In response to an earlier article, in which I contented that the “sting” operations carried out by Live Action against Planned Parenthood involved lies and are therefore morally unacceptable, I received many comments which involved the doctrine of “mental reservation” – that ambiguous speech can be used in order to deceive another for a just cause. Indeed, there are times when a certain type of mental reservation can be employed legitimately. Nevertheless, as I hope to show, the sting operations of Live Action are not cases of mental reservation, but involve direct lies.
Other comments noted that, if it were wrong for Live Action to carry out these undercover operations, it would seem that all undercover work would be immoral – thus ruling out undercover police work and international espionage. Below, I will contend that we need not conclude that all undercover work (especially when carried out by agents of the State) need be condemned in principle – however, in practice, it will almost always put the individual in a proximate occasion of sin such that great caution must be taken.
What has been most surprising to me is the manner in which many have simply accepted that Live Action has lied to Planned Parenthood, even admitting that lying is wrong, but nevertheless justify this action by claiming that Planned Parenthood is so evil and the pro-life movement is so important that we can commit the “small” evil of a lie in order to stop the great evil of abortion – this reasoning is of the Devil. Whatever our claim may be – whether or not we believe that Live Action has done wrong – we most certainly cannot adopt the old fallacy of “the ends justify the means.”
Is it always wrong to lie?
“The pastor should show how grievously lies and deceit offend God and how deeply they are hated by God. This he should prove from the words of Solomon: Six things there are which the Lord hateth, and the seventh his soul detesteth: haughty eyes, A LYING TONGUE, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that deviseth wicked plots, feet that are swift to run into mischief, a deceitful witness that uttereth lies, etc. Who, then, can protect or save from the severest chastisements the man who is thus the object of God’s special hate? […] Hence liars are excluded from a participation in the bliss of heaven.” (Catechism of Trent, On the Eighth Commandment)
“A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving. […] By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” (CCC 2482/5)
On account of the fact that lying is a depraved act by its very nature, there is no circumstance in which it is permissible to lie – not even to save innocent life: St. Augustine taught that one must not slay his own soul by lying in order to preserve the life of another. Moreover, it is quite clear that one cannot do a lesser evil in order to prevent another from doing a greater evil – evil actions can only formally co-operate with evil, never with good.
Christ’s own words give us sufficient warning: You are of your father the devil, … truth is not in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof. (John 8:44) Hence, we conclude that any who lie make themselves to be sons of Satan and co-workers in the kingdom of evil. For this reason, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that lying is a sin not only against one’s fellow man, nor society at large, but even against God himself: “A lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.” (2483)
To deceive another by uttering a falsehood is always a lie, and it is always wrong. This absolute prohibition of lying holds always and is not determined by the circumstances of the other to whom the lie is spoken. Hence, one may not lie to another, even if that one has no right to a particular truth – this point is expounded upon in the earlier article. However, there are cases in which, without lying, one may intentionally utter an ambiguity which will lead the other to be deceived. We refer to the doctrine of “mental reservation.”
Mental Reservation: Fr. Miguel Pro was a farmer, but Lila Rose is not a prostitute
“The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. […] No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.” (CCC 2488/9)
While it is always wrong to lie, it must be maintained that one need not always tell the truth (or at least not the whole truth). Sometimes, the proper response in a given circumstance would be to remain silent – neither uttering the truth, nor denying it. In other circumstances, it is permissible to utter an ambiguous statement which, while not being false, is prone to misinterpretation. This latter case involves the concept of mental reservation.
Fr. John Hardon’s “Modern Catholic Dictionary” defines mental reservation as, “Speech in which the common and obvious sense of one’s words is limited to a particular meaning.” Uttering a word or phrase that can be interpreted in two ways, one being true and the other false, the speaker qualifies which interpretation he intends in his own mind, without giving any further indication of that qualification in his speech.
The force of this concept can be most clearly illustrated by examples: Once, St. Francis was approached by a murderer who was looking to kill a certain man who had only recently passed by. The murder asked, “Did this man pass this way?” St. Francis looked toward where the man had run and responded, “He did not pass this way.” – but, concealed under the sleeve of his robe, his finger pointed in the reverse direction.
