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Live Action and Telling Falsehoods Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 18 February 2011

Over at the website Public Discourse, two outstanding Catholic philosophers, Christopher Tollefsen and Christopher Kaczor, have published essays about the morality of the tactics of the prolife group, Live Action. Two other Catholic philosophers, Robert P. George and Joseph Bottum have weighed in as well. 

Live Action recently released a video that included two of its members posing as a pimp and prostitute during a visit to a local Planned Parenthood clinic. Very much like in a police sting operation, Live Action taped the encounters without the permission of its target. In the video, Live Action’s “pimp” and “prostitute” make several inquiries that provide opportunities for the PP worker to commit or not report several crimes. 

According to Tollefsen, this tactic, even though it exposed corruption, is itself immoral because it depends on a lie and lying is always wrong. Kaczor disagrees, arguing that not all intentional falsehoods are immoral, and thus not all intentional falsehoods are technically lies. Setting aside the question of whether Live Action did the right thing, I think Tollefsen and Kaczor are both correct if we make sharper distinctions: lying is the intentional telling of a falsehood that is always wrong, though not every intentional telling of a falsehood is a lie, just as every murder is a case of unjustified intentional killing, though not every case of intentional killing is murder (e.g., capital punishment, killing in a just war).    

Two instances found in Scripture make this clear. The author of Hebrews writes, “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies.” (11:31). In James 2:25 we learn that Rahab was “justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way.” What did Rahab do that was so commendable that Scripture presents it as a work of faith that justified her? She intentionally told a falsehood. Here’s the story as found in Joshua 2:1-7:

Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof. So the men pursued them on the way to the Jordan as far as the fords. As soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut. 

The Harlot of Jericho [Rahab] and the Two Spies (James Tissot, 1836-1902)

The second instance concerns the Hebrew midwives who told a falsehood to Pharaoh in order to save the lives of Hebrew infants (Ex. 1:15-21): 
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (Emphasis added). 
So the midwives were blessed by God for what they did. And what they did was to intentionally tell a falsehood in order to save the lives of innocents.

Whether Live Action’s tactics are justified is another question altogether. One could, for example, legitimately ask whether Live Action was acting morally when it employed deception in order to tempt PP workers to sin. But that’s a different question for another essay. Nevertheless, the intentional telling of a falsehood is not in and of itself a reason to judge the entire enterprise as immoral.

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is the author of several books including, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. He blogs at Return to Rome.
 
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Comments (28)Add Comment
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written by John Jakubczyk, February 18, 2011
Thanks for the input. I agree and will add that i think we have had a lot of discussion of the matter and now the energy needs to be focused on getting more people involved with stopping the carnage.
Peace.
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written by BDouglass, February 18, 2011
The problem with Live Action and other Alinsky-inspired programs seems to me to be that they are employing mental reservation or other near-lying or lying in an offensive manner. It seems there is a good analogy with killing. Self defense, executions (properly done), Just War, are not offensive acts. They are taken in defense of something/someone. This is what Rahab did with her lie.

