Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It is a sin to lie, even to Planned Parenthood

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
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has accepted St. Augustine’s definition of a lie: “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” (CCC 2482, De mendacio 4,5) Lying is a direct offense against the truth, indeed it is the most direct offense against the truth. Therefore, it is not merely a sin against the individual to whom the lie is told, nor is it only against the society whose stability is harmed, but it is a direct offense against God himself, who is Truth. “By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.” (CCC 2483)
Yet, though nearly all people will admit that lying is generally wrong, there seem to be few who will hold that lying is always wrong. There are many cases and examples which seem to challenge the Church’s teaching that it is always wrong to lie – here we can name the famous case of the Nazis searching for Jews hidden in the attic.
Setting aside these very interesting case studies, we must first consider the teaching of the Church (which is founded in Scripture, Tradition, and also philosophy) – to this end, we will look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and also to the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. Having examined the foundations of the total prohibition of lying, we will consider the particular case of lying to Planned Parenthood in order to expose certain illegal (and immoral) practices of the culture of death.

To lie is always a sin
St. Thomas states that a person lies when he “intends to say what is false” (ST II-II, q.10, a.1). To lie is to state what is contrary to what one holds in the intellect to be true. In order to understand why St. Thomas (and the Church) believes that it is always sinful to lie, we must know something of how he understands language.
“Words are naturally signs of intellectual acts,” that is, words convey what is thought by the mind. Thus, for words to convey something that is contrary to what the mind thinks (i.e. to lie) is “unnatural and undue.” Thus, even Aristotle could say that “lying is in itself evil and to be shunned.” (ST II-II, q.110, a.3)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also condemns lying unconditionally: “Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error… The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims… By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others… Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another… Lying is destructive of society.” (CCC 2483-2486)
Objections answered
Having seen the clear condemnation of all lies, by both the Church and also philosophy, we are certain that lying is always and everywhere wrong. Moreover, we must be clear, there is no room in Church teaching to allow for a justification of a lie, even under the claim that the person to whom the lie was told had no right to the truth. Lying is not merely an offense against other men, but an offense against God – thus, the moral evil of a lie is determined not so much by the particular circumstances of the person to whom the lie is told, but by the fact that Jesus is the Truth.
Hence, if we come to a case in which someone has no right to knowledge of a particular truth (as, for example, the sins of another), the proper response is not to lie about that truth but instead to simply remain silent. While we are not obliged always to tell the whole truth, we must never tell a lie which is contrary to what we know to be true. One cannot do an evil thing, even with the intent of bringing about some good.
We can now consider the most popular objection to the Church’s prohibition of lying, the case of the Nazis looking for the Jews in the attic. The objection runs as follows: A man is hiding Jews in his attic during the reign of the Nazis in Germany. The Nazis come to his house and ask the question, “Are there Jews hidden in your attic?” What is the man to answer? It would seem (so the objection claims) that he can lie and tell the Nazis that there are no Jews in his attic.
First, we must assert that this would indeed be a lie – for the man would be telling what he knows to be contrary to the truth with the intention of deceiving. We also admit that the Nazis have no right to that knowledge (i.e. they ought not know that there are Jews in the attic), but we affirm that the moral evil of the lie is determined not by the circumstances of the Nazis, but by the simple fact that the man knows one thing to be true and yet says something contrary to this (i.e. he says, “There are no Jews in my attic”). This is a sin, it is a sin against the Nazis, against the German people as a whole, and against God – it is a direct offense against the truth.
What then should the man do? On the one hand, he most certainly cannot lie; on the other hand, it seems that he cannot tell the truth – for it would seem to be sinful to co-operate with the Nazis in that manner. We must affirm that God does not need our lies in order to bring about the victory of truth – lies can only formally contribute to evil, never to good. Thus, we must trust that either a) the Lord would give an illumination at the moment so that the man could find some way to save those Jews without telling a lie, or b) it is the time for martyrdom. If the man could find no way to save the Jews through some clever action (which did not involve lying), the only thing left for him would be simply to remain silent – an action which would most likely gain for himself the crown of martyrdom (if he acted in Christian charity).
Lying to reveal the sins of Planned Parenthood
We now come to the extremely relevant question of lying to Planned Parenthood. It is well known that there have been a number of “sting” operations by pro-life workers who have posed either as young pregnant girls or pimps or any number of other characters. These individuals have then (with hidden cameras) entered Planned Parenthood facilities and, allegedly, have recorded staff members giving illegal advice – either covering up the age of the girls, or even aiding underground (and underage) prostitution rings. These pro-life workers have very explicitly lied – about their age, or their occupation, or their physical condition (claiming to be pregnant). We maintain that, though the intentions of these individuals may be good, these actions are sinful – indeed, they are gravely disordered.
Some (even Fr. Frank Pavone, on Catholic Connection with Teresa Tameo on the morning of February 2nd ) will claim that it is morally justifiable to lie to Planned Parenthood in order to expose the illegal activities of that organization. They will claim that the lie is justifiable because we are “at war” with Planned Parenthood. Here we make a twofold response: first, even in war, it is sinful to lie; second, we are not at war with Planned Parenthood. War is a conflict not between individuals or even between various groups of individuals, but between nations. The pro-life movement, technically, is not at war with the culture of death – if we were at war, it would be justifiable for individuals to kill abortion doctors; but it is not, since we are not at war. We are in a great struggle, a struggle which is far worse and far more costly than any war which the world has yet faced.
Others will justify these lies by asserting that the people at Planned Parenthood have no right to the truth. We have already dealt with this objection above – moreover, this case is radically different from that of the Nazis, since the pro-life workers are taking the initiative in telling the lies (whereas in the case of the German hiding the Jews, he is unwillingly being asked the question by the Nazi).
According to the teaching of Christ and of his Church (and of the philosophers), lying is always a sin. These “sting” operations involve lies. Therefore, these “sting” operations against Planned Parenthood are sinful. Indeed, we maintain that they are gravely sinful, since the lies are told with the intention of causing serious harm (imprisonment and defunding) to Planned Parenthood and its staff. Moreover, and this is very serious, the lies of these pro-life workers are formally co-operating with the staff of Planned Parenthood in sin – for the lies are told with the intention of getting the staff to agree to gravely sinful actions (which, in the end, are not actually carried out).
Reparation is required
“Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven… If someone who has suffered harm cannot be directly compensated, he must be given moral satisfaction in the name of charity. This duty of reparation also concerns offenses against another’s reputation… It obliges the conscience.” (CCC 2487)
These well-intentioned workers of the pro-life movement have committed a grave injustice against Planned Parenthood, society as a whole, and also God himself. Clearly, it is quite likely that their good intentions will mitigate the level of culpability, but the objective requirement of reparation still remains.
What can the pro-life movement as a whole do in reparation for the sins of these members? Perhaps the evidence should be discarded – as it was obtained through immoral means, it would seem best to avoid any use of it. Moreover, the leaders of the pro-life movement should condemn these “sting” operations and insist that they be carried out no longer. This would also serve as a great witness to the moral uprightness of the pro-life movement and would be a public affirmation of the Truth.
The temptation to despair
After thirty-eight years of terrible struggle, there is 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 matters 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.

[please see my latest post on this subject:]

Thanks to Iosephus Sebastianus and a devout Catholic layman for having recommended the concept for the post.


hilaron said...

Thank you for your good post! It is good to hear a sound exposé of the morality of lying. When I was watching 24, a fictional TV show mainly about counter-terrorism, I started thinking about the boundaries of our speech and our actions, mainly in regard to "undercover" operations performed by the State. I always felt uncomfortable with the idea of lying, and I knew there were never any justification for lying. But the I am not very familiar with the teaching on "mental reservation" so I don't really know how far that goes. Do you have any thoughts on mental reservation and how it relates to this topic?

In Christ,

Richard Chonak said...

Would you review the portion of your argument about intending to cause imprisonment and defunding? I don't understand what basis exists for a possible imprisonment resulting from a sting operation, let alone that such a result is intended.

Also, since the funding of PP's contraception and abortion activities is objectively unjust, defunding PP would end an evil and give PP greater justice, a good. Is this still grave harm?

Fr. DannyChamps said...

Thank you Reginaldus for some real moral clarity on this very relevant issue. You bring out well the major points of the argument. Thomas certainly begins with the realization that Truth in its primary sense is God Himself- this sets the stage for our grave need to hold onto this virtue.

