A Response to Objections

In my last blog post, I discussed the morality of the undercover operations of Live Action, the pro-life group, directed against Planned Parenthood. In that post, I cited an article by philosopher Christopher Tollefsen, in which he concluded that the undercover initiative, since it involves lying to the Planned Parenthood staff, is immoral.

Other Catholic theologians have responded to this, seeking ways to justify what Live Action has done.  This has generally fallen into several kinds of approaches.

One response has involved defining “lying” in a way so that Live Action does not fall under the prohibition.   So, for example, they will argue that it is not a lie to speak falsely to someone who does not have a right to the truth.  The example of this might include refusing to reveal to the Nazis at the door that you are hiding Jews inside.  Of course, this is a false comparison in any event, since the person confronted with such a demand is hardly free to act.  Any response they give would be coerced, and thus not a genuine moral act — quite unlike Live Action’s free choice to engage in their undercover activities.

Still, this kind of point can be a valid argument under the Church’s teaching.  There are indeed times when I may not speak the truth.  So, for example, the Catechism (2489) says:

Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.

There is a problem, however, in relying on this passage.  The section of the Catechism in which this appears relates to situations in which a person has information they are under some obligation to protect as confidential — such as information that would endanger the privacy, reputation or safety of another, a professional secret, or the seal of the confessional.   This passage, on its very terms and seen in the larger context, clearly does not apply to the situation in which the Live Action people placed themselves, since they deliberately set out to deceive the Planned Parenthood workers, and they neither were silent nor used discrete language — they made clear and repeated false representations  about their identity and activities.

A second response is to compare Live Action’s operation to a “ruse de guerre”, such as an ambush or the use of a feint in military operations.  But these actions are actually permissible under the Catechism section cited above, and those that follow it (see CCC 2491), which require that officers maintain military secrets — such as the true objectives of their movements — in order to preserve the lives of their soldiers.  However, Live Action is not at war, and their ruse was not necessary to preserve the lives of anyone.

Another response to Tollefsen’s argument, however, is less legitimate under Catholic teaching, and is actually quite dangerous.  This claims that Live Action’s tactics are necessary to serve a higher purpose — exposing the evil of Planned Parenthood.  These proponents cite the analogy to the need to lie in order to effectively engage in activities like undercover police work or in spying.

While this argument is superficially compelling, there are several problems with it.  Live Action is not a government agency, acting under color of authority to enforce the law or defend the nation — they are private parties, acting on their own initiative.   In addition, undercover agents and spies are actually who they claim to be — they actually are drug buyers, for example — but they justifiably protect a professional secret (i.e., their actual identity and profession), in order to preserve their own safety and that of others (see the Catechism sections cited above).

But the most significant problem, is that this argument is openly consequentialist (“end justifies the means”) and proportionalist (“the good outweighs the evil”) — neither of which is an acceptable Christian position.  Indeed, both of these approaches have been specifically condemned by the Church, most clearly in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on moral doctrine, Veritatis Splendor.

The danger of this line of argumentation is in what it leads to.  There seems to be a fear that the moral law will preclude us from doing things that we really want to do.  But “I really want to do it, so it must be morally permissible” is a terrible and dangerous reason to carve out very subtle exceptions to a very, very clear moral law.  This argument frequently boils down to a sentiment that “living in the real world” requires actions like this, regardless of what thinkers in academia might believe in their abstract world.  Thus argues the torturer, and the apologist for carpet bombing civilians.  That’s not where a Christian disciple should be going.

In many ways, that’s what this whole argument comes down to.  Am I a disciple of Christ, or am I relying on “worldly wisdom”?  In this context, it would be worthwhile reminding ourselves of St. Paul’s admonition:

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.  (Rom. 12:2)

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10 Responses to “A Response to Objections”

  1. James De Silva says:

    I’m not sure I understand the government distinction, the undercover agent often pretends to be something that he is not – a police officer or FBI agent pretending to be a criminal. Wouldn’t lying in order to enforce laws be consequensialist? And protecting a professional secret or protecting the safety of others is in response, according to the Catechism, to requests for information not the licitness of lying by the government in the first instance to achieve some greater good.

  2. […] Ed Mechmann takes on Live Action’s tactics at his blog for the Archdiocese of New York. […]

  3. Phillip says:

    What also of circumstances where the state will not exercise its duty to protect the common good. Were those who freed slaves via the Underground Railroad often through deception wrong? This given that the state was acting unjustly in determining slaves to be “property” to be returned to their owners.

    Could a private citizen never be justified to deceive to expose a Kermit Gosnell when the city and state authorities fail to act on complaints against someone like Gosnell? Just some thoughts.

  4. Ed Mechmann says:

    I think that a citizen may resist an unjust law, but you have to do it by morally acceptable means. So, for example, I think that one can help the runaway slave to achieve emancipation, or conceal him — the law that bound them in slavery was unjust and was not a valid law. But still, one may not do evil so that good may come of it.

  5. Phillip says:

    Though the law that allows abortion is unjust. So is the funding of Planned Parenthood – at least the portion that funds abortion.

    And it doesn’t seem that accepting what Abolitionists did was always with moral means. I read of one case where an abolitionist intercepted (stole) a letter of a man who legally held a slave but (since he was then residing in the North) could not sell that slave there. The letter noted the slave owners intention of selling the slave. The man was thus arrested.

    There were also numerous cases where false documents (lying?) were created testifying to the free status of a slave.

    Were these actions licit given the injustice of slavery of should they not have been done and allowed some slaves to be taken back to slavery? If the actions were licit, why not with abortion?

  6. Phillip says:

    That also reminds me of where false baptismal certificates were made by members of the Church during the Holocaust to give the impression (a lie?) that the bearer was Christian and not Jewish. Acceptable?

  7. Mary says:

    \Live Action is not at war, and their ruse was not necessary to preserve the lives of anyone.\

    Not even the unborn?

  8. Ed Mechmann says:

    Remember, the Church’s teaching on war is a specific teaching about the use of violence, even deadly violence, in defense of a nation that is subject to unjust aggression, and it must satisfy very, very rigorous criteria (see Catechism 2307-17). The war analogy does not apply in any way to the Live Action undercover operation.

  9. Ed Mechmann says:

    I don’t know enough about what was done during the war regarding baptismal certificates, passports, etc. If a Vatican official made a deliberately false statement on an identity document, that would be a lie, regardless of how laudatory the motive or desirable the result.

  10. Phillip says:


    Thanks. That’s an honest response. Here’s one cleric who did such: