Is Peter Kreeft lying to you about religion?

Peter Kreeft on lying

I recently reread Dr. Peter Kreeft’s article on the morality of lying. I commented previously here (On lying, intrinsic evil, and moral intuition). His article (Why Live Action did right and why we all should know that) was occasioned by a controversy over a pro-life group, Live Action, which lied in order to obtain video evidence of unethical and possibly illegal activities by some Planned Parenthood offices.

One of the main points in the article is his conclusion that either lying is not always wrong, or the deliberate assertion of a falsehood is not always lying:

Kreeft: “Similarly, when we discuss Kant and the issue of lying, most of my students, even the moral absolutists, are quite certain that the Dutchmen were not wrong to deliberately deceive the Nazis about the locations of the Jews they had promised to hide. They do not know whether this is an example of lying or not. But they know that if it is, than lying is not always wrong, and if lying is always wrong, then this is not lying. Because they know, without any ifs or ands or buts, that such Dutch deception is good, not evil.”

Kreeft brands the philosopher Kant a “moral legalist” for holding that “all lying is morally wrong.” But Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas held the same view. So apparently they are moral legalists too. Kreeft’s moral intuition tells him that lying isn’t always wrong. But is not the moral intuition of a Saint or Doctor of the Church at least a little better than his? Actually, Saint Thomas was not relying on intuition, but Sacred Scripture and the writings of Saint Augustine. And that is much firmer ground.

Kreeft departs from the moral tradition of the Church by asserting that lying is not always wrong. He justifies lying to save an innocent person from murder, to protect someone from rape, to find the location of a bomb hidden by a terrorist, to conduct spying to keep a nation safe, and to conduct police undercover work to keep citizens safe. Peter Kreeft believes that it is moral to lie whenever lives are at stake. Saint Augustine specifically considered the cases of lying to save a life and lying to prevent a rape, and he rejects lying as sinful even in those cases [On Lying, n. 13-14, n. 40-41].

What are some situations when lives are at stake and in which lying, according to Kreeft’s position, would be moral? Doctors, nurses and hospitals deal with life or death cases frequently. If lying is moral to save lives, doctors and nurses would be justified in lying to the government, health insurance companies, hospitals, patients and each other. Police officers deal with life or death situations. If lying is moral to protect lives, a police officer might lie on the witness stand, to make certain that a killer or rapist gets the conviction that they deserve (despite the paucity of admissible evidence). Politicians deal with life or death issues, such as war, gun control, health care, the death penalty, and abortion. If lying is moral to save lives, then it would be moral for politicians to lie to get elected, so that they could subsequently prevent a war, improve health care, restrict abortion, or the like. But almost any political party would be able to assert such a justification. — Once you make the assertion that lying is moral to save lives, or for some other high-stakes reason, you quickly end up with a society where the higher the stakes, the less you can trust the assertion.

Now you might argue with my summary of Peter Kreeft’s position by pointing out that he also proposed redefining lying so that, when the stakes are high, a deliberate false assertion is simply not categorized as a lie. But my reply is that such a position is worse. If someone says “lying is always wrong”, but what they mean is that they have redefined the word lying to exclude any falsehoods they wish to assert, such a person cannot be trusted at all. The very assertion from such a person that “lying is always wrong” would then be itself a lie. In such a case, you would have no way of knowing, in any assertion, whether the person had redefined some of their words to mean whatever was convenient for them. So it is the milder version of the two positions he offers to say that lying is not always wrong. Even so, that position is contrary to Church teaching.

The Catechism says:

“2486 Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.”

The CCC also teaches: “2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” Acts that are intrinsically evil are often said, in magisterial documents, to be wrong “by their very nature”. This phrasing implies that lying is intrinsically evil and therefore always immoral. So the position taken by Peter Kreeft is contrary to magisterial teaching as well as the moral tradition of the Church.

