Up from Literalism

The past few weeks have seen a contentious, sometimes enlightening debate over how committed Catholics must be to truth-telling, in what circumstances, and at what price. The issue arose when bloggers responded acerbically to the pro-life sting operations of the heroic Live Action operatives who exposed Planned Parenthood’s use of our tax money in violation even of America’s lax abortion laws. The discussion has since gone viral, enlisting serious theologians and philosophers, raising vexed historical questions such as Pius XII’s and Angelo Roncalli’s (later Bl. John XXIII) use of false baptismal certificates to save Jews from Hitler, and occasioning a deep reconsideration of one strand in the Western theological tradition. I’ve learned quite a bit myself, including the lesson that I should always read the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on something before writing about it.

In my first contribution on the subject, I made too sweeping a statement about “mental reservation,” condemning alike the “broad” kind that only employs ambiguity and the “narrow” kind that essentially entails saying silently to yourself, “. . . except I don’t mean what I just said.” The Church, in the person of Pope Innocent XI, has taught that the first type passes Thomistic scrutiny, while the latter is indistinguishable from lying. And the dominant theological tradition in the Western Church follows the philosophical position outlined by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas that all false statements, regardless of context, amount to sinful lies — although Aquinas makes the distinction that lies told to save the innocent from harm are venial sins.

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No serious person has suggested that this tradition is irreformable Catholic doctrine. John Henry Cardinal Newman knew that it wasn’t, as did the editors of the new Catholic Catechism, who published a draft that included a development of this teaching. It redefined “lying” as telling untruths to someone “with a right to the truth.” The revised edition removed that exception without condemning it, as it removed Aquinas’s main justification for capital punishment likewise without anathematizing it. But philosophers and theologians have rightly pointed out that the absolute, literalist position is the dominant one, and worthy of respect. Even when it strikes us — as it struck me, and Peter Kreeft, and countless other Catholics — as morally outrageous, we need to engage it seriously. Pounding on the table and saying, “That’s ridiculous!” just won’t do — any more than the other side of this debate can convince us of the literalist position by shrieking, “How dare you disagree with saints and doctors of the Church? Who do you think you are?” To that I answer calmly: I think I am a Catholic, not a Muslim. I think that I will keep thinking. I think the Church is not a tape recorder, but a live, roaring lion. If the lion roars, I will fall silent.

As I established last week, there are many positions that have been taken by doctors of the Church that became dominant for centuries without ever rising to the level of defined doctrine, which subsequently had to develop to account for new realities or better philosophical arguments. Saying this doesn’t imply any lack of gratitude for our geniuses and saints, the giants whose shoulders we stand on. We thank God for the men who laid the foundations and built the cathedral of Catholic thought, even when we differ with them about where to place the rain gutters and the gargoyles. Briefly, positions on which the Church developed profound new understandings include the following:

  • usury,
  • religious liberty,
  • torture, and
  • baptism of desire.

The Church’s current teaching on each of these issues would have shocked most medieval theologians — but none of these developments amounts to a contradiction. Unlike the Mormon church, we don’t have a theory of “continuous revelation” that allows the Church to flip-flop on central doctrines — as polygamy once was for them. Unlike Islam, we are not bound to mindlessly repeat the exact same understanding of every single teaching as it was codified in past centuries — hence Muslim men can marry nine-year-olds because Mohammed did. The Church is neither a jellyfish nor a fossil.

The greatest theologians in the Church have wrangled with the implications of the prohibition on telling falsehoods in defense of the innocent, precisely because it is so weirdly absolute. If we read “Thou shalt not kill” in the same way the literalists read “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” all Catholics would be pacifists. Indeed, we would have to be Gandhians, refusing even to defend a pre-teen daughter against a rape. If we read “Thou shalt not steal” this way, we couldn’t take back our property from thieves, impose any form of taxes — or “steal” a neighbor’s fire extinguisher to put out a kindergarten fire. That is how absolute the dominant Western tradition is on the subject of telling the truth.