When faced with the 'Nazi' dilemma, Augustine also brings out another helpful aspect that involves trusting God (who Thomas would later call the Prima Veritas). Augustine cites an example of a case where the one hiding someone actually told the 'evil ruler' that they were hiding the person- the 'evil ruler' was impressed by the man's fidelity to the truth and thus let the man he was searching for go free. Augustine's point is that we must trust that the truth will set us free- that I have an obligation to the truth- and that I cannot see beyond the circumstances of the here and now- and that the truth just might cause others to convert.

You also bring up excellent points that we are not at war- such a term is very precise and thankfully so for you point out the consequences of throwing it around- people would then be justified in killing each other on the street!

Also your point about who is approaching who in this case- if we ourselves are approached by someone who has no business to some particular truth, as Thomas maintains, we can be silent or speak part of the truth but have no obligation to speak the whole truth. In this case, however, the pro-lifers are the one's doing the approaching with the explicit intention of lying.

We should admire their zeal, but help them see the grave issues at hand as regards the truth, ultimately the Truth Himself.


Anonymous said...

You've just effectively ruled out all undercover detective work by police and, if you pushed your principles further, all acting. Your response to the Nazi situation, in my opinion, doesn't pass the common sense test. You may think it honorable to be martyred for keeping your silence when asked if housing Jews, but you do have a duty, as a Good Shepherd, to try to prevent the Jews from being massacred. The resolution to the case is that lying is telling a falsehood intending to deceive someone who has a right to the truth, and a SS-man seeking to execute children of God has no right to information to allow him to carry out such a plan. The Church has never taught that undercover work is intrinsically immoral. It could have easily given an example of undercover work in the Catechism if it wanted to condemn it. It didn't. I infer from this that it treats undercover work (and the acting that is involved in it) differently in moral quality to the straight up lie intending to deceive for whatever personal benefit motivates the one lying. Lila Rose is doing undercover work, similar to the undercover work of law enforcement, in order precisely to discover the truth. In my opinion, it's in a different category than what the Catechism is condemning.

Fr. DannyChamps said...

The initial edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was sent to the Bishops of the world in 1992, was REVISED as to its definition of the lie. The initial edition in 1992 defined a lie in relation to a person's "right to the truth." The finally promulgated edition of 1997 took this right's language out, as it had never been the Church's stance on lying. It was a Protestant introduction by Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth century, and eventually spun into all sorts of problematic positions.

Further, the position with actually telling the person that you are hiding someone is not to be wholly pursued in every situation- Augustine simply cites one example in history where it worked. We also have Thomas' advice to keep quiet or say something, just as long as you don't lie.

Further, while I don't know enough about official detective work carried on by the officially deputized peace-keepers of the State, I will simply say this- the sons and daughters of God have a particular responsibility to the truth- yes they can use they reason and wit as Thomas allows for, but never by offending the truth.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

As it is quite likely that there will be many comments, I would ask (as I have many times before) that some name or tag or ID be given with each comment...even if the comment is given by "anonymous", I would ask that some tag/name/id be placed at least at the end of the comment.
This will allow for reasonable discourse.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (3:22pm),
Fr. DannyChamps has already sufficiently answered your comment...I will simply add that the Live Action group are not undercover agents, they are not agents of the state, they are closer to vigilantes.
Now, I do have great respect for their dedication and their zeal, but let's be reasonable -- they are individuals lying about their identities.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

RC, You may know more about the law than I do in this regard...It seemed to me that the Planned Parenthood workers could be legally prosecuted for cooperating with underground and underage prostitution rings -- I presumed that jail time could (theoretically) be imposed, were they convicted in court.

Regarding the "grave harm" done to Planned Parenthood through defunding -- you are correct that it is objectively a good thing for them to lose funding, but subjectively (for PP) it is an evil. Thus, for PP, it is a grave harm which would be inflicted upon them as a result of these sting operations.
Yes, in the long run, it would be better for the souls of those involved in PP, but it would still be a harm to them in the moment.

[The case is similar to the souls punished in hell -- the punishment is objectively good, and it restores a state of justice, but it is an evil for the damned.]

I hope that this makes sense -- perhaps I did not make myself clear in the article...

Stepinac said...

I would like to add a possible moral solution for Live Action, which may actually have a greater impact.
What if they were to find a pimp and prostitute and have them go into Planned Parenthood with a video camera and ask certain questions? They would not be lying, since they would just be obtaining information connected to their "work". The same could be done with an underage girl that is pregnant. A Live Action person could go into the clinic with them as a friend and allow the teen to get the information that Planned Parenthood gives them, and all of it could be recorded. Thus, no one is lying.
There are plenty of teenage girls that get pregnant and go into Planned Parenthood everyday, and I am sure that there are plenty of pimps with young prostitutes that go into these "clinics" as well. Someone just has to find them and give them a camera, and they can ask all of the questions they want. I am sure that their questions would not be too much different from the questions asked by Live Action.

marflu said...

Here is a different take on the issue.

Erin said...

So, I am still wondering about the answer to this question: Is it immoral to be an undercover police officer? Are Catholics then to avoid becoming undercover agents?

Lamont said...

Although lying is always wrong, undercover detectives, actors, and priests are not lying when they adopt a persona and say something in character. A thorough examination of the role of mental reservations in truth telling would make this clear.

Vince H said...

Father, isn't your leaving out the broader moral context here a "lie", since everyone reading this blog is clearly entitled to the broader whole truth and you are obliged to give it. CCC 2489 (last sentence). By your analysis, it is immoral to camouflage a city because the enemy bombers will be deceived and waste their bombs.

Bill said...

In this discussion it is important to recognize the disconnect between academic and practical application. Would not the nature of a lie, especially when considering the consequences of silence or the truth, result in a sin minuscule in severity to that of facilitation of said consequences? Especially in the case of the Nazi-scenario, wouldn't such a lie likely be a venial sin, something unavoidable in human life? In such "justification" I suppose the gray area becomes the balance of options often thought of as "when do the ends justify the means?"

hilaron said...

The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Mental Reservation:

Wide mental reservation is admitted by all, but strict mental reservation was condemned as lie by Innocent XI in 1679.

Wide mental reservation means to say something ambiguous. For instance, if you are hiding Jews in the attic and some Nazis come to your home to find them, you could say "They are not at home." meaning that they are not in their own homes, but in your home as guests. The ambiguity of this phrase lends itself to misinterpretation and may be used for just causes. Or a priest who is asked about sins made known to him in confession, can and should say "I do not know", where the reservation is "I do not know as man." or "I do not know apart from confession." But wide mental reservation can only be used with just cause and never when the questioner has a right to the truth.

It would be an interesting exposé on whether any "sting" operations may be performed under the doctrine of wide mental reservation. My gut feeling says that they would not be able to fit into that frame, or else they would be so laborious that they would be practically impossible. But I'm no moral theologian...

In Christ,

hilaron said...

Bill: One may not commit evil in order that good may come of it, not a mortal sin nor a venial sin. It is never permissible to sin in order to achieve some thought good. St. Augustine teaches that a man must not slay his own soul by lying in order to preserve the life of another, and that clearly implies that such a lie would be grave matter indeed.

In Christ,

Erin said...

So if it is permissible for a priest to "lie" when asked about the sins of somebody that were told during confession (by answering "I do not know," as you mentioned), then is it also permissible for an undercover officer to lie as well, since this is part of his work, just as the priest not revealing sins is part of his work?

hilaron said...

Erin: Well, the priest does not lie when he says "I do not know", he does not tell the whole truth. There is ambiguity involved, since everyone knows he is a priest and not permitted to say all things. This would not apply to undercover work in my honest opinion. Of course it would apply to secrets that we are bound to keep but it does not permit bold-faced perversion of truth.

The acting under a persona with the intention to deceive would, in my opinion, fall under "strict mental reservation" and thus be condemned. Of course, this would not apply to acting where everyone knows that the actors are not really the characters they portray, then there is no deception and no perversion of truth.

But once again, these are mostly my gut feelings after reading the short article in Catholic Encyclopedia. If you want a good answer, you'd have to ask some orthodox moral theologian.

In Christ,

Vince H. said...

Well, the priest does not lie when he says "I do not know"...
Here we're wasting time on semantics. You can change the breadth of the term "lie" or you can look beyond the mere words. Does make any difference how you include the broader legal and factual context? Semantics...

Vince H. said...