Some people claim that Sacred Scripture only condemns lying in the form of bearing false witness against your neighbor, since that is in fact one of the ten commandments. But elsewhere in the Bible all lying is condemned as sinful:

[Leviticus]
{19:11} You shall not steal. You shall not lie. Neither shall anyone deceive his neighbor.
{19:12} You shall not commit perjury in my name, nor shall you pollute the name of your God. I am the Lord.

[Proverbs]
{6:16} Six things there are that the Lord hates, and the seventh, his soul detests:
{6:17} haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood,
{6:18} a heart that devises the most wicked thoughts, feet running swiftly unto evil,
{6:19} a deceitful witness bringing forth lies, and he who sows discord among brothers.

[Proverbs]
{12:22} Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord. But whoever acts faithfully pleases him.

{13:5} The just shall detest a lying word. But the impious confound and will be confounded.

[Sirach]
{7:13} Do not love a lie against your brother, nor should you act the same toward your friend.
{7:14} Do not be willing to devise a lie of any kind. For the practice of lying is not good.

[Wisdom]
{1:7} For the spirit of the Lord has filled the world, and he who contains all things, retains knowledge of every voice.

{1:11} Therefore, keep yourselves from complaining, which benefits nothing, and refrain your tongue from slander, because secret conversation will not pass into nothingness, and the mouth that lies kills the soul.

{1:15} For justice is perpetual and immortal.

[Matthew]
{5:33} Again, you have heard that it was said to the ancients: ‘You shall not swear falsely. For you shall repay your oaths to the Lord.’
{5:34} But I say to you, do not swear an oath at all, neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
{5:35} nor by earth, for it is his footstool, nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king.
{5:36} Neither shall you swear an oath by your own head, because you are not able to cause one hair to become white or black.
{5:37} But let your word ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ For anything beyond that is of evil.

[John]
{8:43} Why do you not recognize my speech? It is because you are not able to hear my word.
{8:44} You are of your father, the devil. And you will carry out the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning. And he did not stand in the truth, because the truth is not in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks it from his own self. For he is a liar, and the father of lies.
{8:45} But if I speak the truth, you do not believe me.
{8:46} Which of you can convict me of sin? If I speak the truth to you, why do you not believe me?

[Ephesians]
{4:25} Because of this, setting aside lying, speak the truth, each one with his neighbor. For we are all part of one another.

God is Truth, by His very Nature. Therefore, every lie offends God. Sacred Scripture, the Magisterium, and the moral tradition of the Church all teach that lying is intrinsically evil and always immoral. Peter Kreeft has rejected that teaching, and has publicly encouraged others to join him in that rejection.

The Title of This Article

Why is this article titled: “Is Peter Kreeft lying to you about religion?” Simple logic. Kreeft believes that lying is moral to save lives. Which is more important, saving lives or saving souls? As a teacher of (philosophy of) religion and a Mass-going Catholic, Peter certainly believes saving souls is more important. As a matter of faith, saving souls is much more important than saving lives. (Which is exactly why lying is always wrong, even when lives are at stake.) So if Peter Kreeft thinks it is moral to lie to save lives, then he ought to follow his own philosophy to its logical conclusion and hold that lying is also moral to save souls.

Suppose he asserts the contrary: “I think it is sometimes moral to lie to save lives, but never to save souls.” He could be lying to save souls. But even if he really believes such an assertion, if he should ever encounter a situation in which it seems that telling a lie will save souls, he might tell that lie. For he believes that lying is moral to save lives, and souls are more important. He might change his mind in the situation, on the basis of his own views on morality.

And that is why you cannot trust what Peter Kreeft tells you on the subject of religion. He might be lying to you to save your soul, or someone else’s soul, or someone else’s life (as on the issue of abortion). Would he lie in order to save unborn lives from abortion? He thinks it was moral for the pro-life group “Live Action” to lie repeatedly to do a video expose of abortion clinics. There is no evidence that even a single real life was saved by that action. But the values at stake in that case were life-and-death issues. He might lie to you on the abortion issue to save lives. If he says otherwise, he could be lying.

