Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: October 2023

Letters to the Editor: October 2023

Uncommonly Sharp Elbows

Thomas Storck’s article “Ecumenism: A Reassessment” (Jul.-Aug.) is generally thoughtful and astute in its account of the failures of the ecumenical movement. That said, I would take offense at his suggestion that I or any of the other Catholic senior editors of Touchstone (including Robert P. George, Anthony Esolen, William J. Tighe, Leon J. Podles, and James Hitchcock) have diluted or may even have lost our Catholic faith if only I could find some evidence that Mr. Storck has actually read our journal.

For instance, when he writes of “the initiative called Evangelicals and Catholics Together or Touchstone magazine,” Storck appears to be under the impression that the two are one and the same. They have nothing to do with each other. They have never crossed paths. The most I can say of ECT is I think I’ve heard of it. We don’t have a single Evangelical among our senior editors.

Storck also accuses us of having forgotten the connection between morality and doctrine. Yet he fails to cite, by way of example, even a single article from Touchstone’s 37-year history. I have no idea what he’s talking about, and, I fear, neither does he.

For example, Storck writes that we have glossed over doctrinal differences by appealing to certain “hot-button” political issues while failing to notice the connection between contraception, opposition to which “Protestants abandoned decades ago,” and “acceptance of homosexual relations,” to which contraception “leads logically.” Were we not clear enough in our editorial “Against Contraception” (Jan./Feb.) when we declared, “Let’s stop kidding ourselves — all of these horrors [the normalization of homoerotic acts, the redefinition of marriage, the acceptance of abortion, transgenderism, etc.] were built atop the foundation of our contraceptive culture, and not one of them would be embraced today without it”? Had Storck even glanced at the cover of that issue, he would have seen that almost all of it was devoted to the very thing he claims we ignore.

Opposition to contraception (and women’s ordination) is required of all Touchstone senior editors, and I don’t know of another writer who has written more against contraception than senior editor Allan C. Carlson, a Lutheran and founder of the World Congress of Families (and president emeritus of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society).

Our May/June issue features a piece by our Eastern Orthodox executive editor, J. Douglas Johnson, championing the witness of James Cardinal Stafford when he stood almost alone against Roman Catholic hierarchs in his defense of Pope Paul VI and Humanae Vitae in 1968. Articles of this sort are perhaps one reason why Raymond Cardinal Burke has been a longtime subscriber and supporter of Touchstone. Is Cardinal Burke what Storck has in mind when he condemns “conservative ecumenists”?

While Catholic readers form our largest single denominational block (including hundreds of NOR subscribers, both past and present), our Protestant readers often tell us they look to Touchstone for doctrinally grounded Catholic and Eastern Orthodox perspectives, which they would otherwise never see. What they want and what we give them is not ecumenism but precision.

If anything, what characterizes all Touchstone’s senior editors and its executive editor is their uncommonly sharp elbows with regard to their doctrinal beliefs. I think this is what Robert P. George had in mind when he joked that “Enemies of ecumenism, unite!” might serve as a suitable rallying cry for our journal.

All of which is to say that I’m not sure Storck doesn’t have us confused with someone else.

R.V. Young

Senior Editor, Touchstone

Chicago, Illinois

For Thomas Stock, ecumenism seems to fall apart over the contradiction of trying to agree and persisting in disagreement. Emphasizing the former compromises convictions (and the Church’s principles); emphasizing the latter ends the ecumenical hope. What we need is a better theory of the act of agreeing and the act of disagreeing in ecumenical discussion, one that avoids reducing it to covert “strategy” (a reduction Storck tends to make).

Finding ways to agree need not contradict our deeply held beliefs. Indeed, striving for agreement helps reveal the nature of our beliefs, their limits and potential for development. Holding to our beliefs gives passion to the argument and helps teach a different point of view. The problem with much ecumenical theory is that it simplifies in one direction or another, seeing failure in the lack of consensus, on one hand, or in banal and compromising agreement on the other. We need to keep the limits of the human condition in mind, neither canceling out nor blindly holding to what we believe to be true. Some things cannot be absolutely reconciled.

