Cancel My Mental Reservations

I was recently delighted by the sting operation performed against Planned Parenthood by Live Action, whose members posed as a pimp and a prostitute, intending to test the organization’s willingness to enable the exploitation of underaged girls and expose its cynical disregard of the human dignity of women. None of this should surprise those of us who know the organization’s history. I wrote a bit about this in my light-hearted moral manual (it makes a great gift for Lent!) The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins, citing Planned Parenthood founder “Margaret Sanger’s scathingly racist statements, and her program of eugenics — which directly influenced Hitler, and led to laws in a dozen or so American states forcibly sterilizing or even castrating thousands of the ‘unfit’ who flunked primitive I.Q. tests.” Of course, as I note in the book, Sanger’s racism is rather beside the point: “Attacking an organization that kills tens of thousands of children every year because it might, just might, be a little racist is simply a joke. And in very poor taste — like denouncing Hitler for destroying German typography.”

What’s worse is that Planned Parenthood’s founding racism was mostly tactical:

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Sanger had campaigned for sexual license for years before she discovered the handy “wedge” issue of Anglo anxiety over immigration and differential birth rates. A savvy political activist, she trumped up a minor panic over “dysgenic” births and “hereditary” criminality in order to break down the social taboo against even discussing birth control which prevailed among most Protestants before the Anglican Council of Lambeth broke the dam, and offered the first tentative approval of contraception in the history of Christendom. As Blessed Are the Barren shows in exhausting detail, Sanger used the tribal fear of displacement on the part of Protestant elites to undermine their theological position — which they’d inherited from Luther and Calvin, and Augustine long before them. Odd as it sounds today, Sanger used racism to make birth control respectable.

And Sanger abandoned the race issue pretty readily, too. As the Nazi crimes against humanity were exposed after World War II, Sanger dropped her Klan hood like last year’s hat, and donned the white coat of a futurist; she “discovered” that the reason why birth control was so urgently important was not the swelling ranks of dusky Sicilians and blacks, but rather the “population explosion.” Without missing a beat, her organization shifted its rhetoric, and provoked another panic — one which ironically enough, has helped contracept the white race to the brink of extinction. Experts like Paul Erhlich appeared on Johnny Carson predicting mass famines throughout the 1970s, and the collapse of civilization. Their warnings never came true — but what did it matter? The “meme” had taken root, and pushed forward Planned Parenthood’s agenda; indeed, it was the Rockefeller Commission’s infamous report on population that helped sway Justice Blackmun to change his position on abortion, and write the decision in Roe v. Wade.

I’d be delighted if the recent expose of the squalid cynicism that underlies the day-to-day operations of Planned Parenthood helps Republican lawmakers defund this diabolical organization — though I’m really not terribly hopeful. Too many liberal women with checkbooks remember how Planned Parenthood clinics helped them abort their way through law school, while too many racist right-wingers secretly hope that the organization’s efforts will help keep the welfare rolls under control. I’ll never forget the night I spent out with a group of so-called cultural conservatives, who confessed to me that they wanted to keep abortion legal in order to reduce the numbers, influence, and expense of the “underclass.” Ever the tactful Irish Croatian from blue-collar Queens, I demanded of my hosts: “If you really believe that, why don’t you just napalm the ghettos?” To which another, equally Ivy-educated (but post-Christian) right-winger said icily, “Because that wouldn’t be as politically expedient.” A chill ran down my spine, and I knew that I was in the presence of my enemies.


What interests me about the recent expose of Planned Parenthood has been the reaction in Catholic circles. Most of us who actually value the lives of unborn children — even of children who, if born, will increase our taxes and grow up either to mug us or at least to vote to confiscate our property — were pleased at the ingenuity of the investigative reporters who conducted this uncover sting. But there is a contingent that professes to be upset at the tactics of Live Action, pointing out that the reporters involved used methods that are ethically open to challenge. There are two groups who raised such questions:

Leftists who are merely pretending to be pro-life, pro-family, and anti-contraception for the sake of political cover — having witnessed the utter contempt with which “progressive” Catholics are rightly treated by those of us who are actually believers. This new generation of leftist infiltrators makes excuses for supporting Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and every other power broker of the culture of death, with lies about the Church’s teaching on health care, immigration, poverty, private property, and the rightful role of the state. They point to the real shortcomings of unprincipled Republicans to suggest a false moral equivalency between the political parties in America. Having learned from the mistakes of Rev. Richard McBrien and Sr. Theresa Kane — who candidly vented their rejection of Church authority at every opportunity — these postmodern modernists pretend that they are the prophetic voice of a new “third force” in American politics that combines Catholic sexual orthodoxy with statist, egalitarian economics. And they know just enough about Chesterton, Belloc, and Aquinas to sling quotes that confuse the underinformed. I will not address these people, the expert administrators of the Catholic B.S. Generator. Life is too short, and so am I. All they can ever expect from me is a quiet prayer to St. Michael against whatever spirits they secretly serve.

But there are many others whose troubles with Live Action’s sting operation derive from legitimate attachment to timeless principles of Catholic moral teaching, whose tenets have posed countless practical problems for believers over the centuries. It is those people who deserve a principled answer to the question: Isn’t it a sin to lie, even to expose abortionists?

