In late February, in the midst of the uproar over Live Action’s exposé of Planned Parenthood, I wrote a piece about the controversy for the About.com Catholicism GuideSite. Entitled “Justified Deception or Lying? The Case of Live Action v. Planned Parenthood,” the piece argued that, whatever good intentions Lila Rose and her comrades at Live Action may have had, they stepped over the line, and their tactics could not be justified under Catholic moral theology.
But now, five or six weeks later, I’m beginning to have second thoughts. After all, the arguments of those who supported Live Action seem pretty persuasive. Not those, of course, that claimed that the end (undermining Planned Parenthood and thereby saving babies) justified the means; but those that argued that the means themselves were perfectly justifiable.
It all seems so clear now that, in retrospect, I cannot understand why I missed it. Perhaps it can be chalked up to my post-Vatican II idolization of popes, which led me into the error of believing that the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, released under Pope John Paul II and compiled under the direction of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, could be regarded as an authoritative document. These three paragraphs made it all seem so simple:
“A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” 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” [paragraph 2482].
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 [paragraph 2483].
By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity [paragraph 2485].
Still, as the supporters of Live Action kept pointing out, even that postconciliar catechism noted that
No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it [paragraph 2489].
True, as I responded, that statement comes in a section concerned with the sin of detraction—that is, revealing the sins of another person to a third party—and not with lying to a person in order to save babies, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered: Why can’t this principle be applied universally?
And that’s when I had my revelation. Had not Our Lord Himself said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set ye free”?
Think about it. What could truth mean in this context, other than moral truth? We know that abortion is wrong; we must act on that knowledge. To do otherwise is to fail to live up to our obligations as Christians.
But still—are there any limits on how we can act on that knowledge? Even the supporters of Live Action claimed that there are. Live Action’s ”lies” (as some of their supporters, such as Peter Kreeft, were willing to call them) or ”justified deception” (as most of their supporters preferred to refer to Lila Rose’s play-acting) were OK, but killing abortionists or even burning down a Planned Parenthood abortuary is not.
Now that I’ve seen the light, though, I think that they’re missing the boat. Remember—Our Lord said that “the truth shall set ye free.” But what does freedom mean, if not the right to do anything that we think is morally justified in order to advance the truth?
I’ll admit: I still have certain qualms when it comes to murder or even to property damage. But until I saw the light, I had similar qualms about lying, and as some of those who supported Live Action pointed out, those qualms were nothing more than ”scrupulosity.” I wouldn’t want to be accused of that again, so I’m scrupulously attempting to overcome my scrupulosity. In the meantime, though, I’ll make sure to refrain from criticizing anyone who murders an abortionist or burns down a Planned Parenthood office, because such criticism of those who are just trying to do the right thing is not helpful—indeed, it might even amount to detraction, as one supporter of Live Action warned those of us who had mistakenly criticized them. (Actually, since he saw nothing wrong with Live Action’s tactics—long before I came around—he really meant calumny, but, to quote the current occupant of the Oval Office, they’re all ”just words.”)
Granted, the idea that we should be free to do anything that we think is morally justified has been misused by others, even by those who support abortion. But since we know the truth—abortion is wrong—we don’t have to worry about whether any action taken on behalf of that truth might be wrong. We’ve been set free to act in whatever way we need to, in order to bring the scourge of abortion to an end.
And first and foremost among our actions, I’ve now become convinced, should be depriving those who have no right to the truth of that truth—even if we have to go out of our way to create opportunities to do it. Pro-lifers—no, even more broadly, Christians—have made a grave mistake. We have spent far too much time trying to convince others of the truth regarding abortion, not to mention the Truth of Christianity. And what has been their response? An obstinate refusal to acknowledge the truth!
Seriously—how many times can we be expected to try to convince the same person of the truth? Our Lord said we had to forgive our brother seventy times seven times; but He said nothing about the number of times that we have to expose our brother to the truth. That silence, as any Straussian knows, is significant. Clearly, it was Our Lord’s way of signaling to those of us who know the truth that we have no obligation to expose those in error to that truth. They have chosen to deny the truth; who are we to deny them their moral freedom?
Moreover, it is at best naive to think that exposing inveterate sinners to the truth would make any difference. That’s the fundamental difference between them and us, after all. We know the truth and act on it; they know untruth and act on it. Thus the best way to stop them is to play along with them, to respond to their untruth with untruth, so that they will continue to persist in their untruth, and we can then expose them to the world (or at least to those who know the truth).
If that seems a little close to detraction, then we simply need to look at detraction in a new light. While detraction is revealing the truth to someone who has no right to know it, those of us who know the truth by definition have a right to the truth. Simple, really—the truth has set us free to reveal the hidden truth about others to everyone who, like us, has a right to the truth. And we shouldn’t worry that those committed to untruth might decide to do the same to us; after all, we have no hidden truths that we wouldn’t want revealed.
There’s only one thing that still bothers me—well, two things.
The first is that pesky line from Saint Paul—Romans 3:23, to be exact: ”For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” I’m not sure why, but every time I read it, I begin to wonder whether anyone, including those who do know the truth, has the right to know it. Surely, either Saint Paul was wrong, or Christ came to reveal the truth to a world filled with sinners who had no right to it, and that would have pretty radical implications for how we as Christians should act toward those who do not yet know the truth, or even toward those who have rejected it.
I’m pretty sure, though, that Saint Paul must have been wrong. After all, I’ve never sinned, much less obstinately persisted in doing something I knew was wrong, and if you’ve read this far without closing this webpage, I’m sure you haven’t, either.
The second thing that bothers me is that word, lying. Unlike Peter Kreeft, I just cannot bring myself to embrace it. Nor, for that matter, do I find deception (even when modified with the adjective justified) much better. The Oxford American Dictionary says that to deceive is to ”cause (someone) to believe something that is not true, typically in order to gain some personal advantage.”
That sounds too self-serving to me. When I sign on with Live Action and, God willing, get the chance to record a video in a Planned Parenthood office with Lila Rose, I won’t be doing it for personal advantage. Instead, I will be encouraging those committed to untruth to remain committed to untruth, all in the name of the truth.
So, after much thought, I have finally settled on the perfect word: fool. Yes, some dictionaries insist that it is a synonym for deceive, but in ordinary usage, it has a lightheartedness about it. Who gets upset when someone reveals that he was ”just fooling you”?
It all seems so clear to me now, and I regret having wasted five or six weeks before coming around. Worse yet, I have so far blown the opportunity to fulfill my obligation to engage in almsgiving this Lent, by going out and committing acts of charity by fooling some Planned Parenthood employees.
But I’m not one to despair. Yesterday may have been the midpoint of Lent, but from Laetare Sunday to Easter 2011, there still three weeks left to go. And today is the first of a new month.
So let us not waste another minute. This April, fool for the truth. It’s the best way you could spend the rest of this Lent. You can trust me on that—would I fool you?
First published on ChroniclesMagazine.org on April 1, 2011.