The Catholic blogosphere has been ablaze recently with discussions revolving around the actions of Lila Rose and Live Action and their sting operation against Worse Than Murder, Inc, with some bloggers like our own Joe Hargrave condemning these tactics since they involved lying, and other bloggers such as myself holding that there is nothing morally wrong with the tactics used in the sting. I certainly do not wish to raise from the dead this well flogged horse, but I thought our readers might find interesting a fascinating overview of lying, equivocation and morality in Note G of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. It is a typical tour de force by Newman where he demonstrates his knowledge of the history, reasoning and practical application of a Church teaching on morality. Here is the note:
ALMOST all authors, Catholic and Protestant, admit, that when a just cause is present, there is some kind or other of verbal misleading, which is not sin. Even silence is in certain cases virtually such a misleading, according to the Proverb, “Silence gives consent.” Again, silence is absolutely forbidden to a Catholic, as a mortal sin, under certain circumstances, e.g. to keep silence, when it is a duty to make a profession of faith.
Another mode of verbal misleading, and the most direct, is actually saying the thing that is not; and it is defended on the principle that such words are not a lie, when there is a “justa causa,” as killing is not murder in the case of an executioner.
Another ground of certain authors for saying that an untruth is not a lie where there is a just cause, is, that veracity is a kind of justice, and therefore, when we have no duty of justice to tell truth to another, it is no sin not to do so. Hence we may say the thing that is not, to children, to madmen, to men who ask impertinent questions, to those whom we hope to benefit by misleading.
Another ground, taken in defending certain untruths, ex justâ causâ, as if not lies, is, that veracity is for the sake of society, and that, if in no case whatever we might lawfully mislead others, we should actually be doing society great harm.
Another mode of verbal misleading is equivocation or a play upon words; and it is defended on the theory that to lie is to use words in a sense which they will not bear. But an equivocator uses them in a received sense, though there is another received sense, and therefore, according to this definition, he does not lie.
Others say that all equivocations are, after all, a kind of lying,—faint lies or awkward lies, but still lies; and some of these disputants infer, that therefore we must not equivocate, and others that equivocation is but a half-measure, and that it is better to say at once that in certain cases untruths are not lies.
Others will try to distinguish between evasions and equivocations; but though there are evasions which are clearly not equivocations, yet it is very difficult scientifically to draw the line between the one and the other.
To these must be added the unscientific way of dealing with lies,—viz. that on a great or cruel occasion a man cannot help telling a lie, and he would not be a man, did he not tell it, but still it is very wrong, and he ought not to do it, and he must trust that the sin will be forgiven him, though he goes about to commit it ever so deliberately, and is sure to commit it again under similar circumstances. It is a necessary frailty, and had better not be thought about before it is incurred, and not thought of again, after it is well over. This view cannot for a moment be defended, but, I suppose, it is very common.
I think the historical course of thought upon the matter has been this: the Greek Fathers thought that, when there was a justa causa, an untruth need not be a lie. St. Augustine took another view, though with great misgiving; and, whether he is rightly interpreted or not, is the doctor of the great and common view that all untruths are lies, and that there can be no just cause of untruth. In these later times, this doctrine has been found difficult to work, and it has been largely taught that, though all untruths are lies, yet that certain equivocations, when there is a just cause, are not untruths.