Storck approvingly quotes Pope Pius XI’s warning that Catholics talking to Protestants might “cast aside the integrity of the faith and tolerate their errors.” But we can maintain the integrity of our faith and listen to the “errors” of others with the intention of separating the weeds and the wheat in them and for ourselves.

Dennis Taylor

Concord, Massachusetts


R.V. Young is not happy with my inclusion of Touchstone in my strictures on ecumenism. He is even concerned that I may have confused Touchstone with Evangelicals and Catholics Together. But no, I am and was aware that these are two separate enterprises. I included them in the same sentence because, in my judgment, they share certain characteristics. Nor was it my intent to pass judgment on the personal orthodoxy of any of the Catholics associated with Touchstone. I mentioned that magazine because its stated policy promotes a view of Christian faith that is as inimical to Catholic orthodoxy as any other ecumenical venture or enterprise, whether or not its editors realize that.

Mr. Young mentions a number of excellent articles in Touchstone, and I certainly acknowledge that fact. What, then, are my objections? Simply that Touchstone posits a basis for Christian convergence with which I don’t think a Catholic can agree. It is quite explicit about this on its website: Touchstone “provides a place where Christians of various backgrounds can speak on the basis of shared belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the Church.” What are these “fundamental doctrines”? Since they can be acceptable to Protestants, they obviously do not include the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church on authority, Tradition, the episcopacy and priesthood, the sacraments, how we are saved, etc. What Touchstone apparently considers “fundamental doctrines” becomes clear when we see that it calls itself “a Journal of Mere Christianity.” This term, taken from C.S. Lewis’s book of the same name, posits a core set of beliefs for all Christians that the various denominations add to in their own distinctive ways. But a Catholic cannot accept such a notion of Christian belief. The essentials of Christianity are what the Catholic Church teaches, not what various separated bodies of Christians have managed to hold on to.

On the Touchstone homepage is this quote: “Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion.” But if non-Catholics are included as fully participating collaborators at Touchstone, then it does cede much more than a single millimeter to falsehood, for any Christian outside Christ’s one Church obviously must embrace at least some error, otherwise he would become a Catholic.

Touchstone proclaims that it is “the one committedly Christian conservative journal.” This makes my point exactly. Conservative Christianity is what unites its editors, and everyone knows that today this refers to certain moral teachings — moral teachings that, while certainly true and important, are neither truer nor more important than the fundamental theological questions that divide Catholics from all non-Catholic Christians. It seems hard to deny that for the editors of Touchstone, these “conservative” moral teachings are in practice more vital than the theological issues that divide Christians and for which our Catholic forebears often went to their deaths. A Catholic can hardly agree that notions such as Lewis’s “mere Christianity” or “conservative Christianity” can be the de facto standard of orthodoxy.

As regards Dennis Taylor’s letter, I am not clear as to what kind of ecumenical dialogue he wishes or for what purpose. Is dialogue with separated Christians for the sake of their conversion or to help “reveal the nature of our beliefs, their limits and potential for development”? Nor am I clear what he means by not “blindly holding to what we believe to be true.” As Catholics, we are bound to hold firmly to what the Church teaches, not blindly, to be sure, but by an intelligent act of faith based on reasonable motives of credibility (cf. Catechism, no. 156). Ecumenical dialogue when conducted by informed and orthodox Catholics, with the explicit aim of conversion, can indeed be part of the Church’s evangelistic strategy, otherwise I see absolutely no point in it.

The Dangers of Mix-&-Match Deities

As someone with close connections to things Japanese, I was interested to read Jason M. Morgan’s column “Honji Suijaku: Shell Game of the Gods” (Cultural Counterpoint, Jul.-Aug.). The title alone was intriguing as it contains a term with which I (even after teaching Japanese for 15 years) was unfamiliar. While Morgan better explains the origin and meaning of the term, honji suijaku basically refers to the idea that elements of any given religion can somehow be neatly paired with corresponding elements of other religions. Morgan dismantles this sort of worldview, which can be seen in the ubiquitous “Coexist” bumper stickers.