Another example from the lives of the saints would be the famous case of St. Athanasius who, fleeing from those who were seeking his life, was in a small boat on a river. The men caught up to him, but did not recognize him and asked, “Have you seen Athanasius?” The Saint cried out, “He is just ahead of you, row hard and you will soon overtake him!” The men passed the Saint and continued up the river at great speed!
In these two examples, the phrases uttered were pregnant with ambiguity and easily misinterpreted. However, the words themselves were not false – either the particular words could have two meanings (he is just ahead of you) or the words were determined by a circumstance which was not widely known (he did not pass this way, “the way” being indicated by hidden finger). Hence, these cases did not involve lies – this is the general doctrine of “broad mental reservation.”
There is, however, a type of mental reservation which is immoral – “strict mental reservation.” The Encyclopedia of Catholicism is most helpful in this matter: “In the strict mental reservation the speaker mentally adds some qualification to the words which he utters, and the words together with the mental qualification make a true assertion in accordance with fact. On the other hand, in a wide [or, “broad”] mental reservation, the qualification comes from the ambiguity of the words themselves, or from the circumstances of time, place, or person in which they are uttered.” On this account, Fr. Hardin (and the Catholic moral tradition) concludes, Strict mental reservation “is actually a lie and is never allowed.” Pope Innocent XI condemned strict mental reservation in 1679.
The real difference between strict and broad mental reservation is that, in the case of broad mental reservation, the words themselves are open to a true interpretation; but, in the case of strict mental reservation, the words are false without the added qualification of the mind.
Again, we consider an example: Fr. Miguel Pro, it is said, during the time of persecution in Mexico, would dress as a farmer and (perhaps) even present himself as a farmer. This would be an example of broad mental reservation – Fr. Miguel has not said, “I am not a priest” (this would be a strict lie); he has said only, “I am a farmer”. There is a real sense in which Fr. Miguel was a farmer – The harvest indeed is great, but the labourers are few. Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth labourers into his harvest. (Matthew 9:37-38) Fr. Miguel Pro was a “farmer,” insofar as he was cultivating the Lord’s farm, the Church.
Consider, on the other hand, another case (which I do not claim to be historical, but which suffices as an example): Imagine that Lila Rose, the leader of Live Action, were to enter a Planned Parenthood facility and say, “I am a prostitute.” Perhaps, she adds the mental qualification – “I mean, I am pretending to be a prostitute.” This is a case of strict mental reservation – for there is nothing of the circumstances or in the words themselves which would allow for the ambiguity. Indeed, it is quite clear – though Fr. Miguel Pro was a farmer, Lila Rose is not a prostitute. Therefore, Lila Rose would be lying.
Consider a final example: In a play at a theater, a woman comes forward and says, “I am a prostitute.” In reality, however, she is not a prostitute. Here, there is no question whatsoever: This is not a lie – supposing that she is acting in a play, and the circumstances are sufficient to establish the fact that this is a play and not real life. [Indeed, I am perplexed that some people have failed to understand the difference between an undercover sting operation and a theatrical performance – I doubt that such persons have any hope of understanding anything I have written in this or previous articles.]
Lying and undercover agents
Some have objected to my earlier article on account of the fact that it would seem that, if Live Action’s operations are immoral, then all undercover work (including that done by the police and the military) would be condemned as well.
First, I must state clearly that I do not intend to hold that Live Action’s works are immoral because they are undercover – they are immoral because they involve lies. If it were possible for an undercover operation to be accomplished without lies, then it could be moral – in fact, I believe that this may be possible (at least in theory).
We must note that even mental reservations are only to be employed in limited cases – ordinarily, we are not permitted to make use of even broad mental reservation. In fact, the whole theory of mental reservation was developed as a pastoral response to situations in which a person is unwillingly questioned by others – in order to maintain the secrecy of some sensitive information, the man could answer ambiguously when questioned. The Live Action project is doing something very different – they are not passive victims, but are most active in putting themselves into these situations in which they end up not merely making use of mental reservations, but actually lying. I think we can all see the difference between using discreet language when Nazis show up at the door of a German household harboring Jews during World War II and the undercover work of Live Action – the German household did not put themselves into the situation, Live action has sought it out.
