Fig Leaves and Falsehoods: Disagreeing with Thomas Aquinas, Janet E. Smith Argues That Sometimes We Need to Deceive

By Smith, Janet E. | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June-July 2011 | Go to article overview
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Fig Leaves and Falsehoods: Disagreeing with Thomas Aquinas, Janet E. Smith Argues That Sometimes We Need to Deceive


Smith, Janet E., First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


The expose of Planned Parenthood engineered by Live Action has not only disclosed some illegal and immoral operations of Planned Parenthood, it has also revealed sharp divergences in the pro-life movement and Catholic community about what counts as lying. Pro-lifers are, of course, thrilled that more of the evildoing of Planned Parenthood has been brought before the public, leading many legislators to vote to cease government funding of the organization. But some ask: By utilizing actors posing as pimps and prostitutes and falsely claiming to employ fourteen- and fifteen-year-old sex workers who need abortions and gynecological services, did Live Action use an evil means to a good end?

The answers vary. For instance, Christopher Tollefsen wrote in the online journal Public Discourse that intentionally telling falsehoods to anyone is immoral. He holds that people faced with such challenges as protecting Jews from Nazis should resist them by means other than falsehood and volunteer to die with any Jews captured. Peter Kreeft, writing for Catholicvote.org, countered with the claim that all decent human beings intuitively know that it is moral to tell falsehoods to protect the lives of the innocent from those threatening serious evil.

Why such differences? Isn't there a clear Catholic teaching on the matter? Isn't lying intrinsically wrong, a manifest violation of the Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not bear false witness? Those who argue that the Catholic Church has a clear and settled teaching on the matter point to the final and authoritative version of The Catechism of the Catholic Church: "To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error." But the first version of the Catechism qualified its condemnation of lying by defining lying as leading someone into error "who has the right to know the truth." The clear implication was that it may be right on occasion to speak falsehoods to those who do not have the right to know the truth.

Some argue that the removal of the qualifier from the final edition indicates that the first edition was wrong, but that is not the only possible interpretation. In Laetemur Magnopere, the Apostolic Letter accompanying the authoritative edition, Pope John Paul II never indicated that the earlier version was in error. Rather, the changes "allow for a better expression of the Catechism's contents regarding the deposit of the Catholic faith," and the new version "faithfully repeats the doctrinal content which I officially presented to the Church and to the world in December 1992." No changes in doctrine took place between the first and final editions.

The doctrinal unity between the two editions of the Catechism is that all lying is wrong. The diversity is in whether all deliberate and voluntary acts of false assertion are immoral. Christopher Kaczor argued in Public Discourse that it may be that the authoritative version of the Catechism decided to go with the more probable opinion--the one that a greater number of faithful theologians hold but one that is not settled doctrine. It would be wrong to label as dissenters those who continue to argue that the condemnation of lying does not rule out all false signification; theirs is simply the less probable view at this point. Indeed, the failure of the Catechism to condemn explicitly such practices as spying, sting operations, the deceptive missives and maneuvers of warfare, and research that involves deception suggests that the question remains open.

What about Scripture? Doesn't Scripture clearly condemn false signification? Certainly there are many passages that condemn lying, but no clear definition of lying is given. Indeed, there are many stories in Scripture where lying is at least countenanced, if not endorsed: The midwives lie to Pharaoh about why they failed to kill the Hebrew babies. Nathan expects David to believe a made-up story. Jesus himself, after telling his apostles he is not going up to the festival, in fact goes.

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