Suppose that there is a controversy, in the near future, about which man is the true Pope. If Kreeft tells you his opinion, he might be lying in order to save your soul. What does he say to his students on the topic of religion? He might lie if he thinks the lie would influence the student in a way that would put him or her back on the path of salvation. And if he publicly says that he would never lie to a student, and never lie on the topic of religion to anyone, he might be lying. Souls are more important than lives, and Kreeft’s publicly-stated position is essentially that lying is moral when the stakes are high. Even his own article on lying might possibly contain some lies, stated in order to save lives or souls.

Well, what does it matter if Peter Kreeft lies on religion or some other topic? Does the whole Catholic Christian Faith depend on the trustworthiness of his assertions? Of course not. But what about the Church?

Sacred Scripture has numerous verses on lying and morality. The CCC has a section on lying and truth. I don’t see how the Church could ever change her teaching to accord with Kreeft’s position, permitting lying when the stakes are high.

However, as a counter-factual hypothetical, suppose the Church were to teach that lying is not always wrong, and that it is moral to lie to save lives. The same analysis ensues. If it is moral to lie to save a life, then it is moral to lie to save millions of souls from eternal damnation. The Church could, in this hypothetical, thereafter never be trusted to tell the truth on the subjects of faith, morals, or salvation. And if the Church were to teach that lying is moral to save lives, but not to save souls, that last part could be a lie. Souls are more important than lives. As a result, nothing the Church has ever taught or will ever teach would be trustworthy. Then Faith would lose its surety, in such a hypothetical case.

Is this a ridiculous argument? Saint Thomas Aquinas did not think so. He made much the same argument concerning Sacred Scripture. “It is unlawful to hold that any false assertion is contained either in the Gospel or in any canonical Scripture, or that the writers thereof have told untruths, because faith would be deprived of its certitude which is based on the authority of Holy Writ.” (Summa, II-II, 110, 3). If the Bible contains lies or false assertions, Faith would lose its surety.

Jesus teaches us: “But let your word ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ For anything beyond that is of evil.” (Mt 5:37). Kreeft’s eloquently explained position on lying is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. The rejection of all lying as evil is not Pharisaical legalism, but Christian moral teaching.

The Church will never change Her teaching that lying is always wrong. If She did, “faith would be deprived of its certitude” and souls would be lost. The Roman Catholic Magisterium will never agree with the false teaching of Peter Kreeft on lying because his position is incompatible with one of the highest goods of this life: bringing souls to eternal salvation in the next life.

For more on the topic of lying and ethics, see my booklet:
Is Lying Always Wrong?

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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7 Responses to Is Peter Kreeft lying to you about religion?

  1. William Merlock says:

    Ron,

    I have a great deal of respect for your writings. I ask the following questions not as an argument or as a debate but to make sure I truly understand your point. These are general questions and don’t necessarily relate to the exact situation Kreeft was writing about.

    My (extremely simplified) understanding of the Catholic view of “Just War” is that war is always evil but sometimes necessary (ref CCC 2309). It is historically untenable to hold that the Church believes it is always wrong to go to war as there are numerous times when the Pope and the Magisterium rallied people to go to war; there were occassions that the Pope actually led troops into battle. Could the same logic hold true for other moral evils, such as lying? Is lying always evil but sometimes necessary? What is your opinion of the actions of Cardinal O’Flaherty during World War II?

    CCC 2508 says “Lying consists in saying what is false with the intention of deceiving the neighbor who has the right to the truth.” Do those last six words in some way give support to Kreeft’s suggestion that what this particular group did does not constitute lying? Do people involved in gravely immoral actions have the right to the truth in all circumstance?

    Actually, CCC 2508 can be parsed two ways. It could mean “… with the intention of deceiving your neighbor, who (always) has the right to the truth” or it could mean “… with the intention of deceiving (only the) neighbor who has the right to the truth (but some neighbors don’t have that right.) I’m reading it the second way, based on American English rules of grammar (the first reading would require a comma after “neighbor”).