Just to be clear, the object can be thought of broadly (save the victims) or narrowly (give a false story) but in either event, you have to consider any morally relevant circumstances (injured women, criminal violations, harm or actual resulting deception), in order to arrive at a proper moral conclusion. Violence to the conscience forces the Jew hider to speak. His speech is not a free human act and therefore not a lie. The investigator really only seeks the truth and has no overall purpose to deceive anyone. Rather they seek to reveal the truth.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

As there are many comments coming in, I will do my best to answer them when there is a specific question or point.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Erin (8:39pm)
It would seem that it is immoral to do undercover police work, since it entails lying -- likewise, espionage. However, some might argue that, since these men are officers of the state, it can be justified (especially in the case of a war).

The Catechism, however, does not seem to leave room for this: "By its very nature, lying is to be condemned."

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I think hilaron (8:49pm) has already sufficiently answered your objection.
The case of direct lying is never excusable, not even by appeal to "mental reservation". (Innocent XI)

They are not merely saying something in character (as in a play), for the words they speak are conveying a lie directly -- as opposed to dramatic performances when it is understood that the words are conveying a story, not history.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Vince H (8:48pm),
Hiding a city from bombings is not a lie, it is simply not revealing the whole truth.
It would be a lie to say "There is no city here", it is another thing to simply say nothing at all -- hiding the city is saying nothing at all.

Also, you go too far when you accuse me of lying -- that is calumny and will not be tolerated. In the future I will delete your comments.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Bill (8:48pm), You ask good questions. I think that hilaron (8:45pm) has sufficiently answered them.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful contributions to this post!
Though you admit that you are "no moral theologian", I must say that your comments are very clear and precise, faithful to Church doctrine and thoughtful.
Blessings to you in Christ!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@vince h,
Your comments are not adding anything to this discussion...they are mere "balderdash", as you would say.

If you refuse to discuss the matter reasonably and in light of the Catechism's absolute prohibition of lying, I will be deleting any further comments you make.
We are not playing games here, this is a place for serious theological discussion.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@stepinac (6:44pm),
You bring up an interesting question. I don't really know for sure what I would say...I am inclined to think that what you propose could be morally justifiable -- the only thing is that Live Action might be morally responsible to report on the underground rings.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

For those interested, you can hear Fr. Frank Pavone's take on this (with which I am not in complete agreement):
I think that, somewhere around the 50min mark, he talks about lying...

Marcel said...

I have to disagree with quite a few of your conclusions:

1 - This is not grave matter. As it says in the Catechism - "484 The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity."

2 - Even though the language in the Catechism has changed, the argument remains the same. Paragraph 2489 says "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."
I think a valid argument can be made that for the "good and safety" of babies, they are using discreet language.

The fact that it appeared in the first edition show that it is not entirely against Catholic teaching, as you are proposing.

Brian Crane said...

I've heard Lila Rose asked this very Live Action comitting sin by going undercover. I remember her using the example of Pope Pius XII forging birth certificates for Jews. Is that a valid analogy? Was the Pope committing sin?

Vince H. said...

The post I wrote about was Father DannyChamps. Unless you are also using that name, I wrote nothing about you.
Further, you cannot exclude the real moral circumstances, allow some posts to accuse the investigators of lying, and then preclude as calumny the comments of those who disagree and call this a serious theological discussion. And, by the way, war is not the only justification for shooting someone. I guess I'll get back to work.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Marcel (10:34pm),
The Catechism allows no room for lying. There is room for remaining silent or not telling the whole truth -- that is what 2489 allows.
However, remaining silent about a truth and telling something directly contrary to the truth are radically different actions.

Lying is, by its very nature, to be condemned (as the Catechism states clearly) -- tis means that it is always and everywhere wrong.

The change from the first (french) edition (which was never official) to the official (latin) edition indicates that the Church will not allow for lying in any circumstance.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Vince H. (10:54pm), Sorry for the confusion...this is why it is helpful to address the person you are responding to by their name (rather than merely Father)... also, it is helpful to put the time of the comment, when applicable.

Regarding the point of times when killing another is legitimate -- I agree with you, there are certainly cases beyond just war. However, I would rather not get into that in this comment box.

Finally, I still think it is too far for you to accuse Father DannyChamps of lying...he could hardly be expected to cover the whole of moral theology in each comment! In any case, his arguments are sound, rooted in the Tradition, and faithful to the Catechism.
This is why accusing Fr. DannyChamps of lying is calumny...he has not lied, he has presented the relevant points of the doctrine of St. Augustine and of St. Thomas (as well as of the Catechism).

Again, sorry for the confusion. But please do keep your responses serious and academic (avoiding needles accusations and silly language).
For my part, I apologize if my earlier comments to you were too harsh.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Brian Crane (10:41pm),
I knew that this would come up eventually...I don't know what to say for sure, especially since all the information about Pius XII's activities is still a bit unclear.
Certainly, I maintain that it is always sinful to tell a direct lie. It is particularly sinful to lie under oath or in a legal document (usually this is grave matter).
But I am not sure what exactly Pius XII did and did not do here...

In any case, Lila Rose is doing something very different -- for she is seeking out opportunities to tell falsehood, whereas (at the worst) Pius XII was being forced to answer questions. The Pope did not seek out the situation (he did not go after the Nazis trying to get them to believe lies), Live Action is going out after PP. Thus, the comparison does not hold.
Moreover, the Pope is a head of state....hence his situation involves diplomacy between nations (during wartime)...for this reason also, there is no comparison between Live Action and the work of the Vatican during WWII.

Vince H. said...


Marcel said...

I agree - a lie is sinful. But, I don't believe telling a Nazi that there are no Jews in the house is a lie. The editors of the Catechism decided they were not ready to officially endorse the idea of someone who "has a right to the truth", but they also didn't reject it. Thus, there is still room for theological disagreement here. The French edition was not a completely accurate translation, but it still made the cut originally.

I still side with the definition of a lie being "Deliberately telling an untruth to someone who has a right to know the truth." Therefore, it is not a sin. Even if it is a sin, it is a venial one, as defined by the Church.

I do not think the difference between Lila Rose is all too different. The clinic workers have no intrinsic right to the truth in the situations they are entering into, thus it is still open and fluid.

If there is never a way to lie, then God contradicts Himself in Scripture. Look at Exodus 1: 17-20 - He rewards the midwives for what appears to be a lie.

Not every act of killing is murder.
Not every act of taking from another is stealing.
Not every act of telling a false statement to someone is lying.

Marcel said...

BTW - I know Aquinas answer to the midwives dilemma and I don't agree.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Marcel (11:49pm),
The French edition was specifically rejected on this point. There simply is not room for debate -- it is a matter of natural law, one cannot ever lie.
Lila Rose's situation is essential different from that of the man with Nazis -- she is going out and putting herself into the place where lies are told, she is not a passive victim.
In any case, it is clear (according to Catholic doctrine) that it is always wrong to state a falsehood with the intention to deceive.

btw, You are correct "not every act of telling a false statement is lying" -- for example, if one states a falsehood unintentionally, it is not a lie. However, to tell a false statement with the intention of conveying the falsehood as truth is always a lie.

Finally, your read of Exodus 1:17-20 is contrary to the tradition -- it would also contradict Christ's own words, for he has said that Satan is the father of lies.
You must indeed be very wise, if you can dismiss St. Thomas Aquinas in such an off-handed manner!

Drew said...

Nature of the act itself: pretend to be a pimp.

Intention: expose Planned Parenthood's abuse of girls.

Bad 'double' effect: Planned Parenthood gets duped.

Sufficiently grave circumstances: Planned Parenthood goes largely unchecked as the largest provider of abortions in USA receiving 300 Million USD/year from taxpayers. This outweighs the bad effect of Planned Parenthood getting egg on their face.

Granted, this requires mental fortitude and should not be attempted in spite, or by bad actors.

Stepinac said...

Is using a pseudonym lying?

Erin said...

I do think that Vince makes a valid point when he says "balderdash" regarding a priest answering, "I don't know" regarding knowledge of another person's sins. If the semantics are really important here, then a priest saying "I don't know" is actually a lie. Instead, he could say, "I am bound by my position to reveal nothing," and that would not be a lie at all.

And so, the comment of, "The acting under a persona with the intention to deceive would, in my opinion, fall under "strict mental reservation" and thus be condemned" makes me wonder then... in your opinion, would it be immoral to be a Santa Claus at the mall? He is intending to make children believe he is Santa Claus, and even though all adults know this is not true, some of the children really believe it. Personally, we don't play up "Santa" in our family - it is more presented as a fun story, and the real focus is on Jesus's birth, and we learn about St. Nicholas. However, I don't think that the mall Santas are committing an intrinsic evil by lying to the children who do come see them.

