There has been quite a debate raging on various websites and blogs regarding the moral status of the “sting” operations which Live Action has carried out on Planned Parenthood facilities. Some have simply posed the question (Mark Shea), others have come down on the side of Live Action, and others have argued that these operations are morally unacceptable (the offerings of Germain Grisez and Christopher Tollefsen, are particularly helpful). It seems that the debate first began (at least on-line) here at The New Theological Movement – our February 3rd article, “It is a sin to lie, even to Planned Parenthood”, was published just days after the videos were first released (on February 1st). In response to the extensive debate, both in our comment box and on other blogs, NTM published another (more extensive and theological) article on February 9th: “Lying to Planned Parenthood, or is it mental reservation?” [on this same day, Mr. Shea and Dr. Tollefsen released their articles, Dr. Grisez spoke to Catholic News Agency on February 11th; Dawn Eden and William Doino Jr. made a good offering on February 10th]
It is my intention to consider two articles from CatholicVote.org which have attempted to argue that Live Action has not lied in these undercover operations. Before responding to these articles, I will first briefly summarize what was contained in the previous articles here at NTM. Though I have a license in sacred theology, my specialty is dogmatic theology – moreover, I am a parish priest and not a “professional” theologian. On this account, I will write with a simple style – but the arguments I make will contain all the power and force of Catholic teaching.
Summary of previous articles
In the first article, I argued that “a lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” (CCC 2482; citing St. Augustine, De mendacio 4,5) As a lie is not only an offense against the person to whom we lie, and society in general, but also against God himself; lying is always wrong. Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. A lie is determined not so much by the subjective state of the individual to whom we speak, but by the objective quality of our words – whether or not they accord with what we hold to be true in our mind. Thus, even in those cases where the other person does not have a right to the truth, we cannot lie to them (though we can withhold the truth by remaining silent or using discreet language).
Christ our Savior strongly condemned lying: 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) Thus, the Church teaches that, “by its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” (CCC 2485) It is always a sin to lie.
In the second article, I discussed the question of mental reservation – the theory that, when there is a grave reason for concealing the truth from another (when that person has no right to the particular truth), we may use ambiguous language to deceive the person. I distinguished between broad (or, wide) mental reservation and strict mental reservation. This distinction is brought out well by the Catholic Encyclopedia: “In the strict mental reservation the speaker mentally adds some qualification to the words which he utters, and the words together with the mental qualifications make a true assertion in accordance with fact. On the other hand, in a wide 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.” Strict mental reservation is actually a lie, and was condemned by Pope Innocent XI in 1679. Broad mental reservation is not a lie; hence, it can be used for a just reason.
I claimed that the work of Live Action was a case of strict mental reservation, and involved lying. Moreover, I provided an account according to which it would be possible for police and other agents of the State to engage in undercover work and espionage while still avoiding lies through the use of broad mental reservations – I admit that this would be difficult in practice, but it is at least theoretically possible. Hence, my rejection of the methods of Lila Rose does not constitute a condemnation of all undercover work.
Now, we turn to the two articles published at CatholicVote.org – the first, by Joseph Bottum, titled “The Unloving Lies of Lila Rose?” is a response to the article by Dr. Tollefsen; the second, by Dr. Miller, is much more serious and is titled “Did Live Action lie?”
Response to Joseph Bottum: A faulty analogy and a faulty premise
The central claim of Joseph Bottum’s article rests upon an analogy to naval warfare. He writes: “Let’s try, for a moment, a metaphor of naval warfare. […] In the realm of naval warfare, there are recognized tricks – each a ruse de guerre that the international laws of war do not condemn. Sailing under false colors, prior to engaging in battle, for example.” Mr. Bottum (perhaps wrongly) claims that Dr. Tollefsen and his “noble philosophy” would condemn such naval practices “as lies.” He even admits that Dr. Tollefsen is correct: “And rightly so.” Bottum continues, “In the monastery and the convent, too, they would be theologically condemned.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Bottum objects, “War, however, is not fought on those fields” (i.e. the “fields” of theology, spirituality, and reason). Mr. Bottom’s whole argument rests on the claim that the pro-life movement is at war with the culture of death and, therefore, is able to follow “the international laws of war.” How dangerous is the method of thought he has adopted! The entire crux of the argument rests on the claim that, although theology (as well as spirituality and philosophy) seem to condemn an action, because the international community has agreed, it is morally acceptable for the Christian. Simply because “the international laws of war do not condemn” the action, Mr. Bottum presumes that it is perfectly acceptable for Lila Rose and the Live Action project to lie. His argument is based on human consent rather than natural or divine law. What should we think if international or national laws began to legalize gay marriage? Whither would Mr. Bottum’s logic lead him then?
