Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The History of Lying

So it's come to this.

No matter what the defenders of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church say about the immorality of lying, Lying Apologists shoot back with ...

  • Oh, yeah?  Well what about when the Nazis come to the door?  What about undercover police work?  What about, "Honey, does this dress make me look fat?"  Huh?  Huh?  Huh????

They come back with these anecdotal hypotheticals no matter how many times we answer these same anecdotal hypotheticals.  

And worse, we are now hearing ...

  • Jesus was a Liar.  I may lie, too.

With all of this in mind, I am reposting an article I wrote on March 9 2011 (with some minor revisions so as to protect identities and make corrections).

It's long, but rather thorough, and, I hope, interesting to read.  

Comments will be closed, since the only ones I'll receive will be variations of those above.


ALARMS AND VIOLENT DECISIONS by Kevin O'Brien - March 9, 2011

On Monday I returned from nearly two weeks on the road, our Great North Tour, in which we gave 15 performances of 7 scripts in 13 days in 6 states – from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to Holt’s Summit, Missouri. In all of that wonderful chaos God gave me the great blessing of being away from the internet. And two weeks away from the Lying for Jesus issue was very therapeutic.

But as therapy ends and Lent begins, I’d like to conclude my thoughts on the firestorm that swept us all up into the single most divisive issue I have encountered in ten years as a Catholic.

My Role in This

Back in August, James O’Keefe was invited to give what amounted to the keynote address at the American Chesterton Society Conference in Emmitsburg, Maryland. O’Keefe electrified the crowd by telling us that he was inspired by G. K. Chesterton (he did not mention his other role model, Saul Alinsky) and that he, James O’Keefe, was willing to live a monk –like existence harassed by leftists and lawyers as he struggled to serve “Veritas”, Truth, in his undercover videos.

During the Q & A, O’Keefe was asked point-blank, “How do you justify lying to others in your videos – leading them to believe you’re someone you’re not?” O’Keefe replied bluntly, “The end justifies the means. We are lying to serve truth.”

I realized immediately that this was a terrible answer.

The following afternoon, my actors and I performed our play Faith of our Father for the crowd, and I took the opportunity, as I spoke to introduce our play, to point out the similarities between acting and what James O’Keefe does in his videos. “James is not lying,” I suggested, “he is acting; he is role-playing. He is using fiction to reveal a greater truth, which is what drama is all about.”

Now I was not entirely happy with that argument when I made it, but I knew it was better than what O’Keefe himself had offered.

And after the Conference James and I even kept in casual contact via email. I knew he was particularly interested in the novels of Michael O’Brien, which I am recording as audio books for Ignatius Press, and I was hoping to get him a copy of one, since their spirituality seemed to have a profound impact on him.

And then came the bizarre sting gone awry, reported last October, when James ill-advisedly planned to “faux seduce” a female CNN reporter, Abbie Boudreau, luring her onto his boat amidst pornographic sex toys and pictures, for the purpose of revealing the “veritas” or truth of – well, it wasn’t quite clear what. When this happened, I began blogging about the problematic nature of what James O’Keefe was doing, and quickly learned that this issue divided the American Chesterton Society in two, with many Chestertonians supporting O’Keefe and many joining me in my criticism of him.

It was then that I was told that O’Keefe had secretly recorded his conversation with Dale Ahlquist and me at the closing banquet of the Chesterton conference months earlier! It was not clear why – but it was certainly disturbing that what we thought were private conversations, all aimed at James for his benefit and encouragement, were being recorded by him for whatever reason. I was sorry that I myself hadn’t at that time “faux seduced” James at the banquet, as he was soon to attempt to “faux seduce” Abbie Boudreau on his boat, for the resulting tapes would have been much more entertaining and funny than whatever it was we had said to him in earnest.

But in the midst of this I maintained contact with James O’Keefe, as I still do; for I still admire his spunk and his desire to serve the truth, and to sacrifice a certain amount of personal comfort and security to do so. I criticized him publicly for two reasons: 1. he is a public figure performing public actions, some (but not all) of which are ill-conceived and of dubious morality; and 2. I wanted to make it clear that the American Chesterton Society had not implicitly endorsed James by having him speak at the Conference, since the members of the Society were not united in their support of all of the techniques he uses in his “Project Veritas”. Certainly, an invitation to speak is not necessarily an endorsement – but I was worried it might at some point be spun as if what O’Keefe was doing was Chestertonian. I personally do not think it is, and I think portraying these techniques as Chestertonian is simply hijacking Chesterton, as I took pains to point out here.

