Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Responding to Joe Trabbic

To clarify, here is my position on this matter, which again has blown up all over the internet. For example, follow (if you dare) the debate in the comboxes at the American Chesterton Society website on this.

I agree entirely with Joe Trabbic that the application of Church teaching (meaning to apply general principles to specific instances) is a question of prudence and is between the individual and his conscience.

However, we have not been dealing with such claims in this debate. The arguments advanced in this debate have not been as reasonable as Joe's. Catholics have not been content to say, "I accept Church teaching and here is what my prudence tells me regarding the application of Church teaching in instance."

Instead, people's arguments have been variations of the following two points:

1. Attacks on the Catechism

2. Attempts to Re-define the Act in Question

The most common examples of the first plank, Attacks on the Catechism, are those who simply ignore the Catechism. A more sophisticated (and in my opinion sinister) variation are those who claim the Catechism does not contain valid Church teaching on this issue and thus can safely be ignored ("We are not bound by what the Catechism teaches" as the conservative Catholic proudly told me who fired me up for this debate).

Now, to save our readers a lot of research, yes the Catechism of the Catholic Church contains a variety of teachings the Magisterial weight of which varies - some have been definitvely pronounced by the Extraordinary Magisterium; most have been taught by the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium, including the teaching on lying. Granted, theologians, even saints, have argued about the morality of lying, but the Magisterial teaching on this matter has been consistent. Even the Catechism of Trent, nearly five hundred years ago, proscribes lying as something evil by its very nature, or what we would now term intrinsically evil (something that can never be done regardless of the circumstances or of one's intention).

In fact the argument made by Peter Kreeft, which I call the Just Say Know argument (just say, "I know it's so"), advances quite rightly a case for moral intuition, but falls under Plank One above by ignoring Magisterial teaching on this matter . Kreeft's argument fails becasue Church teaching trumps moral intiution for Catholics, period.

Indeed, after going round and round with my friend Deacon Jim Russell of the Archdiocese of St. Louis on this issue, he has finally publicly stated, “I concede that the Magisterium, through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and with the authority of Divine Revelation, teaches the faithful that lying ('Lying consists in saying what is false with the intention of deceiving one’s neighbor') is a sin against the 8th Commandment, is intrinsically evil, and cannot be done under any circumstances.” (see the comboxes at the Chesterton website)

If all Catholics were conceding this in this debate, I would not be making the noise I have been.

Now, once this is admitted, the argument advances to Plank Two, Re-defining the Act in Question.

Since we know that actors in a play are not "lying", neither are fiction writers nor those who tell fables to children, we must ask ourselves why one can sometimes speak a falsehood without "lying". The obvious answer is that a lie consists of leading another into error, leading him into a false relation with reality. This is done by asserting an untruth. When actors act on stage, they are not trying to deceive the audience, who are "in on" the illusion. Thus actors, fiction writers, and story tellers are engaged in what I would call pretense and not lying.

However, in the case of the Live Action videos, while the ultimate YouTube audience was aware of the pretense (actors claiming to be pimps and prostitutes when they really weren't), the immediate audience of Planned Parenthood workers were not. This immediate audience was being deceived by the false representations of the actors, and deliberately so. They were being lied to.

And to reiterate - I am in no way saying that the lies told to the Planned Parenthood workers in any way compare with the far greater evil of abortion and of covering up for underage prostitution. There is no doubt that the wrong done to the workers pales by comparison to the wrong the workers do to young women and to unborn babies.

However, Scripture tells us that we must not do evil that good may come. And the Church is quite clear that lying is by its nature disordered, the object of which (deceiving one's neighbor) is never vitiated by any cirucmstance or good intention.

In other words, for committing or condoning the act involved in this particular situation really to be a question of prudence and not a kind of "practical dissent", the act in question can NOT be lying. If the act in question IS lying, it may never be done, nor condoned, regardless of one's prudence.


Baron Korf said...

You side of the argument has been little better. By your logic the actions of undercover cops who bust drug rings and trap pedophiles are intrinsically evil. As are those of incognito priests who serve the faithful in lands of persecution.

Therefore, your side is saying that it would be better if the actions of undercover cops, incognito priests, and Live Action never happened. And you are saying that the weight of the Catechism is behind your argument.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Baron, there may be a difference between priests who hide the fact that they are priests (without lying about it) and folks who tell others they're pimps and hookers when they're not. One is being silent on the truth; another is assering a falsehood with the intent to deceive.

And, yes, you may hate to admit it, but the weight of the Catechism is behind my argument. Instead of sneering at that assertion, demonstrate that it's wrong. I don't see how you can without 1. deconstructing the Catechism or 2. claiming the acts in question are not lies. But take your best shot.

The weight of the Catechism tells us what a lie is and that we may never do it. Anyone without an agenda would tell you that Live Action lied.

Again, they lied for admirable reasons, but they lied.

