This is a guest post from Deacon Jim Russell on the hot-button issue of the morality of the undercover work of Live Action:
In the midst of the Kermit Gosnell murder trial, the pro-life apostolate Live Action and its founder, Lila Rose, are back in the news again with evidence of the murderous tendencies of the pro-abortion culture captured on video via undercover pro-lifers posing as genuine Planned Parenthood clients. And with this new round of videos comes a fresh volley of friendly fire aimed at Live Action from fellow Catholics who claim that Live Action’s undercover tactics involve the intrinsically evil sin of lying. These voices claim that the “Church’s” ancient teaching against speaking falsehood with intent to deceive (lying), found as it is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, means that Catholics really ought not support the work of Live Action.
So, what is the truth about lying and Live Action? Is all so-called “lying” sinful? Should Catholics shy away from supporting or participating in undercover work? Let’s take a look.
What Does the “Church” Teach?
If you have heard that “the Church has always taught” that every act of lying—every act of speaking falsehood with intention to deceive—is evil, at least venially sinful, then you have heard an imprecise summary of the real history of Church teaching on lying. Later on we’ll examine the appearance of this teaching in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But for now, let’s consider the actual history of what the “Church” has “always taught” about lying.
We would do well to remember that the moral question regarding whether lying is always wrong has been around since before Christianity and—not surprisingly—the authentic, living Magisterium of the Catholic Church has for 2000-plus years opted NOT to resolve the long-standing moral-theological debate. That’s right, for the last two millennia, the popes and bishops have refrained from declaring that the dominant theological opinion among Catholic theologians (that lying is always wrong) must be believed by the faithful and thus have refrained from declaring that the less rigorous theological opinion (that lying so-called is sometimes permissible) must be rejected by the faithful.
The truth is this: the Magisterium permits a faithful Catholic to embrace either the Augustine/Aquinas view (lying is always wrong)—a view that is referred to as the “common teaching of Catholic theologians”—OR the less rigorous view proposed by other saints, bishops, and theologians (that permit lying in special cases). A good Catholic can accept either one of these views.
In fact, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman made a significant comment on this topic in the mid-19th Century in his treatise “Lying and Equivocation,” found as an appendix in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. He wrote: “What I have been saying shows what different schools of opinion there are in the Church in the treatment of this difficult doctrine; and, by consequence, that a given individual, such as I am, cannot agree with all of them, and has a full right to follow which of them he will. The freedom of the Schools, indeed, is one of those rights of reason, which the Church is too wise really to interfere with.”
Since Newman’s time to this very day in the 21st Century, if one surveys the moral theology manuals, textbooks, and both the “old” (online) Catholic Encylopedia and the various editions of the “New Catholic Encyclopedia” (including the most current edition on the shelves in your local library), one sees very clearly that the teaching that lying is always wrong is still considered the “common teaching” of Catholic theologians. It does not originate with the Magisterium—the pope and bishops—but rather with Church theologians, particularly two of the greats, Augustine and Aquinas. But even these two greats were not always 100 percent correct in their theological opinions; their theological works do not enjoy the same protection of the Holy Spirit given to the living successors of the apostles who are the shepherds and teachers of the Church—the pope and bishops.
And thus, to this day, the Magisterium has not taken the doctrine on lying beyond the current level of “common teaching of Catholic theologians.” [Note: A detailed examination of the “two traditions” on lying is found in Fr. Boniface Ramsey’s article “Two traditions on lying and deception in the ancient church” in The Thomist 1985;49:504–33.]
What About the Catechism?
But wait, doesn’t the appearance of this teaching on lying in the Catechism of the Catholic Church automatically “elevate” it from “common teaching” (which can be embraced or not) to something more, something “magisterial”? Doesn’t the Magisterium give us the Catechism?
