In early February, a pro-life group called Live Action released a video that, it is no exaggeration to say, seems to have changed the national political landscape. Featuring a Live Action member pretending to be a pimp, the video shows an employee at a Planned Parenthood center answering his requests for advice on how to obtain abortions and STD testing for his underaged prostitutes, some of whom, he implied, might also be illegal aliens.
The video, Time Healthland reported, was part of a Live Action sting operation that targeted 12 Planned Parenthood clinics in six states. (UPDATE: See the end of the post for a statement from Live Action media director David Schmidt, contradicting the Time Healthland report.) While the national headquarters of Planned Parenthood contacted the FBI to report the possibility of a prostitution ring trafficking in underaged girls, it didn't matter; that single video (one of seven that has been released) was enough. In the wake of the public uproar, Planned Parenthood fired the employee in the video, and the U.S. House of Representatives voted last week along party lines to remove funding for Planned Parenthood from the federal budget.
A great victory for the pro-life cause, right? Perhaps, though it will probably be a short-lived one, since the U.S. Senate is not likely to go along with the House, and thus the funding may be reinstated.
Still, there's the moral victory, right? Well, that depends, it seems, on what we mean by "moral."
Late last week, internecine battles broke out on the Catholic web between those Catholics who argue not only that Live Action's action has had a salutary effect (something few pro-life Catholics would deny) but that the tactics employed by the group's members are, at worst, "venial sins" and, at best, a model for others to emulate.
Those tactics, in a nutshell, involved pretending to be someone they were not, in the hope of catching Planned Parenthood employees on video giving aid and comfort to those engaged in illegal activities.
The substance of the debate boiled down to three questions:
- Is lying ever justified?
- Is all deception lying?
- Do the actions of Live Action members fall into the category of lying or merely of deception, and, if the latter, was their deception justified?
Let me be frank: I did not report on Live Action's release of the video in early February because while I a) did not believe that the group members' tactics were morally justified, I b) wasn't overly concerned about their actions, either. Planned Parenthood has been, and continues to be, responsible for at least the plurality of the abortions that have taken place in the United States since 1973, and the sooner they go out of the abortion business, the better, as far as I'm concerned.
But over the weekend, when I saw the number of good Catholics—including people I know personally, and not just through their writing and reputation—who lauded the actions of Lila Rose (the head of Live Action), I decided that I needed to say something.
All of the attempts to claim that affirming an untruth—"I am a pimp, and I may want to obtain abortions for my underaged prostitutes, who may also be illegal immigrants"—is not lying but a justifiable act of deception fell flat. (You can see two of the best, offered by personal friends of mine, here and here.) They hinge, ultimately, on a principle of Catholic moral theology that can be found at the end of paragraph 2489 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.
From that, those who defend the actions of Lila Rose conclude that it is justifiable deception to make a positive affirmation of an untruth to someone who does not have a right to know the truth. (Let me clear: Each of those who defends the actions of Lila Rose offers other arguments as well, but this is, I believe, the strongest one.)
There are two problems here. The first problem should be obvious: How can we get from "No one is bound to reveal the truth"—that is, you can conceal a truth from someone, if he has no right to know it—to the claim that you can openly deceive—that is, make knowingly false statements—to such a person?
The simple answer is: We can't. And thus the absolute prohibition on lying, stated elsewhere in the Catechism, comes into play:
"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].
Now some of those who wish to say that propagating falsehoods to those who have no right to know the truth is justified deception and not lying claim that Lila Rose's actions cannot be considered lying because she did not lead anyone into error. The unstated (and sometimes even stated) assumption is that the Planned Parenthood employee supported illegal activities before she was given the opportunity to do so.
And that may be true. Or it may not. But in the end, it doesn't actually matter from the standpoint of Catholic moral theology.
The fact that an alcoholic voluntarily drinks does not remove my culpability if I decide to give him the opportunity to drink by offering him a drink. In other words, I can lead someone into error in a particular instance even if that person habitually engages in the same error without my prompting. Why? Because every moral decision is a new moral act. That's what it means to have free will.
The second problem with building an argument for justified deception on the principle that "No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it" is that the principle refers to a very specific situation—namely, the sin of detraction and the causing of scandal. Detraction, as paragraph 2477 of the Catechism notes, is when someone, "without objectively valid reason, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them."
Paragraphs 2488 and 2489, which culminate in the principle that "No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it," are very clearly a discussion of detraction. They use the traditional language found in such discussions, and they offer a single citation—to passages in Sirach and Proverbs that refer to revealing "secrets" to others—that are classic passages used in discussions of detraction.
Here are the two paragraphs in full:
The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.
Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.
Seen in context, rather than ripped out of it, "No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it" clearly cannot support the actions taken by Lila Rose and her comrades. What is under discussion in paragraphs 2488 and 2489 is whether I have a right to reveal another person's sins to a third person who does not have a right to that particular truth.
To take a concrete example, if I have a coworker who I know is an adulterer, and someone unaffected in any way by his adultery comes to me and asks, "Is it true that John is an adulterer?" I am not bound to reveal the truth to that person. Indeed, in order to avoid detraction—which, remember, is "disclos[ing] another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them"—I cannot reveal the truth to the third party.
But here's where things get even more interesting: According to Catholic moral theology on detraction, I have a number of options. I can remain silent when asked the question; I can change the topic; I can excuse myself from the conversation. What I cannot do, under any circumstances, however, is to lie and say, "John is certainly not an adulterer."
If, in order to avoid detraction by revealing the truth to someone who has no right to know it, we are not allowed to affirm an untruth, how can what Lila Rose and her colleagues did possibly be justified by that same principle?
There is much more that could be said, but most of it already has been said. If you would like to read a much more detailed attempt to respond to all of the arguments made by those who regard Lila Rose's actions as morally justified, I highly recommend Mark Shea's "Last Comments on Lying for Jesus" and his "Faustian Bargians," both of which can be found at the website of the National Catholic Register (one of the finalists for Best Catholic Newspaper in the 2011 About.com Catholicism Readers' Choice Awards.)
UPDATE: After I first published this post, I was contacted by Live Action media director David Schmidt, who said that the statement that Live Action "targeted 12 Planned Parenthood clinics in six states" was incorrect. When I asked Mr. Schmidt for details, he replied:
Time magazine reported incorrect information. Planned Parenthood alleged that Live Action visited 12 clinics in 6 states. It has never been established as fact by any independent reporting yet various media outlets reported it as fact.
Planned Parenthood for example in their letter to the DOJ (which media accounts are based on) included locations that Live Action has not been to and did not include locations that Live Action had been to. In short, Planned Parenthood’s report had errors and media outlets did not work to independently confirm the truth of these claims. I can give you one example, Live Action released a video from the Bronx, NY (http://liveaction.org/blog/bronx-planned-parenthood/) that was not included in Planned Parenthood’s count. I have now given a factual reason to not rely on Planned Parenthood’s count. I can tell you that 12 clinics in 6 states is incorrect and we will be releasing full information about our investigation as we are able to organize and process it.