So a rather trenchant discussion has been taking place on Twitter (and what have I told you before about Twitter? Really not a good medium for such discussions...) about whether it is right to tell a lie to save lots of lives.
The context is the sting operation by the Centre for Medical Progress which has resulted in three (so far) chilling videos exposing Planned Parenthood's practice of selling parts of aborted unborn children (or foetuses, if you prefer the technical term - it means the same thing) for profit - and discussing the whole business in the most callous terms.
Clearly we should fight the evil abortion culture of deadly lies with every legitimate weapon available to us. But is lying a legitimate weapon?
I feel torn both ways on this. On the one hand, I can see (and have seen) very strong arguments against lying. On the other, I can see (and have seen) very strong arguments in favour of what CMP has done. I have also seen very poor arguments marshalled, and indeed some ad hominem, which add heat rather than light to the debate.
People on either side of the debate see why their own side is right so clearly, and see how the other side is wrong with equal clarity; but I do not.
So this blog is an attempt to articulate some of my thinking; I do not necessarily expect to reach a definite conclusion (though I may, of course, surprise myself).
On the one hand, it seems to me that lying is a particularly serious type of sin. It is not just an offence against God's law, and normally an injustice to our neighbour; it is also an attack on God, in so far as it is an attack on the truth, and God the Son said: I am [...] the truth. Likewise, it is a siding with the Devil, who is the father of all lies. So even a relatively trivial lie, a venial sin, is (I think) a particularly serious type of venial sin, and therefore very dangerous for the person who commits it.
And any sin, mortal or venial, is to be avoided. It is a first principle of Catholic moral philosophy that we must not do evil in the hope of achieving good ends. Or to put it the other way around, for an action to be good, both the means and the end must be good.
Further, based on the Natural Law, St Thomas Aquinas makes it quite clear that every lie is sinful.
On the other hand, our duty to the truth is not, perhaps, as simple as it first appears. There are certainly occasions when it would be wrong to reveal the truth - the most obvious being the seal of the confessional. So withholding truth is not, in itself, always sinful.
Further the moral theologians allow deception (in certain circumstances) as legitimate, and it is hard to see the moral distinction between deception by devious means and a lie direct.
And then there is our fundamental moral intuition. It seems self-evident that to tell a lie in order to save lives is not a terrible thing to do. The example of hiding Jewish people from the Nazis and lying when you get the knock on the door is hard to refute without great moral discomfort.
Because of concupiscence (that is the damage to our natures left by Original Sin) I am wary of appeals to moral intuition. As I have observed before it is too easy to make excuses in sin. But in this case, the moral intuition is inclining us to do something dangerous, not easy, so the question of it being disordered by self-interest seems less obvious, and therefore the moral intuition more worthy of respect.
So my heart pulls me in the direction of allowing the lie to save lives. But then my head rebels: I consider St Thomas More, for example. He could easily have argued to himself that by a small lie, he could do far more good, both politically, and with regard to his vocation as a husband and father, than by sticking to the truth and dying, with no chance of achieving anything. Yet we revere him as a saint, a martyr and a hero for his witness to truth: and who would dare to say that no good came from it?
So perhaps a strict adherence to the truth, even if it prevents us from taking actions which we believe might well save lives, is what God wants: and He will use it according to His infinite wisdom and love, in ways that we cannot foresee.
Moreover, where does it end? If I will tell a small lie to save lives, would I tell a big one (eg falsify research, or lie on oath)? And if I would, what else would I do? Threaten an abortionist? Kidnap his child? Bomb his clinic? Murder his child as a warning (for after all, if taking one innocent life could save thousands...)? Where does one draw the line? And how does one decide where to draw it?
The moral basis for our pro-Life beliefs is surely that there are some actions that are inherently wrong: if I don't adhere to that, on what basis do I proceed?
And then my heart revolts: are you not playing the Pharisee? Posing as virtuous, when you know the truth is quite other? You say you refuse to sully your purity to save lives, when you casually sin on a daily basis, with no greater purpose than your own comfort or whims?
And of course, my head knows the answers to that, not least the chilling quotation from Newman, and so it goes on.
And then people are quoting Rahab and all that, and I think, what about Abraham, who was ready to kill the innocent Isaac because God told him to do so? Obedience to God's law is foundational, not Pharisaical, surely? And so it goes on and on.
And part of me knows what I would do, but I am also clear that we cannot deduce what we should do from what we would do: that indeed would be arrogance, implying that all my behaviour is virtuous...
So I admire the clear-headed logic and rigour of those who insist that we cannot sin to do good: they are surely right.
And I admire the compassion of those who insist that lying to the likes of Planned Parenthood in order to stop the slaughter of children is legitimate: how can they be wrong?
And I cannot find any authority in the Church to support the notion that not all lying is sinful (if anyone can, please let me know!)
And I know in my head and my heart that there cannot, finally, be any conflict between Caritas and Veritas: for they are one and the same Person.
And I remain unsure.
And why does it matter?
It matters because both truth and love matter.
It matters because in fighting abortion we are fighting a spiritual battle: so we must ensure that we are fighting it in ways that do not collude with the Father of Lies, but rather are taught us by the Father who is Love and Truth.
It matters because our vocation as humans is to know, love and serve God.
It matters because to sin is cataclysmic: whether that sin is lying, or failing to do all we legitimately can to save innocent lives.
And on a very practical note, it matters to me, as it reveals a huge gap in my own education, and the need to study this issue further.
As ever, I welcome comments: feel free to put me right, point out where I am an idiot, etc.
However, I will not post comments that are unduly disparaging of others.
Fourth Sunday of Lent – 26 March 2017 (N.O. and E.F.) - We are grateful to Abbot Richard Purcell OCSO and Father Malachy Thompson OCSO for allowing us to publish this Gospel Reflection for Laetare Sunday. http:/...
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