The primary reason why even broad mental reservations are to be used only in special cases is that the ambiguity of speech (though not a lie) can be destructive of the good order of society – in general, we ought not to allow others to be deceived by our speech; we ought to speak clearly so that our meaning can be easily known. However, agents of the State are able to be freer in making use of broad mental reservation. On account of the office they hold, the ambiguities of their speech do not threaten the good order of society so severely. It should be noted, by way of analogy, that agents of the State (e.g. police officers) are also able to carry unconcealed weapons (even in schools) – it would destroy the good order of society if everybody could do this, but it actually protects societal order when only the police are allowed to do so. Likewise, undercover police and State spies are able to make use of broad mental reservation much more freely than others.
Therefore, I believe that (in theory) police officers and other State officials are able to participate in undercover sting operations – so long as they do not lie, but only make extensive use of broad mental reservations. Hence, it seems to me that they can even go so far as to say, “I am not a cop,” meaning “I am not now working as a cop” – and this is true, since they wouldn’t blow cover in order to do any ordinary police work. Obviously, I am probably stretching the limits here, but maybe it could be morally legitimate.
I am more certain that the undercover agents could say, “I am a drug dealer” (for example), since they really are selling drugs, even though their ultimate goal is to arrest the drug lord – this example could be applied to other scenarios. What the undercover agents simply cannot say is, “I am not an undercover cop.” That would be a strict lie, and lying is never justifiable.
Truthfully, when it comes to undercover work, I really don’t know what the answer is. I myself am not too keen on undercover work – it seems to put people in extremely difficult moral dilemmas (not just with lying, but with many other sins too – drugs, sex, violence, taking the Lord’s Name, etc.). However, I am doing the best I can to try and reconcile the absolute prohibition of lying with at least some level of undercover work. Obviously, my “answer” is provisional – I do not offer it as a certainty, but as something to at least get thought going in the right general direction.
Finally, I would emphasize that the work of Live Action is quite far from what I am recommending as possibly morally justifiable for agents of the State. Even though an undercover cop may be able to claim, “I am a drug dealer,” the Live Action workers cannot claim, “I am a pimp,” or “I am a prostitute.” The cop really is selling the drugs, but Lila Rose and company are not selling their bodies or those of others. Live Action seems to be a group of vigilantes who are trying to defeat Planned Parenthood (which is good) with lies (which is bad).
Can the Culture of Life win without lies?
“With regard to those who defend their [lying] conduct by saying that to speak the truth is often attended with inconvenience, priests should answer that such an excuse is an accusation, not a defense, since it is the duty of Christians to suffer any inconvenience rather than to utter a falsehood.” (Catechism of Trent)
I will conclude with the final words from my previous article: After thirty-eight years of terrible struggle, there is a danger of despair. Individuals in the pro-life movement may be tempted to lose hope, to think that (without radical actions) abortion will never end. This seems to be at the root of the “sting” operations – no longer content to use the normal and morally acceptable means which God has provided, certain pro-life workers are taking things into their own hands and even attempting to justify objectively sinful actions for the sake of some greater good.
But we must remember that the victory of the Culture of Life is not essentially something within human powers. Death has reigned on earth since the Fall, and it is only conquered through the God-Man, Jesus Christ. He alone will win the victory for Life, he alone will overcome death in the world. It is Christ who will defeat Planned Parenthood, we can only participate in his work. But, Christ is the Truth – and, if we act against the Truth, we act against Christ. If we live not in the Truth, we are no longer pro-life workers, but have already begun to participate in the culture of death.
Unless the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it. Unless the Lord keep the city, he watcheth in vain that keepeth it. (Psalm 126:1)
[Please consider also, the response I have offered to two articles published at CatholicVote.org here: http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2011/02/lying-to-planned-parenthood-response-to.html]