Morgan begins to unpack the concept of honji suijaku with an explanation of the mash-up of the deities of Shinto (Japan’s native religion) and those of Buddhism (introduced from mainland Asia). I make reference to this sort of “shell game” in my own work of historical fiction, Masaru (based on people and events of the 17th-century Shimabara Rebellion), and briefly mention how the Christian God was initially mistaken by Japanese natives for one of the Buddhist deities. However, Morgan digs far deeper into the particulars and, ultimately, the problematic nature of subscribing to a mix-and-match approach to religion.

Morgan writes, “What’s forbidden in modern America is claiming to hold beliefs that do not translate to other systems, especially when those beliefs are Christian.” This brought to mind a former theology department head at a “Catholic” school where I was long employed. This gentleman would teach his students that all the various religions are essentially different paths leading up the same mountain. (This flawed analogy, of course, fails to acknowledge that not all paths are the same in nature, nor do they all necessarily lead to the same destination.) He enthusiastically promoted teachings regarded as “safe” (donating to local food pantries, fighting climate change, not being racist, etc.). After all, such teachings don’t generally conflict with those of other religions — or even the religion of non-religion, for that matter. By contrast, he often downplayed or outright ignored some of the harder doctrines particular to Catholicism (the real presence, Mary’s perpetual virginity, the necessity of confession, the reality of Hell, etc.). After all, as demonstrated in John’s Gospel and elsewhere, hard teachings drive away crowds. And crowds amount to tuition dollars and money in collection baskets.

I happened to read Morgan’s column shortly after receiving a visit from members of the local Kingdom Hall. On this particular visit, the Jehovah’s Witnesses tried to convince me that the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity is merely a hijacking of some pre-Christian pagan deity possessing three heads. I pointed out to my polite but misguided guests that this tidbit of historical reality in itself offers no evidence discrediting the revealed truth of the Triune God or any other Catholic dogma. Though I think I held my own during the discussion, I wish Dr. Morgan had been with us on my front porch that afternoon as I’m sure the mere mention of honji suijaku would have thrown the Witnesses off their well-rehearsed script.

Honji suijaku is a sword that can be wielded in various manners toward different ends. It can be used by subscribers of one particular religion to try to discredit another. It can also be used to promote the false belief that all religions are equally valid — or, by extension, equally invalid — since, after all, they’re all essentially products of the human imagination. Perhaps most dangerously, it can also be used by Catholics to strike down those parts of the faith that might otherwise make them feel less at home in the modern secular world. Morgan does an excellent job of addressing all these scenarios. Perhaps most importantly, he leaves us with the satisfying conclusion that the Catholic Church is much more than one of many paths up the same mountain because, ultimately, she professes truths to which no other religion can lay claim.

Michael Thomas Cibenko

Branchville, New Jersey

What an exciting column by Jason M. Morgan about interchangeability among the various deities of world religions! I say exciting because it starts inconsequentially with a hungry journalist in cheap lodgings with not much to do, leafing through some dead-end publication, and then proceeds to his being accosted by an aggrieved anti-religionista as he and fellow Catholics prayed in public. Then, after increasingly gripping explanations of the wild claims (and similarities) of the Shinto this and the Buddhist that, we emerge into the madhouse of the Francis papacy, where at last Morgan drives a scimitar through the modernist claptrap that God and Allah are the same with his triumphal exposition of the foundational truth of Christianity: the death and resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ.

There are Catholic authors I admire who are much more learned than I but casually toss around the notion that if Muslims say “Allah is God” then they must be talking about the same God we worship. Allah is a fiction (like the honji suijaku) who can change his mind about anything, especially when it’s about condoning an extra wife or two for Muhammad. He is not the one God “thou shalt worship” who is revealed in His glory and holiness in the Old Testament and marvelously descends among us in the New Covenant.