So, I am just curious about that... does this apply to every single situation, including Santa? Does it apply to parents who take on the "tooth fairy" persona and leave coins under their kids' pillows?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I would disagree:
Nature of the act itself -- deceiving planned parenthood.
Means of this deception -- pretending to be a pimp.

The duping of PP is not a "double effect", it is the act itself, it is the means by which the goal (revealing PP's crimes) is attained.

Hence, because lying is intrinsically evil, and this is an act of lying, no circumstances can justify the sin.

Brian Crane said...

I do think that Vince makes a valid point when he says "balderdash" regarding a priest answering, "I don't know" regarding knowledge of another person's sins. If the semantics are really important here, then a priest saying "I don't know" is actually a lie.
Whew! I thought it was just me that felt that way. Great discussion! :-)

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Stepinac (1:46am),
I would hold that the use of a pseudonym is not a lie, since the tag is used to identify the person and not so much to give the real name.
Hence, "Reginaldus" does identify me; though (perhaps) it may not in fact be my real name.
Thus, concealing one's proper name is not lying -- however, if Dr. Seuss said "My name is not Theodor", that would certainly be a lie.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Erin (1:55am) and Brian Crane (2:32am),
I must admit, I do not quite understand how the "I don't know" question got introduced.
Certainly, if the priest says "I don't know" when asked about someone's sins, that is a lie. [I have never denied that it is a lie, and a sin]
I would agree with Erin, the priest should never speak about anything regarding the sacrament of confession (neither affirming nor denying).

Regarding "Santa" might hold that this is a figurative speech, something which is not strictly literal, but is figuratively (or metaphorically) true.
In fact, the "Santa" in the mall does not seem to be so intent on making the kids believe he is Santa...rather, this seems to be a highly ritualized and figurative practice which has almost no strictly literal meaning.
[thus, the "Santa" case is essentially different from the "Live Action pimp" case]

On the other hand, I am open to the idea that we should not tell children stories about Santa -- or at least, we should make it clear that the real meaning of Christmas (and of Santa) is about Christ!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@My previous post (2:39am)
On the other hand, regarding the case of the priest who has heard the sins in confession and is later asked about them...I do think that hilaron (8:49pm) has made a good point regarding legitimate mental reservation -- "I" do not know, insofar as I do not know them of myself but only from my priesthood [much as Christ "does not know" the day or the hour of the end times, insofar as he does not know them "of" his human nature; though, of course, knowing all things, he certainly does know the time of the end ---as Gregory the Great clearly stated, condemning the contrary opinion as a manifest heresy]

Drew said...


I answer that you've put your finger right on it.

You're right, lying is always wrong. Whether this is a lie is exactly the point. Furthermore, you're right to want to evaluate this precisely. Leading a pro-life movement demands understanding what means we have at our disposal, and what means we do not have at our disposal—the use of which would only harm our cause.

In this case, however, lying is neither the object, the means, nor the effect. The object is to pretend to be a pimp. The means, as in any acting or pretending, is concealing the identity of the actor. Such concealing is in this case morally neutral. This may produce the bad effect of Planned Parenthood getting duped. But as long as this effect is excluded from the intention of the actor as either a means or an end in itself, and as long as the good outweighs the harm, then the action is justifiable.

Importantly, the object is NOT to lie, it's to play the pimp. If a gullible person is going to get deceived as a result of the pretense then foresee it, justify it as per double-effect, perform due diligence in minimizing the harm done, and carry on.

This truly requires mental and volitional fortitude to carry out. At no moment can he intend to lie, or make use of a lie. He must rather from beginning to end play the pimp. This is challenging and not for the faint of heart. Pulling this off well can be a real act of virtue.

dcs said...

This example is a use of strict mental reservation

If that were true then we would have to conclude that Christ made use of strict mental reservation (since He said that He did not know the hour of the end times), and therefore that He sinned. Since this is impossible, we must conclude that a priest saying "I don't know" is not a strict mental reservation.

Richard Chonak said...

Thanks for the response, Reginaldus, regarding the contention that Live Action participants sought to harm the PP employee gravely (by causing her to be imprisoned) and to harm PP itself by causing it to lose funding).

Admittedly, a sting operation performed by the state might lead to charges of conspiracy, and thus imprisonment. However, since Live Action's participants are not policemen, charges for offering to help the fictional pimp seem unlikely. This makes it equally unlikely that the L.A. participants intended to cause imprisonment.

Regarding an intention to seek the defunding of PP: PP employees would indeed subjectively consider defunding grave harm. However, their point of view is not what matters here: we are, after all, discussing the (putative) intentions of the Live Action participants instead: their intentions are informed by their own subjectivity.

So I think those two points in your argument could be dropped, and without harm to the remainder.

Erin said...

Drew, are you essentially saying that because the intention of Live Action was not to say/think, "Ha, we fooled them into thinking we were really pimps!" that it is technically not lying, since their purpose was not to merely make PP believe they were pimps? I can see that as being reasonable... really, I can see a lot of what has been said here from all perspectives to be reasonable.

I do still think that if lying is defined as purposely misleading somebody by telling untruths about oneself, then that would include if the mall Santa were asked, "Are you really Santa?" If he answered, "What do you think?" then he would not be lying, of course, but if he said, "Of course I am!" or "No, but I am one of Santa's helpers and I work for him," then that would fit the above definition of a lie. Is it a lie to pretend something if not everyone involved knows that you are pretending?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Erin (3:58am), Thank you for contributing so much to the discussion!
I would say that the "Santa" in the mall may be able to say "Yes, I am Santa", insofar as he is a symbol of Santa and doing all that any "Santa" can do... If we say that "Santa" is a figure for the love of Christ, then it may be possible to claim that "Santa" is not a lie.

However, the commercialized Santa-figure does seem to me to be a lie.

It is a difficult question...
But, what LiveAction is doing is certainly far beyond the "Santa" in the mall -- and also much more than the man who hides Jews from the Nazis. [I am thinking that you are in agreement on that point]

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@RC (3:49am),
I will certainly admit that the section on reparation is less clear than the other parts of the original article.
You do bring up some good points.

Still, I will maintain that there is real harm caused to PP -- punishment is an evil, even if it is at the same time a moral good.

Yet, I will not try to defend myself further, since you admit that the main point of the article would stand without this particular argument [and I am inclined to agree with you that it could or even should be dropped from the rest].


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Drew (3:31am),
I see that we fundamentally agree, though the application of the same principle leads to different conclusions.

I would say that the act itself is lying...they are not merely "playing" the pimp, they are presenting themselves as really and truly being a pimp (when they are not). This, I am convinced, is a lie.

Still, I am happy that you hold so strongly to the objective truth: "At no moment can he intend to lie, or make use of a lie."

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@dcs, 3:42am (replying to ronconte, 3:04am);
I agree with you (dcs), but please state the person you are replying is difficult to understand with so many comments!

Yes, Christ DID NOT use "strict" mental reservation, but simply "wide" reservation... hence, he did not lie when he said "the Son of Man does not know..." (though he did in fact know).
Likewise (as you seem to state), the priest uses only "wide" reservation in stating "I do not know"; so he does not lie...

However, I am not quite as certain in the case of the priest...I am inclined to agree with you, though I also see some of ronconte's point as well...

Erin said...

Yes, I can see that Live Action went on their own into PP whereas if a person were hiding Jews from the Nazis, then they were not going to the Nazis themselves. However, I do think that Live Action really didn't do much more than a Santa in the mall in that both parties in this case were "lying" because they thought it resulted in a greater good - in Live Action's case, the exposing of terrible crimes and moral atrocities performed by PP, and in the mall Santa's case, bringing fun and joy and excitement to children. Both are coming at it from a standpoint of doing good - they both have good intentions at heart. However, both can result in personal harm - PP feels harmed by losing funding (potentially) or by being portrayed as bad (which they are), and a mall Santa could potentially cause harm in over-exciting children during what is to be a peaceful season of Advent, or encouraging greater focus on the "getting" aspect of Christmas.

I guess I can see that yes, it could be defined as a lie, but ultimately, I think good has come from the exposing of PP. But who really knows if the work of Live Action will result in loss of federal funds for PP - that bill had already been introduced. This may just put more of a push behind it. All in all, I just feel terribly for the underage girls that are being used in sex trafficking, with people who are supposed to "help" them turning a blind eye to it. I really didn't realize that it was as big of a problem in the US until now.

hilaron said...

