Gilbert Magazine: we quarrel, you decide
When the pro-life organization Live Action conducted undercover sting operations in Planned Parenthood facilities last winter, it set off a storm of controversy — in the pro-life movement. While all applauded the exposure of Planned Parenthood’s inherently repugnant practices, some objected that Live Action’s tactics undermined the integrity of the pro-life movement. How divisive was it? For the first time since Gilbert Magazine began publishing unsigned editorials in 2003, our editorial board was too sharply divided to reach any sort of consensus.
To stave off violence and death threats, GM Publisher Dale Ahlquist sagely suggested that we write three editorials. GM contributing editor David Beresford was assigned to defend Live Action, I was assigned the rebuttal, with Dale himself batting cleanup. All three editorials, presented below, also will be in the March/April, 2011, issue of Gilbert Magazine, which went to press more than a week ago. Happy reading!
When can we lie? When the lie is not a lie
“Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control–these three alone will make a man a prig.”—G.K. Chesterton in Manalive
First, let us be clear, that we believe that it is always wrong to lie. But what we argue here is that there is a technical and colloquial meaning of the word, and that these are different things.
Recently, Live Action held a sting operation in which Planned Parenthood employees were caught on undercover camera providing advice on how to break the law and obtain abortions for minors. Once the videos were released, the workers were fired. But instead of simple moral outrage over the tactics of Planned Parenthood, a different controversy arose over the tactics of Live Action and when it is morally permissible to lie. Here at Gilbert Magazine we are going to add our voices to the confusion.
In The Catholic Church and Conversion, G.K. Chesterton defends what was then understood as the Catholic position on lying in these words:
…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 (our emphasis). 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.”
“Do not stoop to equivocate” is the key point here. This paragraph, as far as we know, did not bring down the condemnation of the Catholic Church on Chesterton when he wrote it. (The book contains a Nihil Obstat and an Imprimatur.)
Chesterton makes the “do not stoop to equivocate” argument clear in The Man Who Was Thursday. Gabriel Syme is an undercover secret police spy. When questioned repeatedly, Syme denies that he is with the British police. Is his deception a lie?
The problem with many of the arguments that try to justify lying is that they come encumbered with emotionally charged situations in which some bad guys want to do unspeakably horrific things and a small evil must be created to do a great good. The person who insists on telling the truth at all costs is forced into a corner, and often becomes increasingly insistent to the degree that the temptation to tell a lie increases. This sort of moral gymnastics results in otherwise intelligent people criticizing the actions of Live Action in their fight against Planned Parenthood.
We reject this argument, and assert again that is always wrong to lie, but we do insist that we must know what a lie is. So, let us strip away the emotion, remove the heroism associated with refusing to lie even at the cost of great personal pain (usually someone else’s) so that the issue can be made clear.
Suppose, for example a four-year-old girl comes to her father and shows him a crayon drawing of a cow. “Look at my cow, Daddy! Isn’t it a good picture?”
What is the right response?
For literalist, truth-at-all-costs-and damn-the-consequences types, the situation is stripped of the heroic sacrifices associated with telling the strict truth, and reveals this position as that of a heel. “No, it is not good,” they must answer. And shame on them.
The equivocators among us may want to craft a clever response with a mental reservation: “It is a wonderful picture and the colors are so bright!” Congratulations, this verbal dexterity will allow one
to maintain self-respect and fool the small child in the process by dodging the question. But, this is no better than the previous answer.
There is only one morally right answer, one answer that does not sin against charity, against duty, and against innocence: “That is the best picture of a cow I have ever seen!”
This is the only answer that is not encumbered by “self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control.” We do not know if it is lying or not, by definition. We do know that in this case equivocating is a disgusting pose almost as despicable as answering that the picture is no good.
Where does that leave us? Where we have always been, with a profound faith in the common sense of ordinary people: the natural law written on men’s hearts. If mothers and fathers cannot rear children without daily having to choose between crushing a child’s heart or telling what some call lies, then lying has become a meaningless term. In the same way, if men of good will cannot save the lives of children without being accused of lying, then again, lying has become a meaningless term.
The right and wrong of this is clear according to the natural law written in every man’s heart. If theologians, philosophers, and moralists do not see it, then the love of truth is not in them.