Thank you, Dr. Morgan, for making the argument much clearer by setting it in such an enlightening context and for providing a tool to better deal with the modernist nonsense we have to put up with every day.

Lionel Hanaghan

Sheffield, South Yorkshire

United Kingdom


I thank Michael Thomas Cibenko and Lionel Hanaghan for their thoughtful letters. It’s rare not to have to do at least some fighting in the correspondence column of a magazine, so I am especially grateful to them for a little time off from the pugilism I think I enjoy a little too much.

Mr. Cibenko mentions Masaru, a book I have on my shelf and recommend highly. In it, he tells a story about Japan and religion that is brimming with historical particulars. It is just this kind of particularity that makes our faith radically different. A Man of undoubted historical existence was beaten and nailed to a cross at the order of another man, whose name we also know. The executed Man’s disciples, whose names and professions we know as well, told everyone they met about something extraordinary that happened three days after the Man’s death. The perpetual virginity of the Man’s mother; the real presence of that Man, body, blood, soul, and divinity, in the Eucharist; the reality of Hell; the necessity of telling our sins (in concrete and plain language) to a priest (who acts in the person of the Man) — these are not fairytales or myths. These are realities, and we can be confident that no amount of honji-suijacking will dilute them or take them away.

Mr. Hanaghan writes from a country being overrun by followers of Allah. In our human weakness or pride or just basic cluelessness (or all three), we might be tempted to take the easy way out and declare Allah to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But this bit of ecumenical treachery, while certainly rampant among Catholics, may be more a function of Protestantism than of Islam. Are we not told that Christians, Jews, and Muslims are “people of the book,” those who hold to sacred texts written in and around the Levant and Arabia? Here is where we Catholics must, well, protest. We are not people of the book. We are, as Pope St. John Paul II said, Easter people. We drink the blood and eat the flesh — literally, not figuratively, and certainly not in some literary sense — of a particular Man. We are the adopted sons and daughters of a living God. I would bet that if we told Muslims this more plainly, many would recoil in horror. But not all. As it is now, the easy road of papering over differences, as it were, by pretending that religion is a form of textual analysis and that Allah is Yahweh, is doing little but facilitating the continued takeover of formerly Christian lands.

I hope Cibenko and Hanaghan will pray for me. I’d like to see them in the real Heaven someday — not some manmade imitation of it conjured out of honji-sui-hijacked truths and modernized into generic oblivion.

Respite from the Storm

Kenneth Colston’s article “Does Good Liturgy Beget Moral Virtue?” (June) resonated with me for several reasons. As the mother of nine, I have found refuge in the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). We moved to St. Louis in 2017 and, shortly thereafter, my husband and I became foster parents of a family member of mine. Howie had serious medical concerns, including autism, which left him unable to interact with others or even accept physical affection when he came to our home. For quite some time, we took him to our local diocesan parish, which had a nursery staffed by people who graciously watched him so we could participate in the Novus Ordo liturgy without dealing with his restlessness and outbursts. His needs were so severe that the local school district offered him over 30 hours of direct services in our home.

Our time in St. Louis was difficult. Eventually, my husband lost his job and had to look nationwide for a new position. In an attempt to keep Howie, we decided that my husband would relocate alone while I stayed behind with the children to try to retain custody. This was a time of trial, one in which I was particularly attracted to the sublimity of the TLM, particularly the High Mass as celebrated by the Institute of Christ the King (ICK) at St. Francis de Sales Oratory. In order to participate in the Mass, I would have to bring seven of my children with me, including Howie. Recalling the many years I’d spent outside church during Mass, I realized that the worst that would happen is I would stand on the front steps of this church during Mass as well.

As I entered the gothic building, my heart and soul were elevated to God. I was transfixed by the beautiful liturgy and was able to enter into contemplation. As the mother of a large, busy, and complicated family, the ability to hear Mass without expectations was a balm to my soul. That is, I could just enter into union with God, without the expectation that I prove my involvement in the Mass by call and response or enthusiastic clapping. I could just be with Him, in the midst of my struggles, and He would just be with me.