Baron Korf said...

So we must conclude that the CCC condemns these actions as intrinsically evil, and the world would be better if these actions (police, priests, Live Action) never occurred?

I can see how an assertion like that can drive people to say dumb things.

Joey G. said...

Baron, there's an interesting turn of phrase in your comment that I just want to offer a thought about, if I may: "your side is saying that it would be better if the actions of undercover cops, incognito priests, and Live Action never happened."

Honestly, that hits closer to the matter than a lot of folks think. Yes, we are saying it. To me, though, it's like saying war is terrible, which is not the same as to say that war may not be just.

But notice what happens with war in the moral tradition: a whole body of discernment and provisos develop in order to help folks discern when and how a war may be just. And the safe moral standard is to tread carefully upon its precipice. It raises the stakes.

In this precise case, we have been told that lying is evil and is always evil. There are, though, perhaps some things which look a lot like lying but may not be. But the developed norm has been not scrupulosity, but advisement to the careful exercise of prudence. In other words, this teaching of lying is for us like a beacon warning us that we are in waters near sharp shoals. Hence, the long discussions throughout the Reformation period about priest's incognito actions, which resulted on the one hand in a papal bull condemning strict mental reservations, and on the other hand in a very sophisticated doctrine on equivocation by Alphonsus Liguori.

At the root of all this is sin, and it's regrettable that we even need to have such recourses and such discussions. But we are warned when to be careful, and I don't think Live Action was careful enough.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Baron, what in particular am I saying that is dumb?

Kevin O'Brien said...

Also, Baron, whether or not the world is a better place is not up to us; God can bring good out of evil. We as men may never do evil so that good may come. If god writes straight with our crooked lines, may He be praised!

jrdkn02 said...


Your reference to my concession from yesterday could make it sound like I'd never conceded the same thing *before* yesterday and that somehow my view is not what it once was.

But, I've conceded that from the very *beginning*. Yesterday you asked me to make this kind of concession in order for you to withdraw an existing accusation that I was dissenting from the Magisterium on lying. I found a phrasing and formula that both expresses what I've always believed and professed while also satisfying you, which is good. But I hope folks realize that this has been my stance from the beginning of our conversation....
Deacon Jim Russell

Baron Korf said...

Easy Tiger, I wasn't talking about you. I guess I was a little ambiguous so I'll be exceptionally clear.

"I can see how reading an assertion like that can drive some people to say dumb things in reply."

As to the assertion that the world is worse off when Christians sin, I thought that would be obvious. Unless God rewards vice more richly than virtue.

Kevin O'Brien said...

OK, Baron I'm confused, as I really don't know what you're saying. But thanks for calling me "Tiger".

Deacon Jim, I'm glad this has been your position all along. Thanks for clarifying that.

Baron Korf said...

You're welcome.

Tell you what, since this commenting thing doesn't seem to be going too well, drop me an email next time you are in Houston and I'll buy you a beer and a steak and we can talk then.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Thank, you Baron. That's a date. Well ... not a "date". I mean, even though you did call me "Tiger" and all, still ...

Speaking of Houston, I've always wanted to go to the Anglican Use Mass and finally got my chance last Sunday as there's on in Kansas City. Houston was the closest one to St. Louis for a long time, I think.

J1Militans said...

Yes, but, doesn't the intention count? Sure. The end do not justify the means. But a lie, even if always wrong in itself, may not be morally wrong always, as in the case of a Nazi asking if you have Jews hiding in your house to which you lie to and say "no." See what I mean?

I do not mean to call good evil or evil good, etc. But when it comes to lies, to me it seems we must bring in justice and intention.

What's the intention behind under cover operations done by cops to catch prostitutes, pimps, druglords, animal abusers, etc? Exactly that, to catch the evildoers. Can the cops just walk up and ask, are you a pimp? Nop. :( And is the truth owed to them that do these evil things and will continue to do them throughout?

I would say it would rather be unjust to tell them the truth, as the truth is not owed to them, and giving them the truth will only advance their evil agenda.

Or for instance. Stealing is bad. But isn't it better to steal your neighbor's gun if you know he's going to use it right now to kill his wife? (he lives far away from the cops)
Or at least this way: you borrow his gun, he asks for it back, and while you don't need it, you don't give it back, which is wrong, and you lie saying you need it to catch some bird for dinner. Two wrongs don't make a right, but: was the owner of the gun justified in having it back, when you knew for a fact (somehow) that he was going to use it to kill his wife?

I would dare say the same thing of the Sting operations of Live Action.
Yes. Lying is lying and thus evil in themselves.
But is it evil to lie to organizations such as Planned Parenthood when you are going to expose them of something they would not cooperate with otherwise?

Kevin O'Brien said...

Yes, Militans, according to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, lying is one of those acts which is always evil at all times and everywhere, regardless of intent or circumstance. See my earlier post on what "intrinsically evil" means: