Live Action president responds to controversy over group's tactics

Dr Janet Smith Christopher Kaczor Lila Rose Live Action CNA US Catholic News 2 21 11 Dr. Janet Smith, Lila Rose, Dr. Christopher Kaczor (left to right, clockwise)

Lila Rose, president of the pro-life activist group Live Action, has issued a new statement responding to ethical concerns from several top theologians and philosophers about her group's work.

Live Action's Catholic critics overwhelmingly agree with the group's goal of exposing and de-funding Planned Parenthood. What troubles them is the use of “sting” tactics, which employ false identities and statements – such as claiming to be a pimp or prostitute – in an attempt to show Planned Parenthood's willingness to cover up crimes.

Since Feb. 1, the group has been releasing a series of videos in which Live Action's actors claim to manage a ring of underage prostitutes. Planned Parenthood employees are shown agreeing to help them confidentially acquire abortions and other services.

On Feb. 18, Live Action President Lila Rose provided CNA with a statement responding to her critics, reproduced here in its entirety.

"Live Action is a small, pro-life grassroots organization, and one of our primary goals is to unmask the lies of the abortion industry and lobby,” she wrote. “We are not about deception; we are about the truth.”
“Some Catholic intellectuals,” she acknowledged, “have a problem with Live Action's practicing of established methods of investigative work.”

“We in no way mean to dismiss their opinions, but we are in profound disagreement with them.”

“At this time,” Rose concluded, “our team's energies and attentions must be focused on advancing the opportunities our investigative research has provided the Pro-Life movement. We invite you to join us 100 percent to work together with all our hearts to defend the lives of the millions at stake.”

Among the Catholic intellectuals who agree with Live Action's intentions, but not their tactics, is Professor Robert George of Princeton.

George, one of the drafters of the strongly pro-life Manhattan Declaration, called attention to the apparent conflict between Live Action's investigative practices, and the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church, in a Feb. 15 essay entitled “Life and Truth” on the Mirror of Justice blog.

Professor George acknowledged that the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church appeared to justify lying to someone who did not have “the right to know the truth.” However, the passage in question was substantially revised under the direction of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, in his preparation of the authoritative second edition.

“The firm teaching of the magisterium, reconfirmed in the Catechism,” Professor George recalled, “is that lying is intrinsically immoral, and is therefore impermissible even as a means of preventing grave injustices and other evils.”

Among the Catechism passages in question are paragraphs 2483 and 2485. The first teaches that “to lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error,” while the second upholds the judgment that “by its very nature, lying is to be condemned”

“I don't see how it is possible to avoid the conclusion that this teaching requires of Catholics the submission of intellect and will that is known as 'religious assent',” George stated.

“Catholics certainly, but non-Catholic pro-lifers, too, should reject lying even in the greatest of good causes,” he concluded. “We must not forfeit our standing in the debate as the tellers of truth.”

George's remarks agreed with the position of Professors Germain Grisez and William May, two U.S. moral theologians who helped Pope Benedict XVI revise the Catechism into its authoritative form prior to his election to the papacy. Both professors unequivocally told CNA on Feb. 11 that Live Action's undercover actors could not present overt falsehood as truth for the sake of a good end.

However, other highly regarded Catholic thinkers have expressed disagreement with this position.

Professor Janet Smith, who teaches moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Michigan, thinks that the question may not be as settled as Grisez and May believe.

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“I think if tomorrow, the Vatican announced that it wanted theologians to debate thoroughly the question of the morality of telling falsehoods to evil doers who threatened the lives of the innocent, a large number of theologians who are now silent on the point would defend the practice,” she wrote in response to questions from CNA. 

“Right now,” Smith explained, “those who wish to defend the practice hesitate to do so, because they fear appearing to question or reject Church teaching, and fear producing an atmosphere that leads to questioning or rejecting Church teaching.”

There may well be room, she indicated, for interpreting the condemnation of lying in a different manner than Grisez, May, and George. “The formulation of the first edition (of the Catechism),” she pointed out, “has not been officially repudiated, and I believe it is not necessarily incompatible with the formulation of the second.”

She indicated that the question needed to be discussed more openly. “In my discussion with theologians who practice religious assent to Church teaching,” she recalled, “I have found many – even high Churchmen – who believe it moral to tell falsehoods in some situations. They are not, however, willing to write or speak publicly on the matter.”

Dr. Christopher Kaczor, a Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, is a notable scholar of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas – who held, along with St. Augustine, that “every lie is a sin.” But Professor Kaczor, who has defended Live Action in the current controversy, pointed out that a lie was not necessarily easy to define.

“Although there are some Church Fathers who hold otherwise, I do believe it is wrong – intrinsically evil – to lie,” Professor Kaczor explained in response to questions. “But precisely what is being debated is, what constitutes a lie?”

He referred to Bl. John Henry Newman, who considered the question in his essay “Lying and Equivocation.” The piece pertains, in Kazcor's words, to the question of “how one is to understand what formally – not merely materially – constitutes lying.”

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In the essay, Newman noted there were “different schools of opinion” in the history of the Church regarding “this difficult doctrine,” as to which intentional falsehoods constituted lies in the full sense.

“A given individual,” Cardinal Newman wrote, “cannot agree with all, and has a full right to follow which he will.”

According to Kaczor, Newman also held that “what the Catechism of the Council of Trent says about lying” – that Christians should “suffer any inconvenience, rather than utter a falsehood” – was “meant for general instruction of the faithful, and is not an authoritative adjudication among rival theological schools.”

Pertinently, the question answered in that catechism also had to do with the personal consequences of one's own truth-telling, rather than the more complex case in which others would be made to suffer. Like Professor Smith, Kaczor suggested that falsehoods in that instance might not formally constitute lies.

“About this matter, as far as I am aware, there is no authoritative Catholic teaching, but rather more or less probable points of view,” Kaczor said. Probability, in this sense, refers not to the statistical likelihood of an outcome, but – in the traditional language of moral theology – to the possibility of following different permitted opinions in regard to a disputed question.

Kaczor maintained that he follows Newman's analysis in considering the question of lying to be a disputed one in some cases. He also indicated that the Catechism itself, even in its second edition, was not meant to resolve this difficult question with perfect clarity.

“I believe that the Catechism's recent revision reflects a desire on the part of the revisers to have a more probable definition of lying expressed for general catechetical instruction, rather than a less probable definition,” he stated, referring to the degrees of certainty associated with varying opinions in moral theology.

Kaczor did, however, grant that there may be a more serious problem with telling the particular kind of falsehood that Live Action's actors told – namely, the kind that could involve pretending to be a willing participant in gravely immoral actions.

Although Live Action's purpose is to expose immorality, their actors directly presented themselves, if only strategically and temporarily, as committed pimps and sex traffickers.

“In normal circumstances,” Kaczor noted, “pretending that you believe something is right, which actually is wrong, may be morally impermissible.”