Is lying ever permissible if it’s for a good cause such as saving someone’s life? That old question is a hot topic of debate on the Internet, and many of the best-known Catholic theologians and philosophers in the United States are weighing in on the issue with little consensus.
This debate was prompted by a “sting operation” conducted by the pro-life group Live Action. Posing as operators of a prostitution ring that uses 14- and 15-year-old girls, the Live Action team secretly videotaped Planned Parenthood employees in New Jersey, Virginia and New York who did not question the morality or legality of exploiting young girls in the sex trade, but rather detailed how to evade the law to obtain abortions for minors.
Uneasiness over deception
The release of the videotapes was timed to have maximum impact on the Feb. 18 vote by the U.S. House of Representatives that prohibited federal funding of Planned Parenthood. Indeed, some lawmakers cited the Live Action tapes as proof of abuses by Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the nation.
Pro-life people have universally applauded the vote by the House, but the high-profile Live Action tapes also have caused uneasiness among many in the pro-life community because deception was used in uncovering the information.
Catholic ethicist and philosopher Christopher Tollefsen wrote at the Public Discourse website: “Promising and welcoming as the effects of these videos might be, they represent a real and dangerous corruption of the pro-life movement itself by endangering the pro-life movement’s commitment to its ideals of love and truth.”
Germain Grisez, longtime Christian ethics professor at Mount St. Mary’s University and frequent consultant for the Vatican, told Catholic News Agency: “Catholics should regard such activity as morally and legally unacceptable.” Likewise, moral theologian William May, senior fellow at the Culture of Life Foundation, told Catholic News Agency that one may not use lies, even to expose evil, though one may use ambiguous statements.
However, other philosophers like Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College, see no moral problem with the undercover technique of Live Action. Writing at CatholicVote.org, Kreeft said that this activity was “very clearly right.” He wrote that “our innate moral common sense” must combine with clear definitions of general moral principles in concrete situations. People who maintain that deception is always evil, he wrote, are rightly concerned about moral relativism (no objective moral truths), but in their concern, they have “fallen into moral legalism.”
‘Just feels so right’
Indeed, other commentators have pointed out that the moral teachings of the Church are nuanced. For example, the prohibition against killing is not absolute, for the Church teaches that one may take the life of an aggressor in self-defense or to save the life of another person. Thus some commentators reason that lying to an aggressor intent on doing evil to you or another person is not sinful, and would be more loving toward the aggressor than to kill him in defense of yourself or another person.
Several commentators also have noted that Vatican officials routinely provided false papers to assist Jews and Allied servicemen trapped in Nazi-occupied Italy during World War II, a seeming falsehood designed to save human lives.
All of these philosophical discussions may leave Catholics in the pew with a giant headache. So it is comforting that most of the experts commenting on this topic agree that this age-old theological and philosophical question about truthfulness remains unsettled.
Philosopher Andrew Haines admitted his own uncertainty about this question in a column he wrote for Catholic News Agency, but he expressed what must be in the hearts of many pro-life people: “Something about Live Action’s efforts just feels so right.”
Haines, president of the Center for Morality in Public Life, told Our Sunday Visitor that the question about whether it is permissible to lie to save a life has not been answered in any magisterial teaching, and philosophers are still struggling with the complexities, so it is a discussion worth having. One cannot justify outright lying, he said, and it is important to stay away from consequentialism — using any means to achieve a good end. But Haines sees a difference between deception and outright lying, and said that it could be argued that Live Action was being charitable in trying to expose the truth.
Janet Smith, a moral theology professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, agrees that the Church has not articulated a decisive teaching on the issue of the morality of telling falsehoods to those who don’t deserve to know the truth. She told Our Sunday Visitor that moralists who argue that every falsehood is evil, even if it saves human life, usually cite most recent edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It reads: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error” (No. 2483). However, Smith said, a previous edition of the catechism stated: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.”
Why that last phrase, “someone who has the right to know the truth,” was dropped from the revised Catechism has never been explained, Smith said. Some moralists believe it was dropped because lying to anyone for any reason is prohibited, but she believes it may have been dropped because the question is still open.
“In my discussion with theologians who practice religious assent to Church teaching, I have found many, even high churchmen, who believe it moral to tell falsehoods in some situations,” Smith said. “They are not, however, willing to write or speak publicly on the matter for fear of appearing to question or reject Church teaching.”
What if the Vatican asked theologians and philosophers to discuss thoroughly the question about telling falsehoods to evildoers who threatened the lives of the innocent?
“A large number of theologians who are now silent on the point would defend the practice,” Smith said.
Ann Carey writes from Indiana.