The answer is this: while the papal magisterium did indeed officially promulgate the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church two decades ago, the “weight” of the teachings contained therein was not changed in any way by having the teaching included in the CCC. In other words, the CCC repeats existing teaching. It does not “change” the authority of such teaching in any way. Universal catechisms such as the catechism of the Council of Trent and the current CCC re-present existing teaching that ranges in certitude/authority from that which is infallible all the way to teachings still considered “common teaching of Catholic theologians” (which may be subject to change and revision and co-exist alongside other tolerated theological opinions).
Such is the case with the CCC teaching on lying. Follow the footnotes—they lead not to magisterial sources but instead to Augustine and Aquinas. Again, this is because the Magisterium has for 2,000 years been content to continue letting the theologians consider how to apply the generally accepted common teaching on lying to certain special cases in which it is not altogether clear that “speaking falsehood with intent to deceive” constitutes at least a venial sin.
To summarize: the Catechism does not “elevate” the common teaching of Catholic theologians on lying in any way—thus good Catholics may take the view that not all “lying” so-called is morally wrong.
Avoiding Unnecessary Division
Thus, let the debate and discussion over what really constitutes lying continue among the theologians. But by no means should we be accusing brother and sister Catholics who support Live Action of condoning “dissent” or sin, nor should we be accusing Live Action operatives of committing sin or tempting others to sin! Making such accusations goes well beyond where even the Magisterium has opted to go for the last 2,000 years. It does little good to foment unnecessary divisions among the faithful particularly in areas in which the faithful enjoy the freedom given them by the Magisterium (and the theologians) to take differing views on how to apply this teaching in special cases (such as undercover work).
My appeal to readers is this: set aside the divisive conversation that in some corners continues to overshadow the important work being accomplished by Live Action. As long as the faithful possess the freedom to form their own consciences either according to the common teaching or according to another tolerated theological opinion, we should maintain the bond of unity and be able to support the work of Live Action even if we personally disagree with the tactic of posing as a Planned Parenthood client. As individuals, we should not feel at all comfortable going beyond where the Magisterium itself has gone: we should not condemn or criticize the efforts being employed by other individuals who have formed their consciences according to moral principles tolerated by the Magisterium.
In fact, just as a reality check, ask yourself this question—after several years of rather open and divisive online debate about Live Action’s work, if such undercover work is not morally permissible, why have we not heard from any bishops at all who would seek to set the record straight and, for the good of the faithful, make clear that such efforts are unsupportable? Simple: Bishops everywhere are aware that undercover work of this kind (Live Action, police work, etc.) may be engaged in by the faithful if doing so is in accord with a Catholic’s well-formed conscience. Obviously, if such work is contrary to one’s well-formed conscience, then one should not engage in it. Both possibilities fall within the realm of what it means to be a Catholic who is faithful to the Church’s understanding of the issue of lying. But it is vitally important that those who take differing views on this issue should afford each other the kind of respect that ensures the unity of purpose that is crucial to the ongoing effort to save unborn lives. All forms of division resulting from debating this issue only serve to weaken us.
This reflection is intended to answer the question of whether a “good Catholic” can support Live Action’s undercover work—and the answer is obviously a resounding “yes.” In the interest of brevity I have left out some compelling pieces of evidence regarding the meaning, purpose, substance and “evolution” of the Catechism. I have also completely omitted consideration of the merits of the arguments in support of the common teaching that lying is always wrong (Augustine and Aquinas make some clearly reasonable claims) and of the arguments for the less rigorous view that permits lying in some cases (for which there is also a great deal of Scriptural, patristic, and theological evidence to consider). Suffice it to say that a compelling case can be made for the moral goodness of so-called “lying” in the context of undercover work and in defense against unjust aggression. And it may be possible to “harmonize” the two sides of this theological question in a way that respects the reasonability of both approaches. But the primary goal here and now is to give reassurance to all Catholics that Live Action’s life-saving apostolate falls completely within what is considered morally permissible in the Catholic Church.
And that’s the unvarnished truth. Perhaps now we would do well to spend less time in division and more time in “multiplication”—multiplying our prayers for those with whom we have argued and debated, for those who will struggle to understand the above “good news” clearly, and for the innocent unborn lives we are all striving to protect.