As moved as I was by the Mass, the truly phenomenal experience was that of my dear Howie. Then four years old, he would enter into the same beautiful church, and the sensory experience would calm his troubled soul. I could feel him melt into me as the schola elevated their voices to praise the Creator.

I truly believe that the TLM is the best Mass for people with special needs, but then don’t we all have special needs? Our souls were made for beauty and communion with God. This world makes us weary. By celebrating a Mass that is truly sacred, that is set apart, the ICK and others who preserve this liturgy give us weary travelers a respite from the storm and an opportunity for true communion with the Creator who made us to be united with Him and wants to draw us to Himself.

Susan Sucher

Eldersburg, Maryland


Susan Sucher’s poignant insight about the TLM’s suitability for harried moms and people with special needs reminds me of how alienated I felt as a temporarily hearing-impaired visitor to European Novus Ordo Masses this summer. The chant and choreography of the TLM are tender mercies for these preoccupied, noisy times.

A Truly Awful Rendition

I can’t recognize in Alex Pinelli’s review of Matthew Continetti’s The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism (Jul.-Aug.) the same book I read. The Right is a truly awful rendition of modern American conservatism.

Continetti, the son-in-law of William Kristol, totally misrepresents the conservative movement to elevate neoconservatives as the reason for its success while denigrating the role of Catholics such as L. Brent Bozell and Patrick J. Buchanan. One of the heroes in his book is liberal-turned-neocon Norman Podhoretz. Continetti never mentions how Podhoretz destroyed the career of Joe Sobran, a Catholic and one of the finest writers ever to grace the pages of National Review.

Continetti hails the contributions of neoconservatives to the conservative movement even though they have been a terribly destructive force and are not authentic conservatives.

Tom Pauken

Dallas, Texas


I thank Tom Pauken for his response to my review of Matthew Continetti’s The Right. He makes a valid point that Continetti heaps praise on the neoconservative bloc and ushers other factions of the conservative movement (paleoconservatives, traditionalists, and libertarians) to the margins of his work. If readers would like to delve more fully into what Mr. Pauken alludes to as the faults or misguided understandings of what “true conservativism” might be, I encourage them to read arguably the most ardent defender of this position, Paul Gottfried. He has penned a number of books on the subject, including Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right (2007), The Great Purge: The Deformation of the Conservative Movement (2012), and The Vanishing Tradition: Perspectives on American Conservatism (2020). Or, from an outside academic perspective, readers may prefer George Hawley’s Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism (2016).

Nevertheless, Continetti rightly understands and focuses on the neoconservative movement as the central vehicle by which conservatism, in the political realm, came to power. One may indeed argue, as Gottfried and Pauken do, whether what emerged in the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century is conservatism in the purest sense of the term. But, from a historical perspective, what did come to fruition was a coalition centered around many of the economic and foreign-policy goals for which the neoconservatives pushed. They were undoubtedly successful in, as Gottfried puts it, “purging” parts of the larger movement from political power and solidifying their own hold on it.

Did other influences affect the conservative movement during this time, and did Continetti overlook them as well? Absolutely. Yet, he does a masterful job of emphasizing how the most politically potent force within conservatism rose to power while highlighting those he considers central during that rise, and it is because of this that his book is a powerful one. If readers are interested in the larger scope of conservative intellectual developments during the latter half of the 20th century, I advise them to read George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (1976; new edition, 2006), arguably the foundational historical work on the topic.

Lying & the Moral Law

I disagree with Brian Besong that lies should always be prohibited under the moral law (“Are ‘White Lies’ Ever Permissible?” Jul.-Aug.). The question is whether exceptions exist. I believe they do, and I agree with many that lying to a Nazi officer to protect a Jewish family in hiding is, despite Dr. Besong’s protestations, a useful example.