@ronconte (3:04am) As others have already pointed out, if your assertion were true, then Our Blessed Lord would have lied, which is blasphemy to hold. It is strictly not the priest who "knows" the sins of the penitent, it is God who knows through the priest. It is not in his capacity as a human being that he knows, but merely in the order of grace through the Holy Priesthood by which he is conformed to act in persona Christi. It is not he who hears, it is not he who absolves, it is Christ. To deny that would be to deny the character of the Sacred Priesthood.

I was the one who brought up the condemnation of strict mental reservation by Innocent XI so you don't have to lecture me on that. If you just read a few lines above the one you quoted you would see that.

And I agree that lying is intrinsically evil in its object, my point was to bring up the doctrine on wide mental reservation since it is close to the subject at hand.

Just so you know I agree with Augustine and Aquinas... It is always evil to lie, no matter the circumstances. It is not always evil to say what is technically true (eg. "Christ heard the confession, not me.") but still is open for misinterpretation: wide mental reservation.

In Christ,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@hilaron (aka, David),
Thank you for your comments on this post. I am particularly grateful for the way in which you have discussed the issue of mental reservation -- this is something which I did not want to include in the original post (because of length and time constraints, and because it does not really apply to the Live Action work).

I truly do hope that you will continue to comment on future posts. You have certainly added much to this conversation. The clarity of your thought has been a light in this combox.

Peace to you.

hilaron said...

Thank you, Reginaldus, although I blush at the compliments as I am a mere layman trying to figure things out... :)

I understand that you didn't want to include it in the post, and I certainly agree that it does not apply to Live Action.

Thank you again for the post, had it not been for this maybe I had participated remotely in their sin by spreading these news all over the place! But alas, the ends do not justify the means and as mere sinful creatures we need to be reminded of that constantly.

Grace and peace be upon you,
through Jesus Christ Our Lord,

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@marfulu (7:54),
I must say that the whole discussion of lying over at "aggie catholics" (a blog which I generally like, the little of it that I have seen) is terribly confused.

The author (aggie catholic) has misrepresented the teaching of the Catechism. He has defined a lie as "deliberately withholding the truth from someone who has a right to it", but this was the definition SPECIFICALLY REJECTED by the Church in the official promulgation of the Catechism!

I suppose that these sorts of errors are bound to happen when well meaning people (who nevertheless have little or no theological education) begin to opine at will...

hilaron said...

@hilaron (9:30pm, Feb 3): I'd like to recant one thing I said in this comment, and that was "Of course it would apply to secrets that we are bound to keep..." That "Of course" was premature and should have been changed to "It could apply to secrets that we are bound to keep..." or something like that. I think you would have to evaluate if there is indeed a similarity with the unique character of the priesthood if say a doctor or nurse was asked about confidential matter or State officials for that matter. I'm not that sure...

In Christ,

Stepinac said...

Although it doesn't address the aspect of lying. I think that this article by a former Planned Parenthood employee shows that what happened in the video is not a rarity in their "clinics".

dcs said...


I guess I can see that yes, it could be defined as a lie, but ultimately, I think good has come from the exposing of PP.

But all we can say about that is that God can bring good out of evil. We can't do evil so that good might follow.

dcs said...


Christ did not make use of strict mental reservation. He in fact did not know, in his human mind, the day and hour. His statement that he did not know is a true statement, properly understood.

I'm afraid you're mistaken. Christ did know in His humanity but He did not know from His humanity. So yes, Christ did know in His human mind.

dcs said...


I'm not sure your definition of strict mental reservation is quite correct. The Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say on the subject:

"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 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."

Lamont said...

If asked what they were doing, the people involved in an undercover investigation will almost always say that they were playing a role or acting. Why is it that everyone understands that acting is not the same as lying? It is because the actor is not saying something that they know is not true. (a lie) Everything that the actor says is done within the context of the wide mental reservation of being in character. Hence, there is no disorder in their intellect or will and no sin.

The only real question here is whether actors/investigators have an obligation to reveal the fictional nature of their speech before they enter into character. I would answer no. If someone is mislead by the performance, that can easily be rectified by revealing the truth latter at an appropriate time. The fact that undercover investigators always intend to reveal the truth indicates that they are not lying, because a lie is always intended to permanently deceive a person into believing something that is false; and, that is precisely not the nature of, nor the reason for an undercover investigation.

Unknown said...

Again, I find this blog very helpful as this is a new string of thought for me. Two points I would like to add. Does one have the right to expose others to martyrdom without their permission as in the case of being honest to Nazi inquirers? Can a person deliberately commit a venial sin, and then confess it as a way to mitigate its consequences? In other words, I know action A is a lie but I also know that I can always confess it, therefore I will go ahead and do it. Thanks.

Stacy Trasancos said...

I read this post and thought about it a long time. I wrote about it at my blog, Accepting Abundance. If you go there you'll see I'm a convert and a mother. If I'm honest, I have to admit that if my child were in imminent danger from an unjust aggressor I would definitely lie to protect him before I would utter the words that would assure his harm or murder. I can't help it, that's the truth. Why would that be wrong? Aren't parents supposed to protect their children? This is very confusing.

How does this compare with what the angels told the Magi and Joseph to do in order to keep Jesus safe as an infant? Wouldn't the Magi breaking government orders and disobeying Herod also be a form of deception?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@ronconte, 2:17pm (and dcs, 3pm responding ronconte),
Of course, dcs is correct on this point. Christ did know that day and the hour in his human intellect. The theory that ronconte has presented was condemned by Gregory the Great as the heresy of "agnoeticism".
Thank you, dcs, for the accurate doctrine.
Also, dcs, you are correct -- many people commenting here do not understand what "wide" and "strict" mental reservation are...

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Lamont (5:14pm),
When actors act in a play, all those attending know that it is an act -- hence, they are not obliged to call the police if on person in the play threatens to kill another.
I'm not sure why you call this "mental reservation"...I don't think you know what those words mean (please see rcs's comment at 3:08pm).

Those with Live Action are not merely "acting", they are not "in a play"...they are deceiving. That is the very nature of the act -- they are deceiving the people of PP.

Hence, there is no comparison between acting in a play and doing this "undercover" work.

Moreover, I would object to the comparison between the work of Live Action and that of a true undercover investigation (carried out by government officials).
Even if undercover police work were morally acceptable (and I am not entirely sure that it is), this would not allow us to conclude anything about Live Action. The people at Live Action are not officers of the state! If anything, they are vigilantes -- hence, they do not enjoy the same prerogatives of the police, etc.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@michael (5:32pm),
1) As you hinted, a person DOES NOT have the right to expose another to martyrdom (excepting special revelation) -- for this reason, the man cannot tell the Nazis that the Jews are in the house, he must remain silent and accept martyrdom himself...if the Nazis then enter and find the Jews, it will not be the fault of the man.
2) No, we cannot ever commit even a venial sin. To deliberately commit a venial sin is to begin down the path to hell. Moreover, sin can only formally contribute to sin, it cannot formally contribute to good. (though God can bring good out of sin)

I hope that this makes sense. I'm glad that the blog is helpful to you!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Stacy T (7:49pm),
I left a comment over at your blog.
Here I will only say that we have to protect our children IN THE TRUTH. Your work as a mother is a cooperation in the divine plan -- but to lie is to participate in the work of Satan.

What good would it do to gain the whole world (and save a child's life), if only to lose one's soul in the process?

The case of the Magi is not of lying, but of remaining silent. Disobeying an unjust king is one thing, lying to him outright would be another -- the first is morally legitimate, the second is a sin.

btw, I know that this teaching can be difficult -- it certainly does not help that so many (otherwise good) priests are giving bad advise on this issue. Nevertheless, Jesus made it clear; if we lie, we are of the devil.
Also, remember that God is all-powerful, he does not need your lie in order to save your child -- your witness to the truth may help to gain for your child the graces needed for salvation.

blessing to you, and thank you for your contribution to the comments.

Erin said...

So is it morally wrong to be glad that PP has been exposed for the illegal, immoral actions which they commit? Somebody mentioned Abby Johnson, the former director of a PP clinic who has left her job there and become pro-life... she just recently wrote a book about it. So, she is also helping to expose PP in a way that involves no acting/lying. However, nothing she said seems quite as bad as what Live Action uncovered. It is my hope that more people working within PP will have a change of heart and come forward to share their experiences so the public can see what really goes on in some of these places!

Stacy, I would have to agree with you that as a mother, I would feel like it was morally wrong of me to answer truthfully if my answer would ensure that an aggressor would kill my children. If somebody broke into my house and I had a chance to hide my children, I would certainly do so and then I would absolutely not answer if they asked where they were, and I might say they were not at home. The non-lying answer of, "They are here, but I won't tell you where they are hidden," just wouldn't be something I could bring myself to say. Imagine having to live with that the rest of your life: "Well, my children were murdered, but at least I didn't tell a lie!"

I would have to guess, though, regarding your question about the Magi not revealing to Herod where Jesus was, that you will get an answer along the lines of, "the Magi didn't ever go back to Herod, therefore they didn't have to lie to him - they just avoided seeing him again." Now, we don't know exactly what the Magi said when Herod asked them to report back to him after they found the infant Jesus... did they answer, "Yes, we will certainly come back and tell you!" If so, it could be considered that they lied, although at the time they didn't intend to lie. If one promises to do something and then breaks that promise because an angel tells them not to do what they had promised, is that lying?

I still cannot help but be glad that more people are aware of the crimes committed by PP, and that PP is concerned enough about what the public thinks that they are firing employees who are revealed as aiding criminals. Is it wrong to be glad about this?

Also, what is the moral obligation of a person who knows that another is committing illegal, immoral acts, but does not have the evidence to prove it? Live Action may not have had knowledge for sure of the illegal things PP was doing, but if somebody did, but didn't have evidence... what is their moral obligation? They can tell what they know, but without some sort of actual proof, then it is their word against another's. How do they go about bringing the person to justice without use of some kind of undercover agent?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

One more comment about "mental reservation"

I think that many people are misunderstanding what this is...It is not stating a lie, but stating something ambiguous...
Hence, if a communist revolutionary were to ask Fr. Josemaria Escriva, "Who are you?" The saint could reply, "I am a simple farmer." (Meaning, a laborer for the Lord's harvest) -- this is an example of wide mental reservation, it seems to be morally ok.

Strict mental reservation (which is a type of lying) would be like this:
The revolutionary asks a priest, "Are you a priest?" The priest answers, "No, I am not a priest." (meaning, I am not a priest of the Old Law) -- this is a lie, because the words are twisted too far from the truth.
Neither could the priest say, "I am not a priest, I am a farmer." He could (probably) answer simply, "I am a farmer." --not directly answering the question, but stating instead his priestly role in a (very true) metaphor.
What he cannot say is "NO", or "I am a computer technician" (or some other profession which cannot really be a metaphor for the priesthood).

So...THE QUESTION AT HAND IS... Is there any real sense in which the people of LiveAction can truly call themselves "pimps" and "prostitutes", in the way that a priest can call himself a "farmer"? I would say, clearly not!

This is the reason I didn't get into in the main post: there is no comparison. (so please do not think that I am unaware of the moral tradition, or that I have deliberately left out part of the Church's teaching)

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Erin (8:38pm),
Please allow me to make a short response...

1) It is not wrong to be happy that PP will (hopefully) be prosecuted for their crimes. It would be wrong (I think) to be happy that LiveAction lied.

2) If LiveAction knew that PP was doing illegal things (as I think we all know), then the proper response is to report this to the competent state authorities. We are not permitted to become vigilantes...excepting when the nation has fallen into total anarchy.

I hope that this makes sense.

Benjamin said...

1. How would Private Investigators fit into this discussion (not of the state)?

2. I still don*t see how working for the state changes anything.

3. What about lying about a surprise party?
Telling your spouse that you will be doing something else and if she asks about a party you intentionally deceive her.

4. What about *does this make me look fat*? or *do I look pretty* white lies.


Stacy Trasancos said...

Thank you Reginaldus for answering and for commenting at my blog. I know this must take a lot of your time and I do appreciate the information.

Unknown said...

What a valuable discussion! Could it be argued that our western society is in a state of anarchy or at least mass confusion concerning life issues which are the most important in any hierarchy of moral/ethical concerns? If so, does this change the argument abut what is a lie?

dcs said...

On the subject of priests admitting that they are priests -- I remember reading (not sure where, perhaps Challoner's "Memoirs of Missionary Priests" or a review thereof) that priests who were martyred in England did not admit that they were priests until they were at the executioner's block. They did not deny it, either, instead remaining silent. One commented that it belongs to no man to accuse himself (except, one assumes, before Our Lord) -- this is a principle in law we still keep today: "Accusare nemo se debet nisi coram Deo."

dcs said...


If so, does this change the argument abut what is a lie?

I don't think it changes what a lie is. The natural law does not change, and it is written on the heart of every man, even if some people would obscure it. Lies don't stop being lies because some people think they can be justified. The "mass confusion" you mention might affect the culpability of one who tells a lie (for example, if he hears from the pulpit or even the confessional that lying can be justified in certain circumstances), but it does not affect what a lie is.

Lamont said...

I am glad that you recognize that I am not using ‘mental reservation’ according to its textbook definition. As I pointed out in my first comment, it requires a complete analysis in order to understand how the principle of mental reservation applies in this case. Simply repeating standard formulas will not suffice.

I think you would agree that not all fictional stories are lies. But if you tell a fictional story to someone who thinks that it is true, does that make it a lie? I think not. Indeed a story is at its best when a person thinks that it could be true and reacts to it as if it were true. Now an undercover investigator may tell a fictional story to someone in order to get a reaction and gain some knowledge of the person’s character as well as the types of illegal activities she might be inclined to commit. That is all the Live Action people did.

The only way the telling of the story becomes a lie is if you never make it clear that it was fiction. Perhaps you disagree? But if you disagree, that puts you back at your original claim that all undercover investigations are immoral which I think is an untenable position.

dcs said...


But if you tell a fictional story to someone who thinks that it is true, does that make it a lie?

It would be a lie if you intended for the person to think that it is true.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Benjamin (9:38pm),
1) To investigate without telling a lie is ok, hence some work of private investigators is ok. It is only wrong if they lie.
2) I agree with you, working for the state (I think) does not change anything with regards to lying -- some, however, will argue that it does.
Working for the state does make a big difference on certain other issues, though -- for example, a soldier can do things in war that civilians cannot do. Likewise, police can detain people in peacetime in more situations than a civilian could.
3) Lying about a surprise party is still a lie, therefore it is wrong -- obviously, it is not a serious matter, but it would still be a venial sin. However, you could answer ambiguously and deceive the person, without actually lying -- this would be wide mental reservation, and ok.
4) Wives should not ask their husbands questions that lead them into lies. (and vice versa)

Hope that helps! Peace.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Stacy Trasancos (10:06pm), Thank you for the kind words. I hope that this discussion has been profitable for you -- certainly, it has been enjoyable and helpful for me! +

DO said...

I'm not sure what my conclusion is, but here is my problem with this article:

The whole thing seems to be based upon data that is not there. The reasoning operates under the assumption that the Catholic Church does indeed authoritatively teach that "to say what is not so" is "intrinsically and objectively evil" (like a direct abortion is.) But none of the Catechism quotes exactly say that. In fact, the one quote that does actually define what a lie is says that more is required than merely "saying what is not so." It must also be said with the intent of "leading into error" to qualify as a lie.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@michael (10:33pm),
It is very important for us to resist the temptation to think that western society is in a state of anarchy...if that were the case, then the pro-life movement would abandon all political and legal work. In fact, it is this claim of "anarchy" which is behind many people voting for pro-death candidates -- they will say "neither party will do anything about it anyways." But we cannot give up on the system (at least not yet) -- there is still much hope for America.

Indeed, even if we were in anarchy, we could not lie -- though we could be vigilantes (to some extent).

Lamont said...

I do not think the person's intention is a determinate factor in cases like this. If it were, then the priest saying "I am a simple farmer." would be a lie since the intention is to mislead in that case as well.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@dcs, Thank you for adding so much to this discussion -- you have really helped me out, since I can hardly keep up with all the questions, objections, and comments!

Regarding your claim (12:39am) that it is lie to tell a fictional story if "you intended for the person to think that it is true" -- I think I know what you mean, but we want to be careful to keep our focus not so much on the intention, but on the act itself.
Lying is wrong by its nature -- the act itself, regardless of intention, is wrong.

Now, I think that this is what you are saying -- the "intention" you speak of is the "intention of the act" (deception of another) rather than the "intention of the agent" (some further goal gained by the deception).

Thus, as you have already argued very convincingly, for the people of LiveAction: "the intention of the act" is to deceive the people of planned parenthood, "the intention of the agent" is to reveal the crimes of PP.
Since the "intention of the act" or the "act itself" is deception through presenting falsehood as truth, this is an act of lying -- therefore, it is wrong by its very nature (regardless of the "good intention" of the pro-life workers).

