Cardinal Newman on Lying and Equivocation

Sunday, February 27, AD 2011

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.

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15 Responses to Cardinal Newman on Lying and Equivocation

  • Or cite the canonized Saint who translated the Bible…St. Jerome as cited by Aquinas in the Summa T :
    “Jerome, in his commentary on Galatians 2:11, “The example of Jehu, king of Israel, who slew the priests of Baal, pretending that he desired to worship idols, should teach us that dissimulation is useful and sometimes to be employed”.
    2nd of the 2nd/ question 111/ art. one/ obj. 2

    Jehu told actual falsehoods to set up an ambush against the Baal adherents of the house of Ahab:

    2 kings 10:19-20. 
    19 Now summon for me all Baal’s prophets, all his worshipers, and all his priests. See that no one is absent, for I have a great sacrifice for Baal. Whoever is absent shall not live.” This Jehu did as a ruse, so that he might destroy the worshipers of Baal.
    20
    Jehu said further, “Proclaim a solemn assembly in honor of Baal.” They did so…”

    Jehu’s men kill them once assembled and fulfill Elijah’s prediction of the house of Ahab. Ten verses late in verse 30 God commends Jehu with not a bit of the outrage that Catholic internet posters would heap on Jehu:

    30 The LORD said to Jehu, “Because you have done well what I deem right, and have treated the house of Ahab as I desire, your sons to the fourth generation shall sit upon the throne of Israel.”

  • And You, Bill Bannon, have also done well!
    When this all began the first thing which went through my mind was the fabulous job Nathan did on David to bring him (and his outrage at the man Nathan described) around to having to admit that “….That man is YOU!”
    The French priest Louis Evely, known for his good work as a retreat master, used this for the title of a really awesome book if his (Newman Press 1966). I only wish they would bring it out in print again today, It was a real soul searching experience for the reader and brought the humanity of Christ into your living room as well as your heart.

  • Bill Sr.
    Ha…I never thought of the Nathan incident….excellent. Reminiscent of the leading to repentance of his brothers done by Jacob’s Joseph in Egypt when they came to him during famine and he pretended to be a stern Egyptian ruler who might never return Benjamin to their father, Jacob. Makes one wonder how many of these ruses are in the lesser read books of the Bible also.

  • On two occasions in Genesis Abraham denied that Sarah was his wife to avoid having local rulers kill him and marry his widow. King David had frequent recourse to deception in his career. Of course, just because someone in the Bible does something doesn’t make the act virtuous. It does mean that this is a fairly complex area.

  • I appreciate the treatment here on the topic of lying. However it occurred to me while reading St. John Henry Neuman’s essay, how hand-wringing and splitting of hairs it appears on the surface. It is almost obsessive. Now I most respectfully submit to St. John’s holy writing and thinking on the subject, but it occurs to me that there is a wonderful contrast here between the Catholic treatment and thinking and discussion of lying and the World’s. What I am thinking of is the monumental harm done to society through the acceptance of lying in the course of public civil discourse. We have in our society an occasion of at least half of the body politic engaged in lying on such a monumental scale, as to be mind-boggling. One of our two political parties is completely and wholly given over to communicating exclusively in terms of deception and prevarication and outright lying. Yet, there is barely a whisper of comment in any forum anywhere about it. Much less is there any discussion about the harm and desolation caused to our republic by such a state of affairs. Would that our Bishops and other teachers in the Holy Church be speaking out on such a grave state of affairs. Instead we have our own “tempest in a teapot” over the obsessively fine details of lying to secure the harm of a diabolical organization such as planned parenthood.
    Just my two cents.

  • Sawman
    The receiver of the ruse and/or lies in Scripture is key and is either someone:

    A. Possibly dangerous ( Don’s examples of Abraham’s protective fibs).

    B. Clearly evil (Judith’s lies to Holofernes; Jehu’s lies to the Baal devotees).

    C. Or generally good people in need of repentance ( Bill Sr.’s example of David fooled therapeutically by Nathan/ and my example of Joseph’s brothers fooled therapeutically by Joseph).

    A and B reflect on the situation of hiding Jews from the Nazi’s and doing anti narcotics undercover work. No Pope would call either a sin but to read the Catholic net debate last week, you could imagine Catholic posters turning in hidden Anne Franks as soon as a Nazi asked them….” are you hiding a Jewess?”…..” yes,
    second floor, 3rd door on your right, I cannot lie per Aquinas and Augustine.”
    C is used by most Catholic parents prior to Christmas as to Santa only bringing toys to good children.