The problem with a no-exceptions position is that moral obligations can conflict with one other. Jesus gave us the Great Commandment, to love God fully, and its necessary companion, to love our neighbor. In the “Nazis at the door” example, the first thing is our duty to love our neighbor. Here, the dual obligations of charity to our neighbor and disclosing the truth are in conflict. To allow the Nazis to capture the family in hiding due to our refusal to lie is a severe violation of our duty to charity. Does the higher duty of love of neighbor not take precedence over the duty not to lie?

Lying requires impermissible intent. If the intent is, in charity, to save someone’s life threatened by a person seeking to do evil, then the lie is defensible, even necessary. Consider that it is morally permissible to defend with appropriate force the life of our Jewish neighbor in hiding. Can we really say, then, that it is impermissible to protect the same Jewish family with a lie? After all, violence is forbidden by the Fifth Commandment, yet, for all but pacifists, we recognize exceptions to it.

Lying is morally wrong in most circumstances. But an untruth spoken with the intent of love (to save a Jewish family, in this case), to deflect embarrassment from a friend or spouse, or to exaggerate facts to make a point (as Jesus did in the great rabbinic tradition of hyperbole) need not be morally wrong. Admitting exceptions to a sacred moral principle need not open the door to rampant lying, sexual license, or other sinful trends. That is the beauty of the Catholic Church and her teaching authority. We can stand for the truth yet not be nervously fundamentalistic about it. Lying is a sin against the God of Truth, but exceptions are necessary in union with the God of Love.

Randall Petrides

Grand Blanc, Michigan

Brian Besong’s fine article made me wonder about espionage in wartime. It seems unlikely that Besong would claim that taking on such a role is immoral (assuming, of course, that he accepts Augustine’s “just war” concept). But a spy is doing more than just telling a lie — he is living one.

John Harutunian

Newtonville, Massachusetts

Brian Besong makes interesting distinctions about lying. Another subtle distinction involves the frequency of telling white lies as a possible proving ground for the later telling of black lies, which are the kind Satan especially likes us to tell. Now, black lies are deadly sins, starting with the lie that led to the Fall, namely, “If you eat the fruit of this tree, you will be as great as God.” Yet we like to think that not all lies are deadly and are, therefore, eminently forgivable.

There is scriptural foundation for this: “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly” (1 Jn. 5:16-17).

Carl Sundell

Lubbock, Texas

I thank Brian Besong for his thoughtful article. He argues that the Catholic Church, with reliance on SS Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, teaches “an absolute prohibition on lying.” Besong insists that no matter the situation, even those involving harm to ourselves or others, natural-law morality requires that we always speak words that communicate literal reality. However, Catholic morality on this issue is far more nuanced and complex. Besong’s view suffers from a literalist understanding of language and communication, and it fails to make a sufficient distinction between lying as a direct offense against truth and acts of deception that can be morally justified.

Besong takes on Catholic moral theologian Janet Smith. Prompted by Live Action’s 2011 videos in which pro-lifers passed themselves off as a pimp and prostitutes to expose Planned Parenthood staffs’ willingness to hide sex-traffickers, Smith defended the pro-lifers’ false communication, as I did in my 2011 article “Did Live Action Lie?” (CatholicVote.org).

Consider the following situation. A person goes to the bank to make a withdrawal. The teller asks, “How are you doing today?” The customer responds, “I’m doing well, thank you.” However, the customer is far from well and, in fact, is withdrawing money to finance an escape from her abusive husband. According to an “absolute prohibition on lying,” this woman sinned against the Eighth Commandment. Besong doesn’t take into consideration that language is not simply words that convey literal meaning, but that words take on meaning and sense according to the context and circumstances in which they are spoken. The teller is only expressing courtesy to the customer. The customer certainly doesn’t expect that the busy teller really wants to know her personal situation, and she is not obligated to tell the literal truth.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional” (emphasis in original), and we are required “in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it” (no. 2488). Moreover, “No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it” (no. 2489).