There are two possible reasons for this absolutism: Either a) speaking only the literal truth at all times is uniquely important, such that telling an untruth is the moral equivalent of sodomy (i.e., an intrinsic evil), or b) the philosophical arguments underlying the absolutist position are flawed and need to be reexamined. As a colleague of mine pointed out, this isn’t a question of divine revelation or even theology. The absolute verbal pacifism implied by the literalist position is a philosophical issue, a question of human argument, of the sort on which the Church does not issue infallible pronouncements. We need to fight this out on the field of reason, which we then use to spot and follow the flag of revelation.


I felt this from the beginning and yearned to cut through all the filigrees and penumbras surrounding “mental reservation” to hit the core of the argument: Is literal truth-telling always and everywhere the only proper use of human speech? But I don’t have the philosophical training to take on the task, and I knew I had to wait for someone to speak up who did. And now someone has — a woman whose wisdom I’ve treasured for many years.

Prof. Janet Smith, the leading defender of the Church’s teaching on contraception, has stepped forward with her usual courage and forthrightness to examine this issue — and her paper on the subject says in clear Thomistic language all the things that I have been groping inarticulately to express. Characteristically humble, with the proper piety toward the eminent sources whose arguments she feels constrained to correct, she scrutinizes the understanding of truth-telling that Aquinas adopted from Aristotle and asks candid questions: Is it sufficient? Does it adequately express our understanding of human speech in a fallen world, or must something be added? Given how central “truth” is to our understanding of God as the Logos, isn’t our love of Him as the author of “life” and the font of “justice” equally important?

I don’t have the skill or training to adequately popularize Professor Smith’s argument, so I urge you to read it for yourself and see whether it doesn’t do a better job than the literalist tradition of fully describing how language works in our lives, and striking the proper balance of truthfulness and justice. In my untutored opinion, it builds firm barriers against the “slippery slope” that leads to rampant lying, without imposing a standard of candor (no “lying” to Nazis, no tales of Santa Claus) that many of us find so absurd that it actually causes us scandal. But judge for yourself.

I’ll just point to what I think is the most important assertion Professor Smith makes: The understanding of language implied by the literalist position does not take full account of the price we pay for the Fall. In an unfallen world, we would never have died, used violence in self-defense, or even have eaten animals. After the Fall, with bodies pursued by predators and sinful men, afflicted by hunger and need, we were held by a merciful God to a different standard — and anyone who (like Gandhi or Tolstoy) denies us these rights is trying to smuggle us back into the Garden by the back door. As the experience of every utopian political philosophy teaches us, such ersatz Edens quickly turn into earthly hells. Property rights are one of the fruits of the Fall; deny them to the mass of men (those not specifically called to the Evangelical Counsels), and what you face is famines and tyranny. The need for Christian soldiers and policemen carrying pistols is likewise an outcome of the Fall. Embracing pacifism and anarchy won’t wish the Fall away; it will simply surrender the world to reckless predators and leave the innocent unprotected.

Lila Rose and her allies knew where the predators lurked and intervened to expose them and save the innocent. So did the German officers who schemed to assassinate Hitler. So do policemen who infiltrate drug gangs and soldiers who use deception (instead of torture) to interrogate terrorists. If we can find a better philosophical understanding of language, one that allows for the defense of the innocent instead of lumping it in with sodomy and adultery, I would call that a “win” for the Church and her credibility. Unlike Tertullian and some of his modern imitators, I take no satisfaction in believing what seems absurd. Yes, there are mysteries like the Trinity and the Eucharist that resist our rational scrutiny. The philosophy of language isn’t one of them. As Peter Kreeft points out, when a philosophical argument seems to outrage your moral sense, it’s a good sign that it’s probably inadequate, and needs a second look. The Church has recognized and corrected such inadequacies before, and unless you think that Protestants belong in jail and bankers in hell, you agree with her. So do I.


  • 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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