, and later regrets it or changes her mind, necessarily guilty of lying? Or He meant that He was not going “with them” at that particular time? Maybe sometimes the writer of the Gospel did not necessarily include every single word Jesus said, but only the “jest” or just the general meaning of what He said? There are a lot of possibilities.

          • ManyMoreSpices

            Sure, all of those are hypotheses worth exploring. And whether we reject or accept any particular one may depend on our understanding of some important things about Jesus. For example, given that Jesus has both human and divine nature, is He capable of changing his mind? Jesus clearly knew some things about the future… but see Mark 13:32, which presents its own challenges.

            That’s why Mark’s cry of “proof text!” is inapt. This isn’t even proof-texting, in the sense of plucking something from Scripture, removing all context, and drawing a broad conclusion from it. The question is more fundamental: Why does John record Jesus say “I’m not going to do this,” then doing it anyway?

      • Jared B.

        Though it is one advantage of the shall-we-call-it less rigorous definition of lying (i.e. the assertion that not all false statements are lies, being consistent with the same principles that lead the Catholic Church to teach that not all killing is murder and not all taking of property is theft) that they are free to read several scriptural passages in their plain literal meaning, whereas the more rigorous position (all false statements are lies and therefore at least venially sinful) is forced to explain away or do a lot more heavy exegesis.

        That is by no means proof that one side is right and the other wrong, but it is something to think about. Holy Scripture, on the face of it, doesn’t exactly jump out and support the rigorist concept of lying. That comes more from the philosophical than the biblical angle.

    • capaxdei

      Jesus is answering His brothers, who do not believe in Him (v 5). They told him to go to Judea and work open miracles. He says He’s not going to do that, and v 10 says that He doesn’t.

      So no, this is not a lie.

      I’ll add that it does show the categorical prohibition against lying doesn’t mean you have to fully explain everything you say in a way the person you’re speaking to comprehends.

      We probably know this already, and it also follows from our experience with the God Who Is Truth, Who doesn’t always answer our questions in a way we comprehend at the time.

  • SDG

    Mark, kudos on this thoughtful and measured response.

    On two points, at least, Dr. Zmirak owes you a big, fat apology: He should not have implied that on your accounting the Planned Parenthood stingers were guilty of sinning gravely, and holy cripes, he should not have dared to throw out a phrase like “putative pro-lifers.” That is really beyond the pale. For shame.

    • chezami

      One suspects that apologies are not in Coriolanus’ playbook, but I live in hope. God forgive him as do I.

  • orual’s kindred

    This is war. And as God’s children, our responsibility is to fight this war as God’s children. Our weapons are His weapons. I am baffled by the apparent desire among so many self-described Christians to outdo the world in political strategy.

    • Matt Talbot

      This isn’t a war. We are not trying to destroy an enemy, but to convince our fellow citizens. We need ambassadors, not soldiers.

      • orual’s kindred

        Oh! I was speaking with the demonic side of the struggle in mind. My apologies for not making that clear. Certainly I agree that we are trying to convince fellow citizens, and that we need ambassadors!

  • In this, and in another article recently posted over at Crisis’ site, I am reminded of the scene in Fellowship of the Ring where petty infighting nearly ended the Fellowship before it could really begin.

    We risk losing ourselves to Satan when we forget he is the enemy and not each other. We gain nothing by tossing each other into the fires of Mount Doom!

    • Joseph

      Unless, of course, you’re holding the ring and I don’t want to touch it lest I become possessed by its power, so instead I toss you into the fires below. Then, I would have sacrificed you for the world. Sorry, I just had to add to that analogy.

  • Joseph

    As an interesting side note, and one that I didn’t think of before. Didn’t these videos (I think they are six now, and combined make a pretty stirring case against PP and its body part trading partners) present the Republican party with the perfect opportunity to flex their new found Congressional majority muscle and vote to defund PP for good (you know, the longstanding battle)? And didn’t the Senate fail to gather enough votes showing that, even with a majority, the Republicans are uninterested in the pro-life constituency or in *doing the right thing*. I know we’ve already made that assessment a million times, but this was probably the best chance they ever had and they still failed to do it. Yeah, there you go.

    • prairiebunny

      To pass 60 votes were needed.There are only 54 GOP senators.They needed help from some democrats.Didn’t get it.Rather than attacking the republicans why don’t you go after the 15 or so pro abort catholics in the senate?