—David Beresford, for the editorial board of Gilbert Magazine
A Lie is a Lie is a Lie
Whether Live Action resorted to lying in its stings last winter against Planned Parenthood can be dispensed with quickly. We know Live Action lied because its most ardent defenders say it did. If no less an authority than Peter Kreeft says Live Action lied, then we will take him at his word, and leave the equivocation and sophistry to others who wish to pretend otherwise.
In January, the pro-life group Live Action conducted undercover stings against numerous Planned Parenthood facilities, filming the stings with hidden cameras. In the videos, a man and a woman posing as a pimp and a prostitute gain access to Planned Parenthood clinics. In consultation with a Planned Parenthood worker, they seek advice on obtaining checkups for prostitutes, including underage prostitutes—said medical “care” to include contraception and, if necessary, abortions, all in violation of federal and state laws.
The videos, and the blithe complicity of Planned Parenthood employees in the unspeakably appalling evils of abortion and teen prostitution, are repugnant.
We do not doubt the sincerity of Live Action’s commitment to the pro-life cause. They are clearly trying to do good. Their end is laudable. But we cannot condone the means they use of getting at the truth. Since when do we use the tactics of the enemy to defeat the enemy?
How do Live Action’s supporters defend this? They turn to G.K. Chesterton. Yes, Chesterton. They point to a passage in The Catholic Church and Conversion in which Chesterton appears to defend lying “to save a child from Chinese torturers.” But in context, Chesterton’s purpose is to expose Protestant falsehoods—i.e., lies—about the Catholic Church, as well as to condemn equivocation—not because equivocation contains an element of truth, but because equivocation is far too close to lying.
But would Chesterton, in his life and in his massive body of work, stand for lying? In this false “Chesterton vs. the Church” dichotomy, we already see the corrosive effect of lying for a good cause—those who defend lying compromise the clarity of their thought and their relation to the truth, even the truths found in the writings of Chesterton.
Chesterton cherished the common sense of the common man. But he also knew that ordinary common sense could take one only so far, and that in a dilemma such as this, one must seek a higher authority: the Catholic Church.
What does the Catholic Church say? The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that Jesus denounced lying as the work of the devil. Furthermore:
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.
By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity.
A failure in justice and charity. To our neighbor. Who is our neighbor? Like it or not, Planned Parenthood employees are our neighbor. Planned Parenthood is evil, yes, but its employees? Did Live Action ever wonder who they are, or even see them as people? The irony here is that they work at Planned Parenthood not because they are evil, but because, possibly, they have been lied to. How does Live Action help them by lying to them also? As Christians, it is our duty to be salt and light, to present these people with opportunities for virtue rather than opportunities for more evil. They have souls too, souls already in grave danger of eternal damnation. Should we be helping to send them to hell?
“We have to touch such men, not with a barge pole, but with a benediction,” Chesterton once wrote, speaking through Fr. Brown. Or as he wrote, also in The Catholic Church and Conversion, “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”
Proof-texting Chesterton is one thing. Proof-texting the Bible is another, especially to defend lying. Yet some point to Bible passages as justification for lying in some instances. God rewards the Jewish midwives in Exodus, who had lied to Pharaoh, and James praises Rahab the Harlot. But for the proper interpretation of those texts, we appeal to St. Thomas Aquinas, who says these women were honored because they feared God, not because they lied. Also, James does not praise Rahab’s lie, but her faith. Beyond that, we urge people who think they can use Sacred Scripture to defend lying to take it up with the Holy Spirit, for the sakes of their own souls.
For those who think that we need to lie to defeat Planned Parenthood, there was another sting against them at the end of March. This time, Planned Parenthood’s claim that it needs federal funding because it provides mammograms to the poor was exposed as the lie it is. The sting? People simply called Planned Parenthood offices around the country to ask about mammograms, only to be told that Planned Parenthood does not do mammograms. The organization behind the sting? Live Action.
You do not have to lie to stop Planned Parenthood.