Live Action, it seems to me, is going in and engaging in offensive lying/mental reservation. Beyond the idea that they are presenting an occasion of sin to the workers, I'm not sure that we can say such offensive use of mental reservation is licit. They aren't cops, they aren't defending anyone. They're just making known again what we already knew.
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written by Pedro Erik, February 18, 2011
Sorry, but I think it is Hebrews 11:31, not 11:25. [Corrected, Ed.]
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written by Grump, February 18, 2011
It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.
H. L. Mencken
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written by Maureen Mullarkey, February 18, 2011
Is something askew in wondering if Life Action's action was immoral? Life Action did nothing to add to Planned Parenthood's sins against life. What it did was expose the process by which lethal sins had already been committed and would be committed again tomorrow. Does this not come under the approved heading of "wise as a serpent."
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written by WJ, February 18, 2011
This analysis is incomplete. If lying is the "intentional telling of a falsehood that is always wrong," and is conceptually distinct from the "intentional telling of a falsehood," then you need to provide some criteria for distinguishing what makes a lie different from an intentional telling of a falsehood. Saying that what distinguishes these two cases is that a lie "is always wrong" doesn't do any analytic work. In the case of your comparison, there are a whole set of specifiable criteria to which we can appeal in distinguishing between a justified killing and murder. In the case of "telling intentional falsehoods," however, there are no criteria on offer.
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written by debby, February 18, 2011
Not defending anyone? Where have you been BDouglass? in exposing PP for who and what they are- PREDATORS, MURDERERS, OPPORTUNISTS, EUGENICISTS- Lila Rose and her team have done more to propel the whole Abortion issue to the front lines than years and years of "talk." i love the name of her ministry: Live Action. millions upon millions of nameless children have been torn limb from limb, millions upon millions of mothers and fathers have been mortally wounded by this heinous crime. for all those who would condemn her methods i have 2 questions for you: 1.)when was the last time YOU PERSONALLY STOPPED A MURDER
2.)it is the 1940s. you are in Poland. you can hear the clap-clap of boots marching down the street. there is a shrill whistle and then running, pounding and breaking in of neighbors' doors. you know where a protected hiding place is, PEOPLE are hiding there, maybe a child or two. NOW the SS is at your door. how will you answer the question?
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? there is ONLY ONE ANSWER.
i am so tired of rhetoric. Caiaphas and Ananias had long philosophical discussions too. their herb gardens were regularly a tenth shy of leaves. and look Who's Precious Blood was on their hands.
i declare that the heart of every baby in the womb beats with His Own Precious Blood. we are made for Him, in His image, to be one with Him.
HOW can anyone do anything but thank our God for the inspiration and courage of Lila Rose and her crew?
i for one am so proud of them!
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written by William Fisher, February 18, 2011
Live Action is down in the trenches fighting against the slaughter of the innocents that takes place every day in this country. They do so nonviolently and in such a way that exposes the inherent immorality of Planned Parenthood's cause to the light of day. May God bless Live Action and may we all be His tools to end the atheist culture of death.
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written by Achilles, February 18, 2011
Maureen, it may have missed the mark on "gentle as doves."
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written by Achilles, February 18, 2011
WJ, I don't know who would really be surprised by what lifesite uncovered, those of us who ahbor the murder of the unborn aren't surprised, and those without formed consciences wouldn't really care. It seems to me that there is always a price to pay if we slide towards "the ends justifies the means" mentality. This is a tough case to see clearly.
I also think this is only fruit of the tree and perhaps our efforts should go towards roots and that we should proceed with absolute moral certainty.
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written by Christine, February 18, 2011
Another scriptural example to support Mr. Beckwith's argument is the Book of Judith, in which Judith goes to the Assyrians, lies to them that she is escaping from the Hebrews, and promises help to conquer Israel. She gains access to the king, gets him drunk, then slays him. She had even prayed to God beforehand, in sackcloth and ashes, "Let my guileful speech bring woe to the enemy..."
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written by Francis Beckwith, February 18, 2011
I think some folks here and elsewhere are missing my point. I am not arguing for Live Action's undercover work. I am simply making the point that Scripture seems to be teaching us that if someone requests that you assist in murder by revealing a certain truth, you are not required to assist by revealing that truth. In fact, you may actually positively deceive the prospective murderer. Admittedly, this throws a monkey wrench into the theories of certain moral theologians. Their job is to figure out a way to incorporate the insights of Scripture. If they can't, then perhaps they should abandon their moral theology.

Now, is Live Action in the sort of predicament in which Rahab and the Hebrew midwives found themselves? No. And for that reason, my points here are not being offered as a defense of Live Action. Rather, they are being offered as a counter to those who seem to have a too broad a definition of a lie.
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written by debby, February 18, 2011
Achilles,
I usually agree with you. No Way on this one.
"....those without formed consciences wouldn't really care..." you say. You are mistaken, brother. I am surrounded by people in the neighborhood, at basketball, little league, work, people who DO NOT THINK, but when challenged, Some-Times-Start-To. You know we live in a "sound bite" world. Like it or not it is a reality. SO, Live Action is providing a different "sound bite message" to those who are not camping out with us: even a few atheistic people I know are Shocked and Horrified by PP's activity- they had NO IDEA.
Ya know, when Jesus came the way He did, lots of religious people were scandalized. And when you take a step back in history and try and place yourself in their shoes, their response is not surprising. It would seem that those who had been trained to think a certain way needed to be shocked into a New Way to think. Some responded in spite of their incorrectly formed conscience/preconceived ideas(I refer to Nicodemus, for one).
The ends does not justify the means. That is true but we have to be careful how we apply "cliches" to life. After all, it could be argued that the brutal Death of God cannot be reasonably "justified" due to the heinous means employed. Can you really argue that the Centurion was only "doing his job?" Yet, didn't that very brutal participation bring about his declaration, "Surely, This Man is the Son of God." Would he have even discovered Jesus Christ without that military job? Maybe this is one of the reasons Holy Mother Church does not make definitive declarations regarding every aspect of the Christian's life. What is allowable for one may be the cause of sin for another (consumption of alcohol, dancing, music/movie choices, etc.). What matters is Love. Are we Loving God with all our hearts....and neighbor as self?
I do not see anything but Love motivating Live Action. Courageous, Bold, Kenosis Love- and at 20something!
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written by WJ, February 18, 2011
"I am simply making the point that Scripture seems to be teaching us that if someone requests that you assist in murder by revealing a certain truth, you are not required to assist by revealing that truth. In fact, you may actually positively deceive the prospective murderer."

I don't think that any moral theologian, on either side of the current debate, would contest this claim. Nonetheless, this (very helpful) clarification offers a different description of the act in question than that provided in the article. There, the question was whether the "intentional telling of a falsehood" is always a lie, and therefore wrong, or whether, in some instances, an "intentional telling of a falsehood" is not a lie at all. Neither the case of (1) refusing to answer, nor (2) employing casuistry to deceive without intentionally uttering a falsehood, is equivalent to what seems to be your position in the article: namely, that the "intentional telling of a falsehood" is sometimes not a lie. I'm not saying you're wrong, but merely that the point you're making in the article is not the point you're making here; and if the point you're making in the article is right, then we need criteria for distinguishing between the two cases.
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written by Dan Deeny, February 18, 2011
Many thanks to Mr. Beckwith for the Scripture texts. I looked for those in Mr. George's article, but I looked in vain.
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written by jason taylor, February 18, 2011
Rahab was a sinner like all humankind. All of Rahab's tactics need not be approved of by God for her faith to be approved; one might as well say approved of her occupation.

This does not necessarily decide whether the sting was a "lie" or a "stratagem". It merely observes that Rahab is a false precedent.
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written by Francis Beckwith, February 18, 2011
WJ: I'm suggesting is that in the two passages of Scripture what we find is a third option, namely, intentionally telling a falsehood to another when telling the truth, refusing to answer or employing causistry will not likely sufficiently impede one's cooperation in killing innocents.

What I have found fascinating (and a bit shocking) in this discussion is how it does not seem to occur to any of the Catholic participants that Scripture may have something to say about moral theology.

This is not to say that the CCC, Aquinas, and Augustine, and a host of others, may not provide guidance on such matters. But, for example, when I read Aquinas' and Augustine's accounts of the Hebrew midwives, they leave much to be desired. The CCC is not very helpful either, since it relies on Augustine's definition of a lie--"A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving"--which is both too broad and too narrow. It is too broad insofar as it would include the two OT cases, which were not condemned by Scripture as immoral (Augustine's less than persuasive hermeneutic not withstanding). And it is too narrow since there are ways that one could lie without speaking. No one would claim, for example, that mute people can't lie because they can't speak.
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written by Achilles, February 18, 2011
Hi Debby, I will go with you, Yes, this needs to be out there and shouted from the roof tops, I surely am wrong about what I said, thanks for taking the time to write. However, I am still confused as to the moral rightness of it all. I am glad to hear that you are aware of good reactions, from atheists no less, and I stand happily in error and in dire need of correction. I do hear your points loud and clear, but I am not quite able to grasp a full understanding of the entire situation. I would only remind us that God’s means are not our means.
I was wondering today, when thinking about imitating Christ, if he would have done more than to speak the Truth, admonish these terrible sins and command us to go in peace and sin no more. Would Christ have pretended to be something he is not to entrap the pharisaical planned parenthood employees? It is a tough question for me and I appreciate all the comments on here and Dr. Beckwith’s meditation.
Debby, I hope you are right about live action. I have never gotten to tell you, you always gush zeal, love and passion and I love seeing your spirit on this forum as you respond, always with kindness, even to those with whom you disagree. Pax Christi tecum, Achilles
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written by Robert, February 19, 2011
Master Beckwith, could you perhaps be using a too narrow definition of the word 'speaking'? :)
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written by Brandon, February 19, 2011
Aquinas explicitly deals with the midwives passage, and notes that it doesn't say that God rewarded the midwives for telling a falsehood, but explicitly that He rewarded them for fearing God -- i.e., for disobeying Pharaoh and saving the lives of the children. Thus he denies that it has any implication that intentionally telling falsehoods is sometimes permissible.
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written by Matthew, February 19, 2011
Reply to Objection 2. The midwives were rewarded, not for their lie, but for their fear of God, and for their good-will, which latter led them to tell a lie. Hence it is expressly stated (Exodus 2:21): "And because the midwives feared God, He built them houses." But the subsequent lie was not meritorious.
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written by Graham Combs, February 19, 2011
If one wants to encounter institutionalized lying, I recommend three years in law school. The slander and libel against the Church, pro-life Americans, and those who emphasize the dignity and worth of the individual while multculturalism becomes yet another tool for increasing instrusive state power is an hourly event in the classroom. "Haters, bigots, misogynists, racists, sexists" are all terms of deceit intended to end not only discussion and argument but the presentation of facts. The Left, of course, lives in the past and lives to destroy reputation. I attend the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan. Whenever I mention it, of course, I hear the story of Fr. Coughlin. Yet the present pastor and monsignor is, I have on first hand authority, well regarded by the rabbinate in Southeastern Michigan (although I suspect these are conservative and orthodox rabbis, not "secular humanist rabbis." Live Action uncovers the truth and as important reveals as a lie this week's statement by the NY Times that Planned Parenthood serves "poor women in need of medical care and counseling." Surely the Philadelphia Story (see Jody Bottum's piece in the Weekly Standard) is yet another example of just what the abortion industry is. Yet there has been no national discussion of that house of horrors. Go to your local chain bookstore and see Black History month books aimed at children. They are still be taught history as if the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights movement happened yesterday and things haven't gotten better. There are no books lamenting the holocaust perpetrated on black babies. We now live in a country of the Big Lie. What passes as moral fastidiousness is simply the picking lint off a Brooks Brothers suit. We can't afford it. This has nothing to do with Saul Alinsky and everything to do with a true moral imperative. By the way, at mass two Sunday's ago I signed a petition to stop yet another large PP abortion mill proposed for the northern suburbs of Detroit. Violence is never an option for us as Catholics, but it is the daily work of Federally-funded Planned Parenthood. Let's keep that in mind. Let's live in the present.
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written by dcs, February 20, 2011
Jephthe is also praised in the Epistle to the Hebrews -- does that mean that sacrificing one's daughter as a burnt offering can be morally justified?
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written by Billy Bean, February 20, 2011
Yes, Graham, it is frustrating, and apparently ever has been. Christ and His disciples are forbidden to lie,cheat, murder, fornicate or steal-- even to further His cause! The enemy, on the other hand, is inhibited by none of these scruples. It's as if we were made to fight with one hand tied behind our back, and forbidden to bite, kick, or gouge, while our opponent was allowed to weild two pound horseshoes in both gloves. It's disproportionate! It's unfair! It's God's will!
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written by debby, February 21, 2011
Dear Prof Beckwith,
i'm not sure if you are even checking in on your article any longer- i hope you can answer a question i have for you. please,this is not sarcastic. i want to know what a convert to Catholicism schooled in Protestant theology has to say. (i am a very little "regular wife/mother" who has trod-though far behind you!-some of your from Baptist-to-Catholic path, & i'm trying to learn more truth about the Faith everyday. i value your scholarship.)
Exactly what does Jesus mean in the original language with full translation when He says, "Be shrewd as serpents and gentle as doves?"
and why did He give us that very strange parable about the steward who was being "laid off" going around cutting the debts of his boss' clients? as my son just asked me this past weekend, "hey mom, which one is the good guy in that Gospel?"
i told him before i answered i'd check with a Bible Scholar and he can check with our parish priest.
i am a simpleton, no doubt! we live in the world. i thought Jesus sanctified our ordinary work and expects us to not loose our common sense. while we are in this life and death poker game, are we supposed to show all our cards? aren't we supposed to try and win the pot, convert the players and deliver the dance hall girls? is shrewdness a kind of lie or deception because all of the truth is not laid out before everyone present? what about what St. Paul speaks about when he is arguing the case for Christ among the gods with his "unknown god" discourse?
i'm sure i am not clear- pretend i'm a 1st semester freshman- maybe you know better what i am asking.

like Achilles, i do not want to go down the wrong trail of thinking. AND even more important, i do not want to direct my 12 yr old son down the wrong path. thank you for your time.
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written by Alexander, February 21, 2011
Thank you, Professor Beckwith.

