June 24, 2008
One thing about paleocons—they’re not predictable. When I mentioned in a previous article the fact that Pius XII helped save Jews and Serbs from genocide through (among many tactics) ordering priests to issue fake baptismal certificates, it never occurred to me that readers would write in denouncing me for slandering that pope. Would the great Pope Pius countenance deceit, even in such a cause? They demanded proof. It exists, in the form of two papal nuncios (the pope’s special ambassadors to countries) who each issued such life-saving forgeries by the thousands, and claimed that they did so on Pius XII’s direct orders: Angelo Rotta, nuncio to Hungary, and Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII, since beatified—and hence on the fast-track to sainthood), who worked in Turkey. Pius XII never contradicted their accounts, or disciplined them in any way, so there’s no reason to claim (as one commenter did) that these two archbishops were lying.
However, some folks really have seemed scandalized at this great pope’s willingness to wield deceit, and I really shouldn’t dismiss their concerns so lightly—given that Christians have agonized for centuries over the biblical injunction not to “bear false witness,” and have sometimes given their lives rather than tell a fib. Since I’ve already written an article in on just this question, I won’t re-invent the wheel. Here it is:
“You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor.”
This commandment seems innocuous enough. On its face, it only prevents us from telling malicious falsehoods damaging to others. Okay, we’re not really thrilled about that—especially if we’re active in politics—but we can understand it, and grudgingly agree. But like most other elements in Divine Revelation, it has grown over time and extended its reach into all sorts of analogous situations, as rabbis, then bishops and popes, strove to explore all its implications for human life. It’s as if each commandment were a pebble dropped into a pond, and our job were to trace all the ripples. But that metaphor doesn’t quite work, because it makes things too easy. Ripples from a pebble flow in clear, predictable waves, and a freshman physics student should be able to account for them. The pieces of Revelation that have fallen on us from space are not inert but active, and the pool in which they plop—human life—is murky and full of dark, swimmy things. And some of them have claws. So perhaps a better image is a giant Alka-Seltzer, dropped in a swamp: Plop-plop, fizz-fizz, Oh what a morass it is!
This commandment especially fits that description. On the one hand, the Catholic Church teaches us in the new Catechism (#2467):
Man tends by nature toward the truth. He is obliged to honor and bear witness to it: “It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons . . . are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of truth.”
Theologians point out that man is hardwired both to seek and speak the truth, and it’s on the assumption that people’s words are trustworthy that communication is predicated. Think what it would be like if that weren’t true: recall that really annoying example you had to study in Philosophy 101—where a man from Crete tells you “All Cretans lie,” and you have to figure out whether or not you should believe him? Remember how you reacted? (“Screw this! Let’s go get a keg.”) Imagine every encounter with other people turning into that kind of tedious brain-twister, and you’ll appreciate Yahweh’s point. Or let’s view this thing in terms of dollars and cents. Societies which don’t value straight dealing and honest business waste enormous resources on bribes, wire-tapping, bulletproof auto glass, and personal body guards named Ivan, impoverishing everyone except a tiny, corrupt elite. And if you don’t believe Yahweh, you should visit New Jersey yourself.
(It was telling that in 2004, when the stench of his corruption began to crowd out the reek of the Meadowlands, New Jersey Governor James McGreevey dodged investigation for his actual malfeasances by resigning over a sex scandal. In a press conference, McGreevey dabbed his eyes and said, “My truth is that I am a gay American.” As if anyone cared. What mattered was his orientation as a “corrupto-American.” Now there’s a persecuted minority: Even today, thousands of these fellow-citizens languish in minimum security cells all across America.)
On the other hand, there’s also such a thing as “too much information.” For instance, when a D.A. questions a priest about the contents of a confession. Or when women arise at romantic dinners and excuse themselves by announcing, “I gotta pee!” In each case, the speaker is under a solemn obligation to withhold this information—if need be, by throwing people off the scent. The priest can say, “I do not know.” Or the woman could say “I need to wash my hands,” and let you finish your lemon sorbet in peace.
The need for discretion arises not just from the sacramental obligation of secrecy, or the queasy demands of courtesy. The Church sees a duty in charity sometimes to withhold or even cloud the truth. For instance, when one is tempted to spread ugly facts about a third party without grave and sufficient reason. Dishing the dirt about somebody just for the fun of it can actually amount to a serious sin, even—and here’s the weird part—if what you’re saying is true. I know, I know….
It’s hard for modern readers of the press to wrap their heads around this one—accustomed as we are to hidden cameras poking into the bedrooms of Hollywood starlets, and congressional probes into the president’s pants. But this prohibition on “detraction” is reiterated in the most recent Catechism, with certain exceptions made for journalists. (Because of the nature of their profession, these wordsmiths are considered essentially subhuman, and are bound only by “journalistic ethics,” which are modeled on the rules governing bonobos. No throwing turds inside the troop.)
Theologians have argued for centuries about how to reconcile these two principles, truth-telling and charity, and have come to a wide variety of conclusions. Church Fathers Origen and St. John Chrysostom each believed that sometimes outright lying might be acceptable, if keeping silent wasn’t an option and telling the truth caused greater harm than the lie itself. Historians report that Martin Luther embraced this idea, once declaring: “What harm would it be if a man told a good lusty lie in a worthy cause; for the sake of the Christian Churches?” A curious quotation, which leaves Luther looking like a Protestant stereotype of a scheming Jesuit.