—Sean P. Dailey, for the editorial board of Gilbert Magazine
The Gilbert Magazine editorial began several years ago as an unsigned piece that represented the position of the editorial board. These essays were mostly written by individual members of the board and tinkered with by the others until a consensus could be reached. Lately, we have been printing signed pieces by different individuals, but these also continue to be written on behalf of and with the approval of the editorial board.
As you can tell from the two editorials presented in this issue, however, the board is not in agreement on the matter of the Live Action sting on Planned Parenthood. While all agree that the operations of Planned Parenthood are truly beneath contempt and deserve not only to be exposed but to be expunged, there is a fundamental disagreement about the undercover tactics used by Live Action to reveal the level of corruption within the walls of these clinics.
Activist James O’Keefe had great success with a similar hidden camera sting of ACORN that led to government defunding of that organization; there were many who hoped that the exposure of Planned Parenthood’s blatant disregard for the law would lead lawmakers to eliminate the huge public subsidies that have been poured into it. No such luck. Perhaps the saddest part of the story is that Planned Parenthood was not defunded but defended. Perhaps our debate in these pages is irrelevant: right or wrong, Live Action’s undercover work was apparently all for naught.
But as this is Chesterton’s magazine, it is our duty to explain G.K. Chesterton’s perspective on the matter.
To glean his opinion of current events, we have to find something that serves as a parallel from his time. Planned Parenthood has its roots in the Eugenics movement that Chesterton wrote about extensively. If we were to substitute the word “Abortionist” for “Eugenist” in the following passage, we could catch Chesterton’s chillingly accurate description of the extent of Planned Parenthood’s power and influence today:
Eugenists are not popular; but the Government of this country cares less and less for popular support. Eugenics cannot argue: but the decisions of [Congress] are less and less determined by argument, more and more determined by arrangement…The weakness of the Eugenic sect is an intellectual weakness. They do, indeed, go against a man’s moral conscience and almost against his physical instincts…But the excuse of the Eugenist is never clear, even as an excuse. The sacrifice of the Eugenist has no meaning even as a sacrifice. The strong standing paradox of their position is their peculiar power in government and their peculiar weaknessin discussion.
But how to topple the beast? How to expose not just his weakness but his filth? How to infiltrate his lair? Live Action did infiltrate Planned Parenthood and did expose its filth. “Good!” said the Pro-Lifers. But some added, “If only there had been a more truthful way to get at the truth.”
Chesterton is clear on one point for our discussion: equivocating is worse than lying. It is being honest in an attempt to deceive. This mental reservation Chesterton calls “Jesuitry.” There is, however, a form of deception, a role-playing, which, while unsavory, is distinct from lying. It is spying, and Chesterton admits that spying is a nasty business. But he also says that spying is one of the horrors of war. The fact that we are in a war should not be dismissed: it is the worst sort of war, for it is a civil war, a war without territory, a culture war: the logical result of what Chesterton calls “the interentanglement of modern civilization.”
It is also an information war. The good folks at Live Action have been reduced to spying in order to get information and convey that information to the world. At the very least they are investigating news that the media should be covering, or rather, uncovering. For this reason Live Action’s agents are despised as informers. Ironically, a journalist is supposed to inform. Instead an informer does. Chesterton observes, “A common informer may be paid if he tells the truth. A common journalist will be ruined if he does.”
But more importantly than doing what the Press is supposed to be doing, Live Action is doing what the police are supposed to be doing: uncovering crimes. Ultimately, it is a matter of taking justice into one’s own hand when the official branch of justice is apparently broken. And here Chesterton would applaud. Live Action represents the “honourable passions” of the public, though such passions may be undisciplined and such human judgments not always trustworthy. But, adds Chesterton, “It is enough to say that they are human judgments; in the sense that they are instinctive, ethical, and completely sincere. And it is enough to say the judgments in nearly all our Law Courts are inhuman judgments; not in the sense that they are cruel, but in the sense that they are cold, crushing, accidental, and meaningless.”
I do not think Chesterton would be drawn into our argument as it presently stands; rather he would draw us all out of it in order to see the bigger picture. He would offer an even more provocative perspective, inspiring us all to action, to bring the light of truth to a dark world and justice to those who are least able to defend themselves.
—Dale Ahlquist, for the editorial board of Gilbert Magazine