      • Joseph

        Because I’ve gone after the 15 or so pro-abort Catholics ad nauseam. Who was the GOP defect? And… you know… political games can be played to get those 6 votes needed. You know, you help me get this bill through and I’ll help you with yours? If they wanted to, they could’ve mustered up 6 votes. It’s more than likely that it’s another dog and pony show. 53 out of 54 Republican Senators voted for a failed bill… well, shoot… time to get back to work… let’s see, what war can we start today?

        • prairiebunny

          “If they wanted to, they could’ve mustered up 6 votes.” Really? If the topic was pork barrel legislation I would agree with you. “you vote for my pork bill and and I’ll vote for yours.” Planned Parenthood is an entirely different animal.PP is the darling of the MSN,of Hollywood and most importantly it is the darling of the Democrat Party.To be a democrat and deemed unreliable on abortion is not a safe place to be.Come the next election and might find a primary opponent and deserted by the big donors.Besides if you’re a pro abort why would you want to defund PP?What could the GOP possibly offer you to buck your party on this topic?

        • Guest

          McConnell voted against, but that may have been a parliamentary tactic since he’s the majority leader. IIRC his no vote permits the matter to be raised again or something.

          • antigon

            Also Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

            • Guest

              That’s right. Thanks. I believe Joe Manchin (D, WV) also crossed over, but in the right way.

              • antigon

                Plus another Dem, from Indiana as I recall.

                • Sue Korlan

                  Joe Donnelly

  • capaxdei

    If the Catechism is too new-fangled or vague on this subject, you can always check with the Sixteenth Century Roman Catechism, which teaches, “In a word, lies of every sort are prohibited,” explicitly condemns what I’ll call the “charitable lie” of telling someone who is dying that they aren’t dying, and even declares, “To deceive by a jocose or officious lie, even though it helps or harms no one, is, notwithstanding, altogether unworthy.” (An officious lie is told for the wellbeing and convenience of someone; a jocose lie is told in fun; the third kind of lie is the mischievous lie, told out of malice.)

    As for redefining “lying,” pace Peter Kreeft that’s really your only choice when you want to defend certain officious lies, statements contrary to the mind of the person speaking that are in no sense equivocations or evasions and are made for the wellbeing of someone.

    • ManyMoreSpices

      I’m bothered by this idea that “leading someone into error” (CCC 2483) is above-board as long as you can characterize what you’re doing as “equivocations or evasions**” instead of “lying.” Or, as you put it below, “the categorical prohibition against lying doesn’t mean you have to fully explain everything you say in a way the person you’re speaking to comprehends.” It’s just too cute, and it creates exceptions that swallow the rule. It doesn’t do the reputation of Christians much good to be known as clever deceivers instead of liars.

      “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” and “There is not a sexual relationship” were equivocations/evasions and not “lies” I guess, but come on, no one thinks that Bill Clinton was doing anything other than trying to hoodwink us. No one thinks that he was being morally upstanding when he made those statements.

      And if we go with your exception for not fully explaining everything in a way that others understand, well, then we’ve always got an excuse for lying. When you asked me if I had any children and I nodded once and said “nine,” it’s not my fault that you didn’t realize that I suddenly started speaking German and adopted the Greek and Sicilian custom of communicating “no” with a nod. Nor is it my fault that you didn’t realize that when I told you that I was a war veteran with PTSD, I just happened to be rehearsing lines from a play I was composing.

      [**To be clear about this, contra Mark, I don’t think that it’s accurate to call anything that Christ said an “equivocation” or “evasion.” Mark calls this exchange an equivocation:

      Pilate: “Are you the King of the Jews?”
      Jesus: “Thou sayest.”

      The first definition I have for “equivocate” is “use ambiguous language so as to conceal the truth or avoid committing oneself.” Jesus wasn’t being ambiguous; He was clearly refusing to answer the question.

      God has many names. “The Great Equivocator” and “The Clinton of the Heavens” are not among them. And I never recall singing the hymn “Our God is an Evasive God.”]

      • capaxdei

        Oh yes, not categorically forbidding equivocation and evasion absolutely does open the door to all sorts of dodginess. Who is to say whether your “nine”/”Nein” is discoverable (which might be allowable) or undiscoverable (which is not allowable) as an equivocation?