Blessings and peace to you! Please do feel very free to join in on the discussion of future posts as well!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Lamont (5:22am)
When the priest says, "I am a farmer", intending to deceive, he is not telling a lie -- he is a "farmer" in the wide metaphorical sense, a laborer in the Lord's harvest.
What the priest cannot do is say, "I am not a priest"...he could say, "Do I look like a priest? I am a simple farmer."

also, see my comment at 5:26am regarding "intention"....

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Dan O'Connor (5:19am),
I have never said that "to say what is not so" is intrinsically fact, I have specifically denied that claim (in comments above)... LET ME REPEAT: To say what is not true, on accident (thinking it to be true), is not a lie. To say what is not true, presenting it as false, or as a story, is also not a lie.

As I have said, over and over and over again (though some still seem to be missing it): The essence of a lie is deceiving another through stating a falsehood.

This is what the Church has said must be "condemned by its very nature". This is lying, and it is always wrong.

Now, Dan, you tell me: Is there any meaningful sense in which Lila Rose and co. can call themselves "pimps" and "prostitutes"? Is it true or false to say that they are pimps and prostitutes? Are they, then, deceiving planned parenthood staff through saying that they are pimps and prostitutes?
Then, they are lying. And lying is always wrong.

Is it clear?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Lamont (11:47pm)
You wrote: "Reginaldus, I am glad that you recognize that I am not using ‘mental reservation’ according to its textbook definition."
Indeed, you are not using it according to its textbook definition... the problem is, you are not using it according to any meaningful definition whatever.

You have not really been talking about mental reservation at all...this is what makes it hard for me to respond!

DO said...

Sorry Reginald, I did not mean to ask that you repeat yourself; I hadn't read the comment thread.

"... in order to lead someone into error" is the key phrase.

So, did Lila intend to lead anyone into error?

Well, what would that error be? That there is a 14 year old girl impregnated by her 31 year old boyfriend seeking an abortion? That's no error; it just happens to not be so with Lila. Perhaps, like a translator, she was speaking in place of a real life girl in that situation and did not think it necessary to inform the Planned Parenthood employee of that fact.

A stretch I know, but there is no real significant error, besides the fact that it was not Lila HERSELF (which is already relatively meaningless to the PP employee who does not know Lila) that was in the situation described.

Was Blessed Miguel Pro sinning by dressing himself up in costume to evade capture by the police? This was done with the intent to deceive - yet we know he intercedes from beyond the grave.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

THERE HAVE BEEN SEVERAL OBJECTIONS/COMMENTS ABOUT UNDERCOVER POLICE WORK, please allow me to offer the beginning of a response:

1) As agents of the state, their deceptive undercover work does not harm society by disrupting the good order founded on human speech (whereas that of "vigilantes" perhaps does).
2) Therefore, I would hold that police have a lot more leeway in "mental reservation" than most...though they still cannot lie. Hence, they can (perhaps) say, "I am not a cop", meaning "I am not know working as a cop" -- and this is true, since they wouldn't blow cover in order to do any ordinary cop work. [I would say that this is really stretching it, but maybe it could be morally legitimate]
3) I think that they can say, "I'm a drug dealer"...since they really are selling the drugs (for example), even though they will immediately arrest the guy -- this could obviously be applied to other scenarios.
4) What I do not think they can say is, "I am not an undercover cop" -- that would be a strict lie. Also, they cannot say, "I have never worked for the cops" (also a strict lie).

Truthfully, I really don't know. I myself am not too keen on undercover seems to put people in extremely difficult moral dilemmas (not just with lying, but with many other sins - 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, these answers are provisional...I offer them not as certainties, but as something to get the thoughts going in the right general direction.
I hope that this helps.

Peace to all! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Dan O'Connor (5:56am),
No problem at all (about making me repeat myself)! Truly, I hope that my very short and curt responses are not offensive, I'm just trying to answer as economically as possible.

The Miguel Pro case is discussed above (I believe under "Josemaria Escriva, but the same idea)...The main point -- Miguel could say "I am a farmer" meaning, "A laborer in the Lord's harvest" -- this is wide mental reservation and is not a lie.

What he could not say is, "I am not a priest". This would be a lie.
Dressing differently is not a lie either, because he is not directly stating a falsehood -- though he intends to mislead, he does not do this through presenting something false as true; he simply discloses only one aspect of the truth, or uses figurative imagery to tell the truth...

I think we can all see that Lila is not a prostitute in the way that Miguel is a farmer. Hence, the comparison does not hold.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

To all,
I have to get on with writing the next post (on this Sunday's Gospel) I will not be able to keep up with comments as I have been. I think I (for my part) have said most of what I am able to say...I will have to leave the combox open for debate amongst readers -- perhaps I will still jump in here and there! :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great discussion. I have long thought the hard lineon this is correct....due in partto the examplesof saints. My favorite is athanasius, who while on the nile was approached by a garrison sent toarrest him. They called out asking if he knew where athanasius was, and he rejoined...keep rowing, he is just ahead of you.

I think the teaching is simple. We are not to lie, and this includes about santa, and spies, and detectives, and nazis, and priests about confessions.

As to the question of mental reservation, this indeed is a tricky subject. Ithink perhaps thedistinction canbe made along aquinas understanding of the senses of scripture. It is not the words themselves, but the realities to which the words attain that allow for multiple senses. In other words st escrivas phrase is correct about being a farmer, or a fisherman, etc, but not something like a rock-climber since he once walked up a mountain.

Someone above indicated that in thetoughest positions either the holy spirit will give us the right words, or else give us the testimony of our deaths. I agree wholeheartedly.

By the the way, the grandparents of our kids really dislike the no santa rule......but we are consoled with the realization that when our kids really need us, we hopefully can reply that since we have never lied to them about anything else, why would we start to do so now.

dcs said...


I do not think the person's intention is a determinate factor in cases like this. If it were, then the priest saying "I am a simple farmer." would be a lie since the intention is to mislead in that case as well.

It's not intention alone that is the determining factor. A lie is a falsehood that is said with the intention to deceive, as Fr. Reginaldus pointed out at the very beginning of this post. Yes, when a priest says "I am a simple farmer," his intention is to deceive but it is not a lie because what he says is metaphorically true -- it is not a falsehood.

Marco da Vinha said...

Where does sarcasm fall? As a figure of speach, you say the opposite of what you mean (though with the intention that what you mean will be conveyed by the way you deliver the message). Is it a form of lying?

Anonymous said...

My husband is involved in the opening of a pro life pregnancy center. This post is most helpful to illustrate a point I have been harping on - although even I missed it in this context! It is shocking how often the temptation arrises to stretch the truth in order to achieve the objectives to open the center. I maintain truth stretching and intentional misleading is still lying even when aimed at the good. Here you illustrate clearly and soundly that we can not win with lies. Most I appreciate your last sentence!

dcs said...

@Mark of the Vineyard:

Where does sarcasm fall?

I think when one uses sarcasm he does not intend to deceive. When one uses sarcasm he might speak a falsehood, but his intention is not for the listener to take him literally. So in that sense sarcasm is not lying.

One form of mental reservation might be to saying something that is true in a sarcastic manner. In that case the intention is to deceive, but one is not speaking a falsehood! So it wouldn't be lying in that case either.

Personally, I have to be very careful with sarcasm as I have a son who takes everything literally.

Robert Simms said...

After much thought, I find that I cannot agree with your answer to blogger Stacy.
I've posted my thoughts on your answer on my blog.

Baron Korf said...

If there is a lie, it was not saying that "we are going to be role-playing" or that it was a hypothetical scenario. The two who went in were hired actors. In a very real way this was a street morality play intended to expose the vice of the unwitting player.

This was done in the defense of the thousands of young girls who are subject to abuse and are not reported. Since the officials in the government are not doing their job, it has fallen to others to come to the defense of the helpless.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Robert (5:27pm),
You have classified yourself (in your own blog post) among those most radical of thinkers who are willing to deny the Church's teaching that lying is always sinful and cannot ever be justified.

Recall the words of the Catechism of Trent (I have already quoted the current Catechism at length): "In a word, lies of every sort are prohibited. [...] Hence, liars are excluded from a participation in the bliss of heaven."

You have failed to heed St. Augustine's warning: What good is it if you save the life of another, only to lose for yourself life everlasting?

paladin said...

