“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.
“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.”
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
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.