        And yet, can you name any Catholic authority who categorically forbids equivocations and insists we are always obligated to ensure we are never misunderstood?

        The solution, I think, is to stop starting from a definition of lying and then testing different possibilities to see whether they constitute a lie. Instead, we should start with a deep understanding of the virtue of truth-telling and how it relates to the true that is also the good and the beautiful, and to the God Who Is Truth and from Whom all truth and being comes.

        • ManyMoreSpices

          Having not studied the issue I don’t know of anyone who categorically forbids “equivocations.” I will say, though, that if we want an answer, we’ll have to define what we mean by “equivocate” or “evade” or whatever other words we want to use for not-quite-lying. As I said, I disagree with the assertion that Jesus “equivocated” before Pilate. And if you can/cannot call what He did “equivocation,” then other “equivocations” become less/more difficult to defend. Perhaps not impossible, but… more difficult.

          I agree that the approach should be to start with a presumption of truth-telling. Totally. The challenge for me here starts with these observations:

          (i) It is not sinful to say things you know not to be true, as long as you do not intend to deceive;
          (ii) It is (apparently) not sinful to say words that technically convey truthful information, even if you know that from your word choice, tone, context, etc., your audience will be led to believe the opposite.
          (iii) It is not sinful to deceive others through actions.

          So it’s it’s okay to say words that aren’t true as long as you’re not trying to deceive, and it’s okay to deceive as long as you’re doing it with actions, but it’s also okay to deceive with words as long as you’re able to conjure up a cute explanation for why you’re not actually lying. I guess it bothers me that the Church doesn’t have a problem with deception unless it’s done verbally and without cleverness. The speech/action distinction is not one that I’m sold on. Can I use sign language to deceive? Why not? I’m not actually “speaking.”

          • capaxdei

            I don’t think it’s altogether academic to say that your three observations should all begin, “It is not necessarily sinful,”
            the point being that in ordinary circumstances we are to speak so as to convey what we think.

            So no, it’s not “okay to deceive with words as long as you’re able to conjure up a cute explanation for why you’re not actually lying,” nor is it true that the Church doesn’t have a problem with deception unless it’s unclever speech.

            Given the imprecision of human speech, some amount of equivocation has to be allowable; otherwise we would need to speak a formal language, only to those who understand that language, and whatever couldn’t be expressed in that language would have to go unexpressed. But answering the question of what kind of equivocation is allowable under what circumstances is, as Mark might say, not to be done by substituting the question, “When do we get to deceive?”

            • ManyMoreSpices

              Given the imprecision of human speech, some amount of equivocation has to be allowable; otherwise we would need to speak a formal language, only to those who understand that language, and whatever couldn’t be expressed in that language would have to go unexpressed.

              There’s a level of normal, unavoidable ambiguity and imprecision in language. I don’t agree that a willed exploitation of that ambiguity and imprecision with intent to deceive must therefore be allowed.

              • capaxdei

                You’re right, willed exploitation doesn’t follow. What does follow is acceptance of some risk of misunderstanding. We are not always and everywhere obliged to ensure that no one ever misunderstands what we say.

                Speech with the intent to lead the listener into error is forbidden.Speech with the intent to leave the listener in ignorance as to the truth is, under limited circumstances, permissible. That’s an inelegant solution, with a lot of obvious difficulties, but it seems to be the majority position (prior to the Twentieth Century, at least).

  • chezami

    Question for readers: Is the link to the radio show visible for you? I can’t see it on my screen but the system says the code is there.

    • Newp Ort

      I see it!

    • Artevelde

      Could see it at work but no longer now I’m home.

    • Dan F.

      I don’t see it.

  • Jared B.

    Hi Mark I was wondering what are your thoughts on Janet Smith’s take on lying? on which Zmirak’s argument mostly depended.

    I found it more compelling than most others because

    * It affirms the Church’s teaching that all lying is an intrinsic moral evil, without exceptions; no “noble lie”
    * It is much more philosophically & theologically rigorous than Peter Kreeft’s essay
    * It doesn’t accuse opponents of being moral idiots

    The gist of Smith’s essay was that Aquinas himself was actually being inconsistent about whether all falsehoods are lying, compared to his evaluation of whether all killing is murder (it isn’t) or whether all involuntary taking of property is theft (it isn’t).