But then the great man Chesterton has indeed in this debate been used in defense of what James O’Keefe of Project Veritas and Lila Rose of Live Action are doing. A powerful Chesterton quote was used to excuse lying, when in reality the quote attacks “lying about lying” – but more on that in a minute.

Honesty about Lying

What struck me in this latest battle – and what inspired me to start blogging about it – was how in the first week of the fray over Lila Rose’s Planned Parenthood sting videos, everyone admitted that the role-playing behavior in question was lying.

My involvement in this latest and more bloody round began when James O’Keefe emailed me to ask how I would respond to Christopher Tollefsen of the University of South Carolina, who had criticized Live Action here. James copied in two others into our correspondence, one of whom took offense when I replied, “You really can’t respond effectively to this, for Tollefsen is making excellent points. Your only hope is to claim the undercover videos involved role-playing and not lying. You can fall back upon my original defense that I offered at the Chesterton Conference, the Undercover Journalist as Guerilla Theater Actor defense, which is not a very strong defense, but you can’t really rebut what Tollefsen is saying. The problem with the Role-playing defense is it only applies to actors who are speaking literal falsehoods but not doing so in order to deceive anyone, who are performing for people who are in on the fiction; once you tell a falsehood with the intent to victimize or to deceive someone who’s not in on it – even to achieve a good ultimate end - you are simply lying.” The cc’d correspondent took umbrage with this, and when I quoted the Catechism to support the Church’s position that lying is inherently sinful and may never be done under any circumstances, not even to achieve a greater good, he replied, to my astonishment, “We are not bound by what the Catechism teaches.”

This surprised and disturbed me.

Then, naively, I began to post on this issue on Facebook. At one point I simply cut and pasted CCC 1753, “A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means” – and to my utter consternation, this became my most controversial post in my two years on Facebook. Within twenty-four hours, this post attracted 150 comments from my conservative Catholic friends, one of whom said, “If this is what the Church teaches, I will gladly die a heretic.” What on earth is going on here? I wondered.

And that same first week we were all stunned when no less than the brilliant Peter Kreeft weighed in supporting Live Action and arguing, in effect, “Intuition trumps the Catechism”. Instead of looking at the theology of lying, with St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and tradition all condemning the act as evil, and Catholic teaching, including the epistles of St. Paul, condemning doing evil so that good may come, Kreeft said, “Reason includes intuition and our intuition on this issue tells us nothing is wrong here”, ignoring the fact that much of the moral law in Divine Revelation (particularly the Sermon on the Mount) flatly contradicts our intuition and our “moral common sense”, and that Kreeft’s “just so” argument (or “Just say Know”, as I called it) was illogical and unfalsifiable.

Still, there was a healthy mindedness in the first week of that debate. Everyone, from luminaries such as Peter Kreeft on down, frankly admitted that the behavior of these undercover journalists was lying.

Lying about Lying

But since then a strange and sickly twist has occurred. As I wrote in my first blog posts on this, there is legitimate wiggle room in examining this behavior. A case may indeed be made that what James O’Keefe and Lila Rose do is not in fact lying. This is, perhaps, better than simply condemning the Catholic Church and its Catechism outright.

Or is it?

Here’s the Chesterton quote that folks are parading and that has caused even the bold and brilliant Mark Shea to pause 

‘It was absurd to say that Catholics introduced a horrible sophistry of saying that a man might sometimes tell a lie, since every sane man knows he would tell a lie to save a child from Chinese torturers; that it missed the whole point, in this connection, to quote Ward’s phrase, “Make up your mind that you are justified in lying and then lie like a trooper,” for Ward’s argument was against equivocation or what people call Jesuitry. He meant, “When the child really is hiding in the cupboard and the Chinese torturers really are chasing him with red-hot pincers, then (and then only) be sure that you are right to deceive and do not hesitate to lie; but do not stoop to equivocate. Do not bother yourself to say, “The child is in a wooden house not far from here,” meaning the cupboard; but say the child is in Chiswick or Chimbora zoo, or anywhere you choose.’

Now at first glance this quote seems to support telling a vigorous lie when the situation calls for it, which is exactly what Kreeft rightly says our “moral common sense” tells us to do, and since Chesterton is the Apostle of Common Sense, he must be the Apostle of Moral Common Sense as well.

But read this passage more carefully.