The Catechism identifies the components of a lie as (1) speaking or acting (2) against the truth (3) to lead someone into error (cf. no. 2483). In other words, a person must intend to lead another into error. And if error only refers to leading someone to think something is true when it isn’t, and not moral error, then all undercover police officers and spies are guilty of sin. But that is not what the Church teaches. The Catechism also states, “The virtue of truth gives another his just due” (no. 2469), implying that the truth may be withheld from those who do evil, as such persons have lost their moral entitlement to a “just due.”

Besong dismisses the fact that the first version of the Catechism included an interesting qualifier: “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” (no. 2483). He says this appeared only in an early French edition. Not true. It is in all early English editions and has never been removed from the Vatican archive, which is easily accessible online. And as Smith pointed out, the Church has never stated that the original version was an error.

Aquinas taught that lying is the will to make a false statement, contrary to what one knows to be true, that causes another to be deceived. However, even he taught that ambushes in war could be morally justified (cf. Summa Theologiae II, II, q40, art. 3). He cites the actions of Joshua, who tricked the enemy by instructing his army to pretend to retreat when, in fact, they were luring their foes into a trap. Aquinas approved of gestures of false signification, stating, “A man may be deceived by what we say or do, because we do not declare our purpose or meaning to him.”

The Thomist system provides principles as to why false statements or donning a false identity is not always necessarily immoral. Smith relied on those principles in her First Things article (June 2011). Aquinas states (cf. Summa II, II, q110) that actions have two ends: the end for which a person acts (remote end) and the means by which the end is achieved (object or proximate end), and both ends are willed by the acting person. As Smith points out, neither Aquinas nor the Church considers the use of lethal force in defense of life to be an “exception” to the prohibition of murder.

Why? The answer lies in the exact nature of an act of self-defense. Aquinas teaches that even when acting in self-defense we do not have a right to the direct killing of the aggressor. Emphasis here must be on the word direct. Since we have a right to protect our life and a duty to protect the lives of others, the action taken to achieve that end is not direct killing. Thus, I may use a weapon in an action that thwarts acts of aggression. My direct intention and the object of my use of the weapon are to thwart the aggressor, not kill him. However, an effect of my intention and my action may result in the death of the assailant, but this ontic evil is the indirect result of an action that is morally right and just. Readers may recognize here the Principle of Double Effect.

Let’s apply this to the use of words and actions. Since we may use a weapon to thwart the evil actions of others, language, too, may be employed as a type of weapon, put to the use of self-defense and also to thwart the evil actions of others — keeping in mind that the evildoer is not “due” the literal truth by which he may accomplish his evildoing. False signification is intended to prevent evil, to steer the evildoer from doing evil. That the evildoer is deceived, thinks something is true when it is not, is an indirect result of an otherwise morally good action. If I may use a gun to defend myself and others, I may likewise use words as a weapon to defend myself and others, even should such words indirectly bring about ontic evil.

Let’s apply the above elements to false identity. Assuming a person acts for a good end, what is he actually doing in the object or proximate intention of his action? By assuming a false identity, he intends an act of self-defense and only secondarily an act of deception. The person, in effect, cloaks himself, thus defending himself against those who have no right to know who he is. The false identify does not directly offend against the good of truth because the primary object of his action is to hide himself — the indirect effect being the deception of those with whom he comes into contact who will treat him unjustly.

Besong neglected to discuss “broad mental reservation,” a manner of speaking approved by the Church, also known as equivocation. Fr. John Hardon, S.J., provided a definition in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, writing that speech may have more than one interpretation, and to satisfy broad mental reservation, the meaning of words must at least be accessible to reason according to the words themselves or “by reason of the circumstances.… The speaker foresees that in this other meaning the one listening will not understand. For a sufficient reason, it is permitted for others to deceive themselves by taking the wrong meaning of what is said, and this remains true although the listener, because of his ignorance, does not know there is another meaning to what he had heard.”

False signification finds approval in Scripture. A common example is God’s rewarding the Jewish midwives who gave Pharaoh a false explanation for why they disobeyed his order to kill all Jewish boys as soon as they were born (cf. Exod. 1:17-21). Even Jesus employed false signification. When Our Lord appeared to