    Coming from honest inquirers like Smith, “Why is speech being held to a completely different standard than killing or taking property?” and “Are all verbal falsehoods actually lying?” aren’t rhetorical questions designed to justify something the speaker knows to be a moral evil, like “Is waterboarding really torture?” There are important question that needs to be answered by those who side with Tollefson et al.

    • chezami

      When you find yourself saying Augustine and Aquinas (and the Catechism (as well as the Roman Catechism of Trent) are wrong because of this up to the minute hot button culture war fad, you should consider the possibility that you are wrong.

      • Jared B.

        Which Janet Smith, in the article I linked to, certainly does admit. The point is that it’s not a new debate, and there are reasons for coming to the conclusion that Augustine & Aquinas got it wrong that have nothing to do with a culture war fad and everything to do with wanting to do good theology. I was just wondering if you were familiar with Smith’s decidedly non-fad arguments and what you thought about their merit.

    • David

      “Why is speech being held to a completely different standard than killing or taking property?”

      Lies concern a different sort of good than killing or taking property. Private property or even individual lives can be taken if care for the common good demands it, like a limb can be amputated for the sake of the health of the whole body. But truth is itself a common good, and so lies, which offend against truth, can never be ordered to the good of the whole.

    • capaxdei

      My own take on that essay:

      If Professor Smith had left out the whole -lapsarian angle, if she had left it at, “This is what St. Thomas says is the nature of speech, this is what I say it is, and this is why what I say it is is right,” then she wouldn’t have had to beg the question of whether there is a prelapsarian nature of speech different from a postlapsarian nature.

      As it is, by allowing that “the purpose of signification in the postlapsarian world” is not “the same as that in the prelapsarian world,” she is obliged, I think, to explain how the Fall changed the nature of speech. Not just the circumstances in which we might speak, but what speech is. If St. Thomas was right about what speech was before the Fall, and if the Fall didn’t change what speech is, then St. Thomas is right about what speech is now.

      Explaining how the Fall changed the nature of speech is a tall order — one not made easier by the fact that we hold by faith that the unchanging God spoke to Adam and continued to speak to fallen man. Had Prof. Smith hewn to Ockham’s Razor and not made her thesis more complicated than necessary, she wouldn’t have that obligation, and she might even have come up with better arguments for her position than, “What culture doesn’t permit spying, police sting operations, and research programs involving deception, let alone jocose lies and social courtesies involving falsehood?”

      • Jared B.

        Thanks capaxdei for your assessment of Smith’s article.

        I don’t think it overcomplicated the argument at all, especially since her thesis is that Aquinas may have contradicted himself, or at least left his own argument incomplete and therefore potentially faulty. The point wasn’t just to say that Aquinas was wrong on one point, but that there was a better conclusion that is in fact more consistent with the rest of Thomist analysis of these matters. So the pre- vs. post-lapsarian angle was really necessary, since the central argument was based on a comparison with two other moral issues in which he came to a different conclusion because he applied a different principle.

        The burden of proof may well work the other way: granted that the Fall changed the nature of many other human abilities / faculties / activities — a reality that Aquinas not only grants but depends upon for some of his own conclusions — is it reasonable to just assume that the entire realm of human communication is prelapsarian? That’s a pretty big assumption, and strikes me as begging the question as much or more than Smith’s argument. She points out that as far as we can tell from his writings, it was an unexamined assumption on his part, and justly (though of course respectfully) faults him for it.

        As it stands, I think her counter-argument that postlapsarian speech & communication differs is perfectly reasonable, though of course it wants a more thorough treatment. The opposite position (which Aquinas never actually argues or defends), that human communication is perfectly prelapsarian, sounds much more difficult to defend, and at any rate must not merely be assumed as a given.

        • capaxdei

          Huh. I don’t see how inventing a distinction that’s never really explained or justified except insofar as it supports a case of special pleading is easier to defend than not doing that, nor how not doing that can be justly faulted, but we obviously see the matter very differently.

          Prof. Smith argues that “new forms of behavior are permissible given new realities” and suggests St. Thomas recognized this “in respect to the protection of life and property” but failed to in respect to false signification. I find that a nonsensical argument. It’s not that man was, before the Fall, forbidden from protecting his life and property, it’s that there were no circumstances in which he would have to protect his life and property. There was no change in man’s nature that caused using force against another to become licit.

