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.
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:
- religious liberty,
- torture, and
- baptism of desire.