First, it appears in this context. This passage appears in The Catholic Church and Conversion as Chesterton lists a number of opinions that were current in his day with which he had to struggle when he decided to enter the Church, opinions about the Catholic Church in England that would normally keep people from embracing it. One of these opinions is the idea that Catholic moral theology permitted lying under certain circumstances. This opinion was wrong, for the consensus of the moral theology of the Catholic Church has never permitted lying. And Chesterton does not appear to realize this , for the opinion he cites had its origin in England during the persecution of the Jesuit martyrs during the Reformation, and was really an objection about “mental reservation” – an objection fueled, I suspect, by the guilt of killing these innocent men and future saints.

But the point is – first, that people condemned the Catholic Church in Chesterton’s day for what they wrongly thought was its teaching that lying was sometimes the right thing to do; lying is never the right thing to do, the common English voice said in response to this imagined teaching – and second, Chesterton responds not by condemning lying, but by condemning lying about lying.

From Macbeth onwards there has been a healthy British disdain for “equivocation”, the practice of telling a lie without having the courage to admit you’re telling a lie. Readers over the age of thirty will recall quite clearly Bill Clinton’s famous, “that depends on what the definition of is is,” a stellar example of equivocation in action. Indeed, when Clinton wagged his finger at the camera and said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” he meant intercourse; if the listeners thought he meant sexual activity other than intercourse, well that was our problem, not his.

And we must be very clear about what Chesterton and the Brits are doing - this healthy rejection of equivocation is NOT an endorsement of lying. The entire point of Chesterton’s quote and of the English tradition since the execution of the Jesuit martyrs is that equivocation is wrong because it is lying about lying; it is a double lie. Equivocation is not wrong because lying is right; equivocation is wrong because lying is wrong, and to play games with words is to lie twice – you are lying to the listener and you are lying to yourself by convincing yourself that you are not telling a lie, when in fact you are and if you had more of a backbone you’d admit that to yourself.

But sadly, even though Dr. Kreeft and others had the backbone to call a spade a spade when this debate began, the argument has settled down to definitions and word play since then.


And yet clear thinking depends on definitions.

For this very reason, much confusion arose in the Torture Wars when torture was defined as “severe corporal punishment”. Torture is not that at all. Torture is the attempt to destroy the Image of God in your fellow man. Torture is using physical or psychological pain to destroy free will and reason in another.

Likewise, lying is not “uttering falsehoods”. If that were all lying is, then acting, story telling, and social pleasantries would all be lies. “A lie,” as the Catechism tells us, “consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving”. And try as they might, the Lying for Jesus camp can not ignore the simple fact that without deceiving the target, the sting videos of Live Action and Project Veritas would crumble at the starting gate. Deception is central to what they do.

If James O’Keefe and Lila Rose tell someone they are a pimp and a hooker, with the intention of making that other person believe that, then James O’Keefe and Lila Rose are lying. They are lying to reveal truth, but they are not acting, role-playing, or anything else. They are lying.

They are doing evil so that good may come, but they are lying.

To tell yourself that they are not lying is equivocation. And for the value of equivocation, see Chesterton, supra.


Now, my dear fellow Catholics and pro-life enthusiasts, it certainly does us no good to judge one another. We must all admit that James O’Keefe and Lila Rose are good and brave people doing what they think best to bring down the Culture of Death. But we can not fight the Culture of Death with a Culture of Deceit. I do not doubt the good intentions of my fellow pro-life warriors who are excited by the illusion of success these techniques are giving us; and it saddens me that many of them are tarnishing those of us who are sounding a warning about this as being armchair pro-life supporters, cowards or Pharisees in this battle.

But doing bad so that good may come is, as Mark Shea has pointed out, a Faustian bargain. Endorsing a lie and excusing a lie is no way to serve Him who is Truth.

John Paul II said, “Truth must be the foundation stone, the cement to solidify the entire social edifice." And Frederich Hebbel said, “One lie does not cost you one truth, but the truth.” And Thomas Jefferson said, “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” And the Word of God Himself said, “To this end was I born and for this cause came I into the world, that I might bear witness to the Truth”, and when Peter denied Jesus with three simple lies, lies which were told to serve a greater good (Peter’s survival), it was the most horrible moment of his life and the most shameful (and human) incident in all of Scripture.

You can not serve Jesus with a lie. You can not destroy the Culture of Death with a Culture of Deception.

What is Being Revealed

During my two week sabbatical from the internet, while on tour, we were treated to dinner at the house of a marvelous Catholic family in Chicago, a family very active in the pro-life movement.

