We’re almost at that time of year in which Catholics of good will revive the debate over whether the Santa Claus “myth” counts as lying to our kids. But I want to address a more serious situation—the years-long obsession of some Catholics who cry “Liars! Consequentialists!” at the stalwart Catholic pro-life apostolate Live Action, all because they conduct undercover “stings” that expose the evils of Planned Parenthood.
In the last couple days I saw such a claim revived in a major Catholic news source. There is a great irony at work when Catholics choose to form the proverbial circular firing squad by spreading falsehoods—yes, falsehoods—about Church teaching regarding lying.
How do these ill-informed naysayers support these false claims against Live Action? Typically, by viewing the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a sort of divine oracle (something I’ve dubbed “sola catechisma”) instead of accepting that the Catechism is a comprehensive repetition of teachings that possess a whole range of certitude, from infallible dogma to non-magisterial “common teaching of Catholic theologians.” I wrote at Catholic Vote about this aspect of the Catechism recently here.
So, do Live Action and similar groups rely upon the intrinsic evil of lying in order to accomplish its good work in exposing Planned Parenthood via undercover work? The short answer is an emphatic no. The Church has never—as in never ever—condemned this sort of undercover work (the same kind of work, mind you, employed by law enforcement and other civil authorities) as contrary to the Eighth Commandment. The Catechism certainly does not prohibit this kind of work, either.
Here are a few facts to consider when trying to understand what the Church does—and does not—say about what counts as the sin of “lying”:
1. You can’t get the morality right if you get the history wrong. The history of the Church regarding what counts as lying is quite clear: that is, it’s clear that it has never been clear. There has never been a magisterial resolution to what has always been a question open for discussion among theologians in the Church regarding how lying should be defined and whether all such lying so-defined is immoral.
2. The Augustine/Aquinas approach—that all spoken falsehood with intention to deceive is intrinsically evil–is understood to be the non-magisterial “common teaching of Catholic theologians.” This is the teaching found in the Editio Typica (Second Edition) of the Catechism. The first edition of the Catechism taught a less-rigorous version (based on one’s “right to know the truth”), something noted by some theologians. The second-edition change was made to conform fully to the common teaching because a universal catechism is not supposed to repeat anything with less certitude than the common teaching, and the theological opinion that involves “right to the truth” still possesses less certitude than the common teaching.
3. Numerous examples abound of faithful Catholics who either embraced a less-rigorous view on lying than did Augustine and Aquinas or acknowledged that more than one view was possible for faithful Catholics. One could look at Bishop St. John Chrysostom, for example, or many examples from The English Reformation (when being “undercover” was crucial to the practice of the Catholic faith). Cardinal Newman wrote extensively on this, and even G.K. Chesterton held a less-rigorous view on the “necessary lie.” Further, neither Aquinas nor Augustine ever addressed the Scriptural example that contradicts their rigorous view, given to us by the angel Raphael in the book of Tobit: Raphael blatantly and verbally deceives Tobit’s family about his identity in order to go “undercover” as a guardian, protector, and healer. Do angels lie?
4. Regarding special cases associated with concealing the truth (such as undercover work), Catholics have always been free to form their personal consciences either according to a more rigorous view (such as the common teaching) or a less rigorous view (such as the “right to the truth” concept).
5. Because of this freedom, it is both uncharitable and untruthful to publicly accuse Catholic individuals or groups of being guilty of the heresy of “consequentialism” or the sin of “lying” just because they form their consciences in accord with a theological opinion that is less rigorous than the common teaching of Augustine and Aquinas.
Simply put, Catholics ought not set up themselves as a false magisterium by going beyond what the authentic magisterium tells us about participating in undercover work. Not only Live Action, but all our undercover police and government authorities who risk their lives for the common good, deserve better than being falsely accused of the heresy of consequentialism. Catholics who make such accusations should not only be ashamed of doing so but should also make reparation for what has become several years of obsessive public falsehood.
By all means, Catholics, embrace the more-rigorous common teaching—there is nothing wrong with forming one’s conscience on that basis. Let’s just stop making it our business to try to compel other Catholics that their support of undercover work is heretical and immoral. It’s not.