          The parallel argument would be that certain kinds of false signification weren’t forbidden prior to the Fall, it’s just that there were no circumstances in which they would be allowed. But that is not at all St. Thomas’s argument, as Prof. Smith explains. He argues from the nature of speech itself. A change in circumstances is not a change in nature.

          • Jared B.

            But as Smith points out, and this is central to her point, Aquinas makes exactly that distinction when dealing with other moral questions. The idea that certain actions would be unconditionally wrong (or at least unnecessary and absurd) in the prelapsarian world, but can be justified and even good in the world as it is now, is not a new or invented distinction; I don’t believe any Christian who understands the Fall would ever consider that a controversial statement. So you are incorrect to say that Smith invented this distinction; she did not.

            Whether she is justified in using that principle in this particular case, and whether her conclusion really does follow from her premise, are important questions. What is certain is that this pre- vs. post-lapsarian principle is in itself a valid part of Christian teaching; if you need to hear it justified, go read a catechism and/or read more Aquinas & Augustine.

            But engaging in theology does not get labelled “special pleading” just because you don’t agree with the conclusion. Bad form.

            • capaxdei

              Okay, let me try it this way:

              Prof. Smith identifies two ways to get at the nature of speech. One is St. Thomas’s way: “Aquinas’ analysis of the purpose of signification rests on his larger understanding of the meaning of truth.” The other is her way: “We know the essence of something by observing what it does. Thus, we should determine the purpose of signification by observing what it does.”

              See? Nothing -lapsarian at all. By bringing the Fall into this, she merely draws attention to the fact that we can only observe what signification does in the fallen world. The fact that we falsely signify all the time doesn’t mean false signification is part of the nature of signification.

              As for the special pleading, Prof. Smith also points out, “For instance, Aquinas holds that fornication, homosexual acts, and masturbation are wrong because they violate the end or purpose of sexual intercourse.” We observe that people engage in fornication, homosexual acts, and masturbation just as surely as they engage in false signification. Yet she agrees with St. Thomas about the nature of sexual intercourse, so she agrees with him that those acts are wrong.

  • Guest

    This may be one of the cases where we have to look more to Jesus’s instructions to us than we do to His own example. It’s clear that He did not desire for everyone to know the full truth during His ministry (He says outright that He spoke in parables in order to conceal information, for instance – cf Mt 13:10-11). But when He instructs, he says simply “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.” (cf Mt 5:37) To be clear: I don’t believe Jesus lied at any time, but it’s dangerous to think we, with imperfect knowledge and impure hearts, are entitled to do all the things He does. We can trust that what He did was justified, despite appearances, by his nature. Can we say the same about ourselves?

    I have been reading “The Silver Chair” to my kids recently and this passage jumped out to me vis-a-vis the atomic bomb debate, but it’s apropos here too:

    “”Do you mean you think everything will come right if we do untie him?” said Scrubb.

    “I don’t know about that,” said Puddleglum. “You see, Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder. But that doesn’t let us off following the sign.“”

    I think we lose sight of the fact that we are not promised goodness and justice in this life. We are only commanded to follow Jesus, even if that means suffering greatly, even if it means suffering unjustly, and even if it’s not just us who wind up suffering. That’s why consequentialism must ultimately be rejected – because the means are how we follow Jesus, not the ends.

  • Captain_America

    Speaking of Uncle Screwtape…
    First it is Christianity plus (politics).
    Then it turns into (politics) plus Christianity.
    Finally, it becomes (politics).
    And, when DID you become an apologist for Hitler? (The aforegoing remark is satire, which many will not be able to see.)

    • chezami

      I love Hitler. Love ‘im. 🙂

  • Try reading her current post where she corrects your deficient thinking.

    You have nothing of interest to say to me Mr. Shea. Go back to your liberal catholic humanist friends.

    Ways & Means: Planned Parenthood Vids a Salvific Good

    “The eighth Commandment, often misrepresented as Thou shall not lie, actually says Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor. What the Center for Medical Progress did in this situation was to bear true witness against their neighbor. They exposed with light what was hidden in darkness. So, did giving a false name, or false information decrease the goodness of their act?”