In fact, the Jesuits and other Scholastic Catholics wrestled mightily with the obligation to tell the truth, since they felt bound by the teaching of St. Augustine, who rejected as intrinsically evil every kind of fib. As the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia explained:
St. Augustine held that the naked truth must be told whatever the consequences may be. He directs that in difficult cases silence should be observed if possible…. If a man is hid in your house, and his life is sought by murderers, and they come and ask you whether he is in the house, you may say that you know where he is, but will not tell: you may not deny that he is there.
Augustine’s position here is elegant, clear, consistent—and I must add, kind of crazy. It holds up truth-telling as a higher good than life, and encourages the Christian to keep his conscience clean at the cost of another man’s murder. (Immanuel Kant would later adopt the same position, keen as he was to create a system of perfectly self-consistent human Reason as a replacement for the God whose existence he’d started to doubt.) This seems strange until we consider that Augustine also taught that killing—even waging wholesale war—could be perfectly moral, if done in self-defense, or defense of the innocent. This means that for Augustine, when faced with murderers at the door, a good Christian may never mislead them. Instead, he may shoot them.
Leading Christian thinkers lined up behind St. Augustine in subsequent centuries, making fine distinctions about the types and gravity of lies. St. Thomas Aquinas—the Henry Ford of our Faith who liked to break things down into tiny, interchangeable parts—divided lies into three categories:
· Injurious, the kind of lie that leads men to Hell or gets them killed. For instance, if one were to say that Mother Teresa was “a demagogue, an obscurantist and a servant of earthly powers.” (Christopher Hitchens.) Or that Saddam Hussein had by 2003 amassed weapons of mass destruction which he planned to transfer to terrorists. (Also Christopher Hitchens.)
· Officious, the sort of lie designed to cover one’s butt or other body parts, as in “I did not have sex with that woman.”
· Jocose, a statement which is meant as a jest, but could be taken seriously—for instance: “No, honey, you don’t look fat in that dress.” Which is clearly a joke. Sweetie, if you have to ask….
The need to balance Augustine’s stark position with the demands of discretion and charity grew more urgent over time. When the Protestant English kings began to persecute the Church—hunting down priests and torturing them to death—moral thinkers began to look for ways to permit laymen to effectively hide these priests when questioned. (Many old English homes contain man-shaped “priest holes,” of obscure origin. Since England is the land of “British liberties,” some have theorized that these holes are a naturally occurring phenomenon. Just like Mt. Rushmore, according to Cher. Or so Sonny Bono claimed she believed—but then he was bitter, and a congressman.)
Theologians, many of them Jesuits, developed the notion of a “mental reservation,” which permitted someone to tell only part of the truth, in a somewhat misleading way—leaving the listener to draw an untrue conclusion. For instance, you might say, “I haven’t seen any priests,” while mentally reserving the rest of the sentence, “in the last 30 seconds.”
This seems a squirmy kind of loophole through which to preserve a principle, and it certainly would not have satisfied St. Augustine. By the late-nineteenth century, some theologians tried to formulate exceptions to the duty to tell the truth in a less back-handed way. They admitted that it is always wrong to lie, but redefined a lie as an untrue statement made to someone who has the right to the truth. And a killer or priest-hunter at the door had no such right. (Sometimes the Church can only break through a conundrum using this handy method, as we once redefined “usury,” “religious liberty,” and “baptism.” But if you’re hoping some pope will one day redefine, say “porn,” don’t hold your breath.)
Back in 1917, this seemed a bold position, and the theologians editing the good old Catholic Encyclopedia dismissed it as having “made little or no impression on the common teaching of the Catholic schools.” Then something happened; a concrete historical change requiring the quick development of doctrine. Historians call it “World War II.”
With the rise of a murderous dictatorship that hunted down millions of innocents because of their race, Catholics all across Europe were faced with the same dilemma once posed, almost idly, by theologians. For yet another time in history, there were indeed thousands of armed state-sponsored murderers banging on the doors in search of innocents hidden inside. The thousands of Polish Catholics who sheltered Jews from the Germans—and Pope Pius XII himself, who arranged for some 800,000 or more persecuted Jews to be hidden in monasteries and convents—now faced the terrible choice between telling the truth and betraying the innocent. Inside the Reich, conspirators such as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (an aristocrat of noble Catholic ancestry) were forced to tell hundreds of falsehoods as they plotted to assassinate Hitler in 1944; instead of condemning their efforts, Pope Pius helped them transmit messages to each other. The Frenchmen who fought in the Resistance had to deceive their occupiers and their own puppet government—and so on. The unprecedented phenomenon of a totalitarian state bent on genocide helped sweep away the squeamishness of theologians, and show the primacy of justice in defending the innocent. In the 1994 edition of Catechism of the Catholic Church, this once-daring distinction found itself enshrined as follows:
Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord. (#2483)
Sounds fine to us. But then in 1997, Pope John Paul threw another Alka-Seltzer into the swamp. His revised, Latin edition of the text removed the phrase “someone who has the right to know the truth,” thus reopening the question. And raising a question for us: Did Karol Wotyjla get through six years of German occupation—and take part in the Resistance—without ever telling the SS a falsehood? Should the Catholics who hid Jewish children and “lied” through their teeth to keep them out of Auschwitz have confessed this “sin”? This issue remains unresolved. Perhaps what I seek is “too much information.” I’d like to continue this inquiry, but I need to go… wash my hands.
Excerpted by the author from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Song.