  • bill bannon,
    Well said. I read Dr. Peter Kreeft’s opinion on this issue and although I agree with his point I could barely follow him through his reasoning, or intuitive process. You however, are making the same point in an easier way for me to understand. Thanks. My hat is off to you sir.

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  • Here is a question: would it be permissible for a Catholic, say a member of the FBI, to go under cover to get evidence against an established mafia crime family? Would that person be in sin?

  • Jacob
    Can you find any Pope who even criticized undercover work? Can you find one Catholic magisterial document against it? There’s your answer. It is a serious form of acting as done by Judith and Jehu in the Bible to save lives and souls in their respective cases…and both are then praised in scripture with not one adverse commentary on their methods. In the Jehu case, scripture seems to even be affirming the whole process used by Jehu ( see text in my first post).
    Within the Mafia, the agent could not fornicate or murder for the sake of fostering their cover….even if the victim of the murder was evil. I would think they could have remote material cooperation with some bad acts….just as an heating oil delivery truck driver has remote material cooperation when he delivers oil to an abortion facility or delivers oil to a porn studio….ie he is furthering nothing to a reasonable mind… and without him the oil would be delivered by the oil company without skipping a beat by another driver. Were the abortion mill in the artic, and only this particular trucker could handle those roads, the cooperation deepens and one needs a discerning priest…likewise if new complex questions arise in undercover work. Cooperation questions are so varying, that an FBI agent should study the area in moral theology tomes usually read by priests in seminaries…but obtainable.

  • Looks like Bannon’s cannons has blown this discussion clear out of the polluted waters many Catholics have been and are still sailing.

  • Lila Rose was playing a role before a camera to teach a moral lesson. It was drama.

  • Well, so far I’ve been accused, by five separate people, of being disingenuous, lacking in docility, rebellious, quasi-Protestant, and consequentialist for claiming that the Magisterium has yet to officially pronounce on the matter of justified falsehoods.

    It’s readily acknowledged that lying is wrong; the Catechism is clear on that.

    What’s not so clear is when falsehoods are justified. And the Magisterium has simply not spoken on the matter.

    We do have the papal bull of Innocent XI condemning strict mental reservation under oath.

    But that hardly clarifies situations like Judith, Rahab, Jehu, and the Egyptian midwives–in each instance, the deceivers were roundly praised and blessed by God. James the Apostle even holds up Rahab as a shining example of faith. Would he do that if her deception were intrinsically evil? Would the early Church Fathers include the Book of Judith in the canon of sacred Scripture if her repeated deceptions were inherently evil–as so many dogmatists today claim?

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Well, I Certainly Think This Example of Lying is Immoral!

Sunday, February 20, AD 2011

The Catholic blogosphere has been debating the morality of the Lila Rose sting operation against Worse Than Murder, Inc. a\k\a Planned Parenthood, with a diverse crop of conclusions ranging from Mark Shea and our own Joe Hargrave who are opposed to this as an example of lying to be condemned, to Dr. Peter Kreeft and myself who find absolutely nothing wrong with it.  This of course obscures the fact that most Catholics understand that deceit in most circumstances is to be condemned.

Now, in one of those examples of synchronicity regarding events which help establish to me that God has an infinite sense of humor, we have an example of lying that I think all Catholics would condemn.  Teachers have taken the lead in the protests against the public employees union legislation proposed by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.  Thousands of teachers have called in sick to attend the rallies.  Doctors, as shown in the video above, have been passing out certificates to teachers, falsely indicating that they have examined the recipient of the certificate and that the teacher is ill.  To me lying to save innocent human life is one thing, lying to allow an employee to avoid work is quite another, even if one might be sympathetic to the employee on political grounds.

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18 Responses to Well, I Certainly Think This Example of Lying is Immoral!

  • Yes, exactly.

    I am sure that Mark Shea and the girls at Vox Nova who worked themselves up into enough lather to clean a battlefield tank with their 5,000 word posts on Lila Rose will rush to condemn this act of clear medical fraud by Wisconsin liberals.

  • I dunno — are those fellow really physicians, or are they SEIU hands who have stolen some white coats from their employers?