The logic of Mr. Bottum’s argument is so deeply flawed that it seems to us that we need not address his article any further. Let us simply state that war is waged between nations, not between movements or individuals within a single nation. The pro-life movement is not “at war” with Planned Parenthood – though we may use this metaphor (and I myself use it at times), strictly speaking we are not really “at war.” Even “the international laws of war” dictate that declaration of war must be made by States, not individuals – hence, Mr. Bottom’s logic fails its own (very illogical) test.
[In her article, Dr. Miller is at least intellectually honest enough to admit that the “war” we are in with the culture of death “is a spiritual war before it is anything else,” though she leaves it to us to infer that the international laws of war do not hold for spiritual warfare.]
Though Mr. Bottum has stated that Dr. Tollefsen’s article is filled with ideas “so silly that only an intellectual could convince himself to believe in them,” we will avoid any personal attack against Mr. Bottum and only comment that it is surprising that CatholicVote.org would stoop so low as to publish such an ill conceived piece.
Response to Monica Migliorino Miller: Strict mental reservation is a lie
First, I would like to express my admiration of Dr. Miller for all the good work she has done for the pro-life movement. May Almighty God reward her for the dedication she has shown over many years of service in defense of the Culture of Life. Even this particular article, with which I take great objection, is written in such a spirit of intellectual honesty and studious devotion that I am slightly pained to criticize it. Nevertheless, the splendor of the truth must shine forth, and I intend here to take Dr. Miller up on the offer she made when writing, “I hope this treatise will provoke thought and I welcome responses.”
Dr. Miller’s article is long and complex. It contains citations of several very interesting passages from the works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas – in particular, we refer the reader to the discussion of the deception accomplished by Jacob and the question regarding ambush in war. However, for all its complexity and its many examples (as well as its length), we are quite shocked that Dr. Miller has neglected to account for the distinction between broad and strict mental reservation. Though she makes use of the term “mental reservation,” Dr. Miller does not even define it. Moreover, while referring to “wide” or “broad” mental reservation, she never distinguishes this from “strict” mental reservation – she neglects to even mention the phrase “strict mental reservation.” Needless to say, when Dr. Miller claims that Live Action has engaged in a mental reservation, she fails to inform the reader that one form of mental reservation, namely strict mental reservation, has been condemned as lying by Pope Innocent XI.
It is quite surprising that a lengthy article by a moral theologian would neglect to discuss such an important point as the difference between broad and strict mental reservation. As Dr. Miller has neglected this, we will simply offer a brief recounting of our own position (which is based on the Catholic moral tradition): Broad mental reservation occurs when the ambiguity in the words (which gives rise to the deception) comes from something in the external world (either from the words themselves, or from the circumstances); but strict mental reservation occurs when the ambiguity comes from something solely in the mind and not from the external world.
Dr. Miller implies that Lila Rose and company could say to the people at Planned Parenthood, “I am a prostitute;” meaning, “I am playing the role of a prostitute in order to test you.” Dr. Miller claims that this is a case of mental reservation – and we agree, but we insist that it is strict mental reservation and is therefore a lie. For there is nothing in the circumstances or in the words themselves which gives rise to this ambiguity, but it stems solely from the mind of the “actor.” Thus, the deception perpetrated on Planned Parenthood is accomplished through intentionally presenting falsehood as truth – this deception is not a case of broad mental reservation, but is actually a lie.
If Dr. Miller had made the essential distinction between broad and strict mental reservation, she might have concluded that Live Action’s methods involved lies (under the auspices of strict mental reservations).
On another level, Dr. Miller claims that, if what Lila Rose has done is a lie and is sinful, then all undercover police work would also be sinful. I have already dealt with this objection extensively and have argued that some level of undercover work could be morally acceptable, if accomplished by agents of the State through extensive use of broad mental reservations – for more on this point, please see the section on “Lying and undercover agents” from my previous article.
Finally, Dr. Miller’s concluding point – that a lie is only a lie if told to someone who has a right to the truth – is refuted not only by both of my previous articles and by the revision of the Catechism, but even by her own article in which she cites both St. Thomas and St. Augustine (witnesses to the entire tradition of Catholic moral theology) who insist that the nature of a lie is not determined by the subjective position of the other to whom the lie is told, but by the very nature of the words themselves and their relation to the intellect (i.e. a lie is the intentional presentation of falsehood as truth).
Promised statement from Lila Rose
Apparently, Lila Rose will be issuing a public statement in response to the criticism which her “sting” operations have received from some Catholic writers (including ourselves). If and when this statement is released, The New Theological Movement will offer a commentary and a brief response.
The final word must be one of praise for the great dedication which Live Action (and Lila Rose in particular) has shown in service of the Culture of Life – may its works always be accomplished in the light, free from every shadow of darkness.