Fascinating and illuminating discussion! Thanks, everyone...

Just for the record: I don't think the LiveAction "actors" ever declared themselves explicitly to be "pimp" and "prostitute", did they? The "pimp" said that he and the lady were "into sex work", or some other vagary, I think. Mind you, conjuring non-existent 14-year-old sex slaves from overseas might be another matter... but just FWIW.

Robert Simms said...

Pardon my error....I had forgotten that St. Augustine was infallible.

Robert Simms said...

You have misrepresented my position. I have not put myself up against Church teaching....I have put myself up against your interpretation of Church teaching. I am not convinced that you are correct. If, however, I can be convinced that your view is authentic Catholic teaching then I will change my mind.

Unknown said...
The above article may help shed some light.

Some flaws in your article are:
Your article does not deal with mental reservation. Nor is the intention to deceive necessary for a lie to be a lie.

As to the lies:
I'd have to review the video but as I recall it seemed like we had only the intention to deceive. Much of the "lies" are statements that while not false allow the inferring of falsehoods. Which is not itself a lie which if you ask me is the best way to deceive in such a circumstance.
and probably the only moral way.

Marcel said...

Reginaldus - one final comment for you. It appears you are not very good at internet dialogue and is not interested in actually discussing the issue at hand. Rather, you just want to show you are right.

You have shown a bit of ad hominem, which is never good and you have been much more dismissive of others than they have been of you.

To let you know, I have started to waffle on my argument quite a bit - but not because of you, but rather a friend who wrote me the following:

"Abortion is a lie, and it will not be vanquished with more lies. If we do have the truth on our side, why don’t we believe it? Why do we feel that to expose the lie, we need to resort to tactics such as posing as pimps or prostitutes, because they are moral agents who herald our cause? Consider a person who embodies the qualities of a moral agent, like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Imagine her sitting across a table from the Planned Parenthood worker and telling her that some of her novices have gotten into trouble and she needed some ‘quiet’ assistance to skirt some legal entanglements. My gut response at this prospect is disgust. Of course, replace Mother Teresa with a pimp, who, by the way, is also made in the image and likeness of God and is equally called to be a moral agent, and I suddenly feel better with the whole situation and whatever information is gathered from it. Mother Teresa carried the weight of representing Christ in the world, so I am much more comfortable asking someone else to act like a pimp to do God’s work. I don’t think it would have entered Mother Teresa’s mind to deceive the clinic worker. No, she would have just repeatedly pleaded with outstretched arms: “I want the babies, can you please give me the babies?” This would be truth without nuance.

Conclusion: I’ll put my money on one loving, little old lady over an army of lying pimps any day."

Good day to all of you. Please remember that the others in this debate are not the enemy.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Marcel (6:50pm),
Contrary to what you have claimed, I care nothing at all for what you think of me personally, or if you think I am correct.
I am, however, very happy to hear that you are starting to become more open to the absolute prohibition of all lies -- a prohibition which comes both from natural law and from divine positive law, and is taught explicitly by the Church.

Peace to you.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Please see my latest post on the subject:

Jesse said...


This whole article has really caused much trouble for me. I too am a committed Catholic and admire both Augustine and Aquinas greatly. After reading the article and researching several catechisms I have to admit to the point you are making, although I found some specific points problematic.

I just don't understand how the church came to define ALL lying as inherently evil, while at the same time take a situational approach to killing.

Here is a more specific point (trying to be devil's advocate here). In reference to the whole nazi scenario, you quoted Augustine as saying it is better for someone to lose their life than for someone to harm their soul through lying. However in the situation of lying to the nazi's to protect innocent life one would be committing a venial sin. Now, we cannot judge the state of someone's soul. One of the people we are willing to let die to avoid venial sin could in fact be in a state of mortal sin and in danger of eternal damnation if they were to die. So by this reasoning, it's Ok to risk someone's eternal life than commit a venial sin. Or the situation could go like this. If one had sufficient power to resist the nazi's one could use force to repel them and protect the innocents. Depending on how the situation unfolded, deadly force may ensue as a result. Now in this situation, one would be justified in his actions and free from sin. However now it is the nazi(s) who are dead (and even more likely to be in a state of mortal sin). This just doesn't seem to sit right with me, when the committing of one venial sin could have avoided this. Don't get me wrong, if there is another way to avoid lying and protect innocent lives I would obviously choose that option. This is a "devil's advocate" position I am taking to work through this complex issue.

I'll address the "undercover" situation later.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

You are right in pointing out just how difficult this teaching is to accept in the practical circumstances of real life! Nevertheless, I am convinced that we must live in the truth and in the light.

I would emphasize that, when it seems that committing a venial sin is the right thing to do, we should recall that sin can only formally contribute to the kingdom of Satan.

Regarding the "undercover" situation...please see my most recent article:

Like you, I am trying to reconcile this teaching with the real world -- something that is indeed very difficult! We must trust so much in the goodness of divine providence!
Peace to you, and many blessings!

BobRN said...


I hope it's not too late to join the discussion.

While it's true that the CCC edited out the "right to know" clause from the definition of lying, can we be so sure that this is because the Church now rejects that definition, especially since the CCC still includes similar language in #2488: "No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have a right to know it"? What is one to do in a situation where remaining silent, employing discreet language or otherwise attempting to withhold the truth effectively reveals it? It would be interesting to see what those involved in the revision of the CCC have to say about it. Possibly their discussions on the matter are available.

Another thought. The CCC says "To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error." But what is the intention of the one who is wilfully deceiving the Nazis who are hunting Jews? Is it to lead into error or save life? Is it both? Can the two intentions be separated. Also, is the wilfull deception of the Nazis intended to lead them into error or lead them away from the error of killing Jews, even if they would disagree with that intent?

It's not simply a matter of is all lying sinful, but is all deception lying? Also, while lying to another may be objectively evil, we have to remember that a sin is not simply acting in a way that is objectively evil, but of doing so freely and with an understanding of the consequences. How free is one's will when they are under the pressure of saving lives? What takes priority, the telling of the truth regardless of the consequences, the keeping of a confidence or the duty to justice when all three cannot be secured at the same time?

Finally, the Church clearly teaches that one is justified in killing an unjust aggressor in defense of one's life or another's life. Killing an aggressor is certainly more severe an action than deceiving him. What principles of Catholic moral theology justifies killing an unjust aggressor in order to save a life, but never justifies merely deceiving him?

Thank you for your kind consideration.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

BobRN (5:50am),
Thanks for your questions...
I will make a brief response...
1) Regardless of the initial ambiguity in the Catechism's formation, the Catholic Tradition is very strong on this point...not only has lying been entirely condemned, but even strict mental reservation was condemned by Innocent XI in 1679.
2) If the final intention is to save lives, but the means of gaining that is a lie; then the lie is also part of the intention. The means to the end are intended together with the end.
3) Indeed, not all deception is lying...there are times when one can use words which will deceive (without actually lying) -- for more on this see my article on Mental Reservation:
4) You are correct: There are times when we can kill, but there is never a time when we can lie. Part of the reason for this is that a lie is an offense against God himself -- it is the most direct offense against the truth. Lying is always contrary to the truth, and so cannot ever be done.
Killing, on the other hand, is not necessarily contrary to God, nor even contrary to life: There are times when killing another is actually a defense of life (i.e. in a just war) or an upholding of the dignity of life (i.e. the just use of capital punishment).

I hope that this helps...Peace.

BobRN said...


Thanks for your replies to my questions. They were partially helpful.

I do see and embrace the Church's teaching that one is never justified in lying, though one's moral responsibility for doing so may be mitigated depending on the freedom of one's will when acting, freedom of the will being a necessary element of sin.

I'm satisfied that the Church teaches that, while all lying is an offense against God, not all deception is lying. I suppose when applying this teaching in practical matters the key question is: what methods can one employ in the effort to deceive before you've crossed the line into lying?
For instance, I know that, were I asked by an unjust aggressor intent on killing an innocent, where I was hiding him, I would answer, "He is not here" meaning: "He is not here for you (to kill)." That seems well within the range of wide mental reservation. Which duty is primary in such a situation: the duty to tell the truth, the duty to keep a confidence (ie: keeping the innocent's whereabouts out of the knowledge of the unjust aggressor) or the duty to justice (ie: protecting the innocent from the unjust aggressor)?

In any case, most people are not theologians, and I think it pastorally wise to remember that, when people are in dangerous situations where they are pressed to make quick judgements, we ought to give them room to do the best they can with what they have.

Pax et bonum.