    Thank you for your blogging.

    Bill

    • Ron Conte says:

      You are quoting the first edition of the CCC “who has the right to the truth”. That phrase was dropped in the second edition. See the list of changes here:
      http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/updates.htm
      Kreeft’s position is in no way compatible with Catholic teaching, since the CCC says that lying is wrong “by its very nature”, a phrasing often used in magisterial documents to indicate an intrinsically evil act.

      The Magisterium is solely the teaching authority of the Church. The Church also has a temporal authority, and the Vatican used to have papal states and troops, which fell under that authority. Today, the temporal authority is only authority over discipline and the Vatican city-state.

      Anyone who lies commits at least an objective venial sin. The Popes all go to confession. What sins do they confess? I have no idea. But a venial lie is within the realm of possibility. So citing a Cardinal or even a Pope who supposedly lied (rather than using mental reservation) does not change the teaching of the Church.

      War is similar in moral analysis to killing. Some acts of killing an individual are self-defense, other acts of killing are murder. Some wars are just defense of the innocent. Other wars are intrinsically evil, such as a war to enslave another nation, or to rob that nation of its resources. The concept of necessary evil only applies to “physical evil” (suffering, harm, disorder) also termed “ontic evil”. Moral evil is never justified as it is by definition wrong. Lying is moral evil, so it is never justifiable.

  2. Dot says:

    As a teacher, Kreeft is to be judged more harshly than the liars who saved the lives…
    Instead of lying, a person may choose to be silent — and the wrath of the murderers may be refocused on them. Martyrdom anyone?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Right. It would be only a venial sin to lie to save lives. But teaching falsehoods on the basic principles of ethics is a much greater offense against truth.

  3. William Merlock says:

    Thanks for your reply! I think I understand what you’re saying, though I’m still hung up a little bit on some points. If “some wars are just defense of the innocent” it is not clear to me why you could not say “some lies are just defense of the innocent” (as, for instance, in the case of Cardinal O’Flaherty.) What exactly is a “mental reservation”? I do understand, though, your distinction between the moral analysis of war and of lying. And I completely agree that the acts of even the most distinguished members of the church heirarchy does not necessarily always reflect the teachings of the church.

    Looks like I need to update my Catechism…I wasn’t aware there had been an update.

    Thanks again for your writings! I will pray on these topics.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Every lie is inherently ordered toward the evil of depriving communication between persons of truth. God is truth, so lying is always wrong. If a lie were told to defend the innocent, that would be an evil means to a good end. The case of just war differs because the war itself is the defense of the innocent; the act of defending the innocent is good in itself. Lying is evil in itself, even it is used for a further good end.

      The moral nature of an act depends on its ordering toward its proximate end (moral object). The proximate end of lying is depriving assertions of truth. The proximate end of a just war is defending the innocent. The just war is ordered toward good. The lie is ordered toward evil. See my book, The Catechism of Catholic Ethics.

  4. John Platts says:

    The abortion industry will lie to prospective abortion patients in order to get patients to undergo abortions that they are otherwise unwilling to undergo because the abortion industry wants to make as much money as possible. The lies told to prospective abortion patients include misrepresentations about the facts of fetal development, falsely representing that an abortion is needed to save the life or health of the mother in cases where an abortion is not needed to save the life or health of the mother, and denying the fact that the fetus is a baby prior to birth. The lies that are told to prospective abortion patients by the abortion industry clearly have gravely bad consequences, including leading women who would not otherwise undergo an abortion into consenting to a direct abortion and causing the deaths of additional unborn children as a result of additional direct abortions. Many intrinsically evil acts are committed by the abortion industry, including but not limited to the performance of direct abortions, the dispensing of abortifacent contraceptives for birth control purposes, fradulently obtaining money from the government, lying to prospective abortion patients, and actively promoting intrinsically evil sexual behaviors through sex education programs.

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