    Of your logic and kindness do remember that only 15 states permit teachers to bargain collectively.

    As for me, I am definitely for that famous “poor ol’ workin’ man” (when he’s working), and opposed to unions period. It will be a cold day in Buna, Texas when I walk out on my students.

  • Donald,

    Yes, if the protesters are not sick, getting sick notes like that are wrong. They should just protest without trying to get such notes. And just as I have said that Lila Rose can be doing good and still sinning at the same time, the same would apply here.

    And I’ve said this long before the current debate came up:

    http://vox-nova.com/2009/07/01/so-one-can-commit-intrinsic-evils-in-war/

  • Well, that horrible leaching-off-the-mainstream-media blogosphere seems to be the only place where they tried to get some evidence– Gateway Pundit has video and links to copies of the notes.

    It appears they have license numbers, so it’s fraud either way– misrepresentation as a medical doctor, or aiding in work-fraud.

  • It’s a never ending debate if Jerome and Aquinas were at odds about dissimulation:

    Jerome, in his commentary on Galatians 2:11, “The example of Jehu, king of Israel, who slew the priest of Baal, pretending that he desired to worship idols, should teach us that dissimulation is useful and sometimes to be employed”.

    Aquinas counters in the ST:
    There is no need to excuse Jehu’s dissimulation from sin or lie, because he was a wicked man, since he departed not from the idolatry of Jeroboam (2 Kings 10:29-31).

    But Aquinas allowed ambush in war and ambush is dissimulation…..you by omission are not announcing your whereabouts in order that you can attack from those whereabouts. You have lied about the safety of the location thru omission.

    Jerome wins.
    Judith is the more outstanding example. In chapter 12 of that book she lies repeatedly to Holofernes til she gets the opportunity to behead him in his tent in defense of her people who Holofernes intended to slaughter. What example is better vis a vis abortion and in Judith 16:5, Scripture praises her: ” But the Lord Almighty thwarted them, by a woman’s hand He confounded them.”

  • Don, you linked to Opus! Oh what memories. Funny how some things are forgotten. I don’t consider myself a comic strip type person, but there were two strips I enjoyed. I liked Bloom County though didn’t really lose any sleep when it was stopped. The other is what I would consider probably the best/funniest/most consistent humor ever published, The Far Side. The loss of that still stings. Fortunately, it was so good you can read the collection books and still get great laughs. 🙂

  • RL I loved Bloom County and I think Opus and his misadventures in life were screamingly funny. I read the strip at the time and I have collections of most of them. I like my comedy topical and take no prisoners on all sides and Bloom County had those qualities in abundance.

  • Frequent commenter DonnaV has an interesting report at Ace of Spades reguarding citizen reaction to the union protests behind the Cheddar Curtain.

    “Today after work, I went grocery shopping and ran a few other errands near a busy intersection in Shorewood WI. Shorewood is a well-to-do, lily white and generally very liberal suburb of Milwaukee.
    There was a small band of high school students, in obviously high spirits because of their extra long weekend, jumping around and waving signs saying “Support Worker Rights.” They were accompanied by a few older people, teachers I assume, holding similar signs.

    This is what struck me: it was rush hour, plenty of cars were going past and during the course of 15 or 20 minutes or so, I didn’t hear one single honk of support from any passing cars. This is a ‘burb where there is no shortage of Volvos with Obama/Biden and “Co-Exist” bumper stickers. I remember the anti-war rallies during the Bush years. The honks and cheers of support and encouragement the “Bush = Hitler” protesters got were constant. “Walker = Hitler” doesn’t seem to be going over nearly as well.The silence of the rush hour crowd was very noticable.

    I don’t blame the kids for being clueless because they are kids, but their elders are another matter. Did any of those bozos pause to consider that even a wussy Volvo-driving Obama voter, driving home after a long, hard work week, might have glanced at those signs and thought “Worker rights? Hey, I’m a worker too – been busting my butt all week. Had to scramble to find sitters for the kids today and it made me late for work. Nobody will stand on the corner waving signs if I get laid off, or take a pay cut. Screw these people.”

    Some otherwise pretty apolitical friends were furious at having to take two days off to watch their kids. They’ve become big Scott Walker fans. Keep making friends and influencing people, lefties, it’s working so well!