There’s a very long tradition in Catholic theology that attaches an absolute value to truth-telling. St. Augustine is famous for his candor and intellectual honesty, so we should not be surprised when we read him writing that lying is so intrinsically evil that we should not even tell a lie to robbers who come to our front door, inquiring if the man they wish to kill is in our home. We may be silent, he said, or we may speak ambiguously, but we may not say something that’s untrue. (Ironically, since Augustine coined the Catholic teaching on just war, he would have allowed us to use violence to defend the innocent — but not untruth. So when assassins come for our dinner guest, we may not lie to them — but we may kill them. He also believed that unbaptized infants were damned, so he deserves at least a grain of salt.)

St. Thomas Aquinas carried on Augustine’s scruples, to the discomfit of Jesuits who infiltrated Protestant England. Laymen who hid these men from Queen Elizabeth’s secret police could use “mental reservation” when questioned whether priests were in their house, but they could not say something that was not literally true. Hence, if a priest-hunter asked, “Are you hiding priests in your house?” a faithful Catholic could justly say, “I haven’t seen a priest!” while “reserving” in his mind the next phrase, “. . . in the last five seconds.” This legalistic tactic for deceiving tyrants and saving priests from torture and execution is what won the Jesuits their reputation for slyness and cynicism, and established in English dictionaries the secondary meaning of “Jesuit”: “a person given to subtle and equivocating arguments.”

This issue became much more important during the Second World War, when thousands of Catholics really were, for the first time, in the position of hiding innocents from bands of murderers at their doors. An argument advanced by the Protestant Hugo Grotius, dismissed by the old Catholic Encyclopedia as a reckless innovation — that it didn’t amount to lying if you told an untruth to someone with no right to the truth — suddenly won respectability. The pope set an example: Pius XII issued thousands of false baptismal certificates to Jews under persecution and transmitted messages among the conspirators planning to assassinate Adolf Hitler and halt the Holocaust. The pope hid thousands of Jews and dissenters in Vatican palaces and cellars, directing monks and nuns to practice deception against the Nazis on a massive, historic scale. No wonder, then, that the first published draft of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church included Grotius’s argument. It reflected the real experience of thousands of faithful Catholics who’d risked their lives to save the innocent, and it amounted to a worthy development of doctrine.

Then, in the revised edition of the Catechism, that argument disappeared. Apparently what had been orthodox for several years was no longer quite kosher. Perhaps it had been a typo, a modernist innovation that crept into the text . . . Or had it?


Do we really believe that almighty God wants us to save the innocent only when we can be clever enough to craft a “mental reservation” that deceives a murderous robber or SS trooper, without stating something that is literally untrue? If we’re too surprised or stupid to concoct a really fabulous piece of misdirection, then should we be content that the innocent in our care must go to the gas chambers? (Remember that modern totalitarians will interpret silence as a confession.) Is God sitting over our shoulders, urging us on to be ever more clever, to figure out how to deceive the murderer at the door without flouting the technical duty to tell the literal truth? No one denies that we should try to deceive and misdirect the enemy. The only debate is over the question of whether we can tell a literal untruth — or simply use misleading language intended to convey a false impression.

Can any of us really believe that almighty God works this way? That Christ, who rebuked the Pharisees for their legalism, came to teach us how to practice the same hypocrisy more skillfully? Or is it possible that the traditional philosophical understanding of language is rather inadequate? The Augustinian/Thomist position is that the purpose of language is to convey the truth, and that any other use of it is a perversion and hence a sin. Is this really the case? When Christ told parables, He knew that many would find them incomprehensible, and He intended them to be so. When the divinely inspired writers of Old Testament stories wrote narratives we now acknowledge are only true in an allegorical sense, were they (on the literal level) lying?

On a much more day-to-day level, do we really expect (or have a right to expect) the literal truth, or reverent silence, in answer to our every question? This seems to me a woefully simple and impoverished view of how language works. Isn’t a better, fuller, definition of the function of language — more grounded in our nature as embodied spirits — one that accounts for the complete rhetorical context? When we speak to each other, conveying accurate information back and forth is one legitimate goal, but it is neither exhaustive nor absolute. When a wife asks her husband, “Do you think I look fat?” she isn’t always even asking for a literal answer to her question. What she wants to know is often, “Do you still love me? Am I still attractive?” A puritanical, legalistic answer to such a question is often an act of cruelty, masked by self-righteous “honesty.”

If we viewed information as a good, one that must be traded fairly like any other, we would see that a question asked by someone with no right to the truth — like a Nazi murderer, or a professional abortionist — is like a demand made at gunpoint by a robber. If someone holding a gun in your face insists you write him a check for your life savings, is it wrong for you to sign the check “Mick E. Mouse”? He has no right to your money, so you’ve no business signing it over to him. There is no legitimate expectation of honesty in that context, so telling the truth in fact is a violation of justice on your part. A sin. If silence isn’t an option, you have an active duty to confuse, mislead, or say something untrue. It doesn’t amount to lying, any more than killing a robber in self-defense amounts to murder. Such literalism is as much, and the same kind, of heresy as pacifism.

So police officers interrogating criminals, spies infiltrating conspiracies to fly airplanes into skyscrapers, soldiers using deception (rather than torture — which Aquinas, alas, allowed) need not emulate the subtlety of the Serpent in the Garden in order to deny the truth to those who don’t deserve it. We don’t need to pervert our image of God such that we believe He is pleased at our Pharisaical observance of the law, even when it results in the death of the innocent. To picture God that way really is a lie, of the kind that kills the soul.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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