I have mixed feelings about what LiveAction did. Those who oppose LiveAction's tactics may may be right that what LiveAction did was wrong, but I don't think their simplistic application of the Catechism is faithful to the Catholic tradition of moral reasoning.

I take all of the Church’s teachings very seriously. I try hard never to utter any falsehood. Moreover, I love the Catechism, and it is our surest summary of Catholic morality at a general level. Out of every 10,000 times we speak, the Catechism is right 9,999 times in telling us that an intentional falsehood is wrong.

But I don’t think the Catechism is a moral theology textbook designed to answer the morality of every situation. People are so worried about any hint of consequentialism or proportionalism or relativism (all of which are properly condemned) that they swing too far in the other direction — taking overly literal readings of the Catechism and using it as a prooftext to condemn as intrinsically evil acts that are not necessarily so, without every stopping to consider if the Catechism was really meant to be read that way in defining the moral object of various acts.

I have a hard time, for example, believing that something that made it into the last draft of the Catechism and which then was omitted — the idea that lying requires that the recipient have the right to know — is necessarily and definitively condemned. To quote Jeffrey Mirus at Catholic Answers, “the Catechism is intended as a basic compendium of Catholic doctrine, assembled with due ecclesiastical care, and not as a collection of definitive infallible pronouncements permanently settling every question on every topic it covers. In other words, the change in definition does not mean the original formulation was wrong. But it does mean that the editors of the Catechism were not prepared to endorse it in an official Catholic reference work.”

Indeed, I actually would bet serious money that if the question were squarely put to the Pope whether it would be wrongful to lie to protect a hiding Jew, he would say no. He may not have thought it was right to qualify the general moral lesson taught by the Catechism regarding lying, or he may not have liked the draft formulation that an intentional falsehood is not a lie when the recipient does not have the "right to know" the information, but I don’t think he would take the absolutist position.

Also, putting aside for the moment the words in the Catechism, what does the Church teach in its actions? Do we really think, for example, that the Church condemns all undercover journalism, plain-clothes police officers working to infiltrate the mafia or Al Qaeda, military disinformation in a just war, secret shoppers, and the government’s testing of its security procedures by, for example, sending people with fake IDs to see if they get through airport security? It seems like we would have heard something about that from Rome or the bishops over the years.

Many in this debate are treating the Catechism like Protestant fundamentalists treat the Bible. We’ve become so scared that if any sentence or clause in the Catechism isn’t read as the definitive, infallible, complete truth for all time and in all circumstances, then our entire faith and moral system will collapse -- consequentialism will reign and everything will be permitted. I have more confidence that our Church, faith, and Catholic moral reasoning are built on a surer foundation.
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written by Michael PS, February 22, 2011
St Augustine says in the De Mendacio
“For that death which men are foolishly afraid of, who are not afraid to sin, kills not the soul but the body, as the Lord teaches in the Gospel; whence He charges us not to fear that death: but the mouth which lies kills not the body but the soul. For in these words it is most plainly written, “The mouth that lies slays the soul.” [Wisdom 1:11] How then can it be said without the greatest perverseness, that to the end one man may have life of the body, it is another man’s duty to incur death of the soul?”

He also quotes Psalm 5 “You hate all who do wrong; you destroy those who tell lies,” where lying is singled out as a special object of God’s vengeance, for liars he not only hates, but also destroys.

Lying, as opposed to other forms of deception (as evasion, equivocation and mental reservation) is a perverse misuse of the faculty of speech and is evil simply. Other forms of deception may be used for a sufficient cause, for not everyone is entitled to the truth.
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written by Psych Doc, February 22, 2011
I will be spending a lot of time in Purgatory, because I would lie to save a life (anyone's life.) My second thought, would we be spending this much time talking about lying if it had to do with anything else but Planned Parenthood and Live Action? Doubt it! We would leave that up to the same theologians who argue about angels on the head of a pin.

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