    Really, if pro-union protesters can’t attract a bunch of cheering, honking libtard supporters in libtard Shorewood of all places, you know Walker’s winning this one.”
    http://minx.cc/?post=312277

  • “This is a ‘burb where there is no shortage of Volvos with Obama/Biden and “Co-Exist” bumper stickers.”

    LOL. I think I’m the one of few conservative Volvo drivers out there. I have a ‘GoArmy.com’ bumper sticker….

  • “…Lila Rose can be doing good and still sinning at the same time, the same would apply here.”

    Or the union can be acting contra the common good and lying to help accomplish it.

  • I say fire them all Monday. Hire new, pass a law to never allow union representation for state workers of any kind. I have not only NO sympathy for the union thugs, but antipathy and animosity. Maybe they would appreciate their jobs more if they were able to taste the “benefits” of left-wing economics the way the construction industry has had to. Screw them.

  • Is “Abortion is health care” an statement wherein lying is immoral?

    Meanwhile, the Obama regime is quietly removing legal safeguards protecting Catholic health care workers from committing “health care” acts they undertstand to be murder.

    In accordance with today’s Gospel, I’m loving liberals (America’s/my worst enemies) and praying for the (Fatima) conversion of Obama.

  • I think Kreeft’s article won me over. But I’m not sure how to reconcile what he says with the Catechism.

    Is it double effect?

  • Those who lie to save innocent lives or avert imminent, great evil, I am guessing that in MOST cases, they are simply doing the best they can and not acting out of malice. Whether they are subjectively guilty of sin would be questionable. We can debate the morality of lying to save lives all we want, but who among us really knows what he or she would do in a life or death situation. We are, after all, all sinners in need of God’s mercy.

    It’s one thing to cut some slack to people who commit a sinful act out of desperation or out of ignorance of any alternative; it’s another thing entirely to decide that such acts are good or justified as a matter of policy, or in response to far lesser evils.

  • In reference to the Catechism Zach, what I would like to know is why 2483 was modified in 1997:

    “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.”

    This sentence will be modified to read:

    To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”

    That is a fairly major change. Was the catechism in error in 1994 with the original language or was it in error in 1997? Catechisms not infrequently have fairly significant changes along the edges of Church teaching as new ones come out and old ones gather dust on shelves. How they are constructed and why would be fascinating to learn. However, the laity usually are not privy to the internal debates that go on behind the scenes in regard to the precise language used in catechisms of the Church.

  • Then of course we have 2488:

    “2488 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.”

    I think 2488 is simple to reconcile with original 2483, harder to do with modified 2483. The fraternal love aspect of 2488 is significant I think. What if fraternal love requires deception? I can think of many instances where that would come into play. Additionally we have the additional factor of coercion of the will. Is someone entitled to the truth who literally puts a gun to your head in order to harm third parties? This robs you of your ability to simply refuse to answer and walk away. What then? This was of course precisely the dilemma facing the Church during World War II in its efforts to protect Jews and other innocent victims of the Nazis.

  • 2488 is underlined by 2489:

    “2489 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.”

    Note the “good and safety of others.” If our right to remain silent is taken away by force majeure, and this right is essential for the “good and safety of others”, what then?

    Then we have 2491:

    “2491 Professional secrets – for example, those of political office holders, soldiers, physicians, and lawyers – or confidential information given under the seal of secrecy must be kept, save in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very grave harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth. Even if not confided under the seal of secrecy, private information prejudicial to another is not to be divulged without a grave and proportionate reason.”

    Of course in regard to soldiers, which I assume is shorthand for the military, elaborate deception schemes are usually engaged in to protect military movements, etc.

  • In reference to the Catechism Zach, what I would like to know is why 2483 was modified in 1997

    There is a law professor at Notre Dame, Bob Blakey, who spends the first class of every year trying to see what horrible things he can get his students to agree to do to further the greater good (he starts with white lies, then gradually works his way up to having people boil infants alive). When the original Catechism came out, Bob Blakey noted the “right to the truth” restriction, and cited it against a student who was arguing lying was always wrong. As it happened, one of the other students in the class was the daughter of the philosopher and theologian John Finnis. She told her Dad, who informed the Vatican that the phrasing of section 2483 was contrary to more than 1500 years of Church teaching on the matter, and so it was altered.

    This is according to Prof. Blakey.