The father told me about standing on the street corner in front of an abortion mill and witnessing to the young mothers who are about to kill their unborn babies. Some of them are only 12 or 13. Some of them are scared. Some of them are cynical. Some of them yell as they drive by, “You’re not making any difference!”

These sidewalk counselors are despised, berated, spat upon, cursed at, buffeted. They do not strike back. They do not lie. They do not torture. They turn the other cheek. They are the suffering Christ to their neighbors, and the witness, though hated, is a profound and honest witness.

The father told me of Saul Alinsky (James O’Keefe’s hero), who was responsible for the plan to undermine the Catholic Church in Chicago and hijack the Democratic Party for what later became full endorsement of abortion.

The father told me of the difficulties of the pro-life work, of his own and his family’s suffering, his endurance, his willingness to follow the light even while surrounded by such darkness and demonic hatred.

And I thought of my own public battles – inconsequential by comparison, fought mostly on the internet. I thought of the Torture Wars, of the attacks I received when defending poverty as a virtue, of the virulent resistance any time I mention Catholic Social Teaching and its expression in Distributism, of the recent scuffle over neo-Pelagianism, of the obstinance of otherwise good Catholics against a rational examination of usury and its effect on our economy, of the resistance we receive trying to book Theater of the Word, of the Kennedy Catholics who torpedoed our pro-life theater tour to Massachusetts, of the mess the liberals have made of the Church, of the anti-Christian education masquerading as “Catholic Schools” and the beatings I’ve taken standing against bad Catholic education, of the attacks in St. Louis and elsewhere on Cardinal Burke and my feeble attempts to defend him, and on and on and on.

And I thought of my own near despair when this most recent issue heated up in cyberspace and left me wondering if there were any Catholics left who hadn’t sold out to Americanism.

And then I recall my dear friend Hilaire Belloc, and something he wrote in The Path to Rome.

He writes of the struggles of reverts, or converts, who become jealous of the things of God.

“We are perpetually thrust into minorities, and the world almost begins to talk a strange language; we are troubled by the human machinery of a perfect and supernatural revelation; we are over-anxious for its safety, alarmed, and in danger of violent decisions.”

It is very tempting to think that we must defend the Church, that it’s all about how much power the liberals have or how to keep the neo-cons from making the whole world into The World Over.

But Belloc is right. It’s not about us. We should not be troubled by the human machinery of this perfect and super-human revelation. We must not be over-anxious for its safety or in danger of violent decisions.

It’s not the liberals who have ruined the Church. It’s not the conservatives who have ruined the Church. It’s the devil who is trying to ruin the Church, and its our fallen human nature that’s helping him.

Meanwhile, I will close with Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, who was as opposed to equivocation as any healthy Englishman, and who wrote, “The Church holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse.”

My friends, if we are to lose the battle, let us lose gloriously as did the martyrs, as Our Lord appeared to lose as he hung on a cross. Let us lose the battle through virtue and win the war over the gates of hell, which can only be overcome by losing our clever stratagems of lying, torture, “making super-disciples”, or even “evangelizing through drama”, for the war is won by Him, and every compromise we make for the sake of efficiency or quick fixes along the way is only alarm, is only a violent decision, is only a human reaction to our own lack of faith in the One who turns death into life, is only our trouble at the human machinery of this perfect and supernatural revelation.

May God bless us all! And may we offer our Lenten sacrifices for Christian unity against the Culture of Death.


Since I wrote this over two years ago, the argument against lying has been better stated by Mark Shea who points out that the sting videos do not merely involve lying, but tempting others to commit mortal sin; by Frank Weathers who points out that Lying for a Good Cause is exactly what "burns the bridge of trust" and leads to scandals such as this; by Sean Dailey who points out that we are lying to the very people who most need a witness to truth; and by me when I point out that this argument has crossed the line from playing with words into outright blasphemy.

The upshot?

I'm more convinced than ever that the fault is not in ourselves but in the demons who are behind this.  The persistent irrationality, the petulance, the bad manners, the unwillingness to let the issue rest and above all the blasphemy that is now typical in the tactics used by the Lying Apologists in this debate show that this is a far more serious issue than I had suspected.

The devil does not want to destroy the Catholic Church.  He wants to hollow it out and make it a parody of itself, so that, instead of not existing, something of his own will call itself the Catholic Church and will do an unimaginable amount of damage.

May we be "sincere of heart and steadfast" (Sir. 2:2) so that we do not help him in this.

Revised July 24, 2013