“When I Want to do What is Good, Evil Lies Close at Hand” (Romans 7:20)
No one, no Christian at least, denies that Live Action’s undercover “stings” have occasioned some great goods. Of course the problem is not whether something good becomes of these “stings”, but rather, whether Live Action’s tactics are morally permissible. The debates on either side are seemingly endless, occasionally polemical, but far from resolvable. The key argument against such tactics is the universal prohibition against lying; those arguments have been presented many times by people smarter than me and will not be reproduced here. The counter arguments contend that there might not be a falsehood, perhaps a mental reservation, but nonetheless, Planned Parenthood is not due the truth and therefore any such “sting” is not a moral evil. After providing a brief outline of some of the latest ink to have been spilt over these issues, I intend to consider a slightly different approach, one that isn’t concerned with universal prohibitions, but with something more lofty—a universal call to holiness.
In their recent article, “Live Action and Planned Parenthood: A New Test Case for Lying,” (Nova et Vetera, 10, ii, 437-462) authors Thomas Petri, OP., and Michael Wahl, provide an impressively accessible, though thoroughly technical, presentation of the debates circulating through Catholic institutions. Petri and Wahl provide a refreshing synopsis of Augustine and Aquinas on lying—a task which thus far has been either incomplete or inaccurate (in no way do I intend to re-present that effort here, as I have neither the knowledge nor the skills of concision).
A response to Janet Smith’s popular and contentious “Fig Leaves and Falsehood” (First Things, June, 2011), fills a considerable portion of the article. The authors demonstrate how Smith’s summary of Aquinas, though not exactly wrong, is quite simplistic and far from complete. Smith’s arguments address the oft cited issues—taking life in self-defense, apparent instances of lies recounted in scripture, etc., Petri and Wahl provide detailed responses to such arguments. Among other things, Smith’s characterization of Aquinas’ view of human nature, now in a fallen-state, fails to render what is due to Aquinas. She argues that, according to Aquinas, in a post-lapsarian world the “destruction of life and property is now sometimes necessary and thus moral for the protection of what is good” (emphasis added); she goes on to assert that, for the same reason, uttering a falsehood is now necessary in order to save a life. Though Smith references something of a Thomistic metaphysic, such a characterization fails to recognize that man’s essential nature has not changed after the fall, as man remains ordered to God through and by charity. Petri and Wahl respond thus, “To suggest that sin destroys our nature or even diminishes our nature would be to suggest that sin has fundamentally changed human nature: it has not. What has been diminished in human nature is the inclination to virtue” (460). Fall or no fall, man’s nature remains ordered to God. To say that, in a post-lapsarian world, sin is necessary, is not Thomistic.
Petri and Wahl also refer the reader to a number of articles that have been published on The Public Discourse website; these articles illustrate the seemingly irreconcilable positions of Catholic theologians, priests, and scholars. Since the publication of Petri and Wahl, Christopher Tollefsen, has written, “Lies and God,” for The Public Discourse. He writes:
We can see that every liar commits himself, in his willing, to the favoring of some good or other over the truth; there is a preference for falsity in service of whatever other good is at stake in the choice to lie: the exposure of heresy, the end of abortion, and so on. And this willingness in itself weakens love of the truth, since we love less that which we love conditionally, rather than unconditionally.
Tollefsen’s article shares many similarities with Petri and Wahl’s. Both articles remind the reader to consider a certain Augustinian maxim prohibiting lying—just as God is Truth, anything opposed to the truth is thereby opposed to God (Petri and Wahl cite Augustine, De Mendacio, 19, 40). Moreover, to utter a falsehood in order that another might profit would be to sacrifice one’s own eternal soul for another’s temporal life: “How then can it be said without the greatest perverseness, that to the end one man may have life of the body, it is another man’s duty to incur death of the soul?” (De Mend., 9)—such is contrary to the most profound principle of human nature. Augustine continues:
Much less then is he by telling a lie to lose his own eternal for another’s temporal life. His own temporal life, of course, for his neighbor’s eternal life a Christian man will not hesitate to lose: for this example has gone before, that the Lord died for us. To this point He also says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (ibid).
We see from Augustine that the universal call to holiness is not one aimed at the temporal benefits of this life, but rather is aimed at eternal blessedness. To sacrifice one’s own life for the sake of another’s is of course nobilissimus. However, this cannot be compromised by sacrificing one’s own eternal life—e.g., by sinning—for the sake of his neighbor’s temporal life. Petri and Wahl note, “St. Augustine suggests that lying in order to avoid a greater evil measures reality according to a human rather than a divine standard” (441).
There is no doubt that the Live Action “stings” involve explicit falsehoods. The question is whether or not such deceit is licit. There is also no question that good is brought about by these stings. However, the question is whether the good is truly in accord with the common good and even the highest good. That is to say, is the good caused by these stings—defunding of Planned Parenthood and exposing illegal operations—directed at the highest of goods, to love of God and of neighbor?
These considerations lead me to Aquinas’ treatise on Charity, particularly his questions on “fraternal correction,” a treatise that, surprisingly, has not come up in these discussions—at least not to my knowledge, and certainly not to the degree as the other issues are thrown about. Tollefsen, in a February, 2011 article, “Truth, Love, and Live Action,” shows the same concerns I voiced a moment ago. Instead of reproducing his appeals here I urge you to read the conversations that have taken place between Tollefsen and others at The Public Discourse website.
Aquinas describes fraternal correction as the love due to our neighbor who is living in sin or causing harm to himself or others. Our vocation is one of love, whereby we are required to proclaim the gospel of love wherever it is not heard. He even goes so far as to say, quoting Augustine that, “you become worse than the sinner if you fail to correct him” (STh., II-II, Q33, a2). In the same article, Aquinas concedes multiple instances whereby correction may be omitted. The first is when charity requires of us that we wait until an appropriate time, for an untimely correction runs the risk of causing our brother to turn further from the faith and to hate the truth even more.
In article 5, Aquinas offers reasons that a sinner ought not correct his brother. Putting aside Luther’s maxim, simul iustus et peccator, it is safe to assume that there can exist a virtuous enough person who is in enough of a state of grace to correct his brother. Those, however, who are not so disposed ought not, “on account of the scandal which ensues therefrom, if the corrector’s sin be well known, because it would seem that he corrects, not out of charity, but more for the sake of ostentation.” His final reason is most telling: “on account of the rebuker’s pride; when, for instance, a man thinks lightly of his own sins, and, in his own heart, sets himself above his neighbor, judging the latter’s sins with harsh severity, as though he himself were a just man.”
Certainly it is possible that Live Action’s tactics run all of these risks. Assuming that their primary motivation is in fact to correct our brothers’ sins, the manner in doing so likely causes supporters of Planned Parenthood only to hate the truth even more. This amplified hatred is perhaps a result of the showy way Live Action conducts business, but is more likely the result of the deceitful tactics exercised by Live Action—whose questionable strategy appears to require that they commit what they presume to be a lesser evil and so regard themselves to be above their neighbor. Any such presumption is to place ourselves above the moral law, and above the divine law. It would amount to saying that we have the power and merit to judge our own sins as less grievous than our neighbors’.
My concern is whether there could be a more noble way of informing the public, politicians, and even Planned Parenthood staff that life is always and everywhere to be respected and cherished, that the mission of Planned Parenthood is not directed to honoring the integrity of women and the safeguarding of a woman’s dignity. After all, if the goal is to show our brothers and sisters of Planned Parenthood that life, chastity, and virtue are to be preferred over “reproductive health” (I’m not entirely sure what that means, I think it’s a euphemism for birth-control and abortion), then isn’t the only way of doing this to exercise charity to them? I imagine it difficult to foster genuine love and charity for neighbor through deceit and lie. As Petri and Wahl conclude, “If we truly seek to build a culture of life and virtue, then we must not surrender the integrity of our own character in order to preserve the integrity of the human person” (461).
My only hope in writing this is to turn some of the conversation away from the arduous terrain of technical moral theology and the endless debates about falsehood and morally permissible lies. Rather, as pursuers of life, truth, and love, we ought to begin considering how our actions are to be received by others. If whatever is received is received in the mode of the receiver, then to a sinner, the sin of another will only be seen as sin—not as virtue, and not as love.
After all, the Apostle did not become a liar in order to win souls, but rather, a slave to all in order that he might win more; a Jew in order to win Jews; all things to all people that he might save some. He did not go outside of God’s law, but placed himself under it in order that he might save those outside of the law. The accomplishments and intentions of Live Action are quite noble. However, if the goal is to cultivate a society of life and of love, then the seeds must be cast in soil that produces only good fruit. If like begets like, then the soil of deception and lie, masked by life and virtue, will ultimately produce only thorns and hatred. If the goal is a society that respects life, then Fraternal Charity demands that each of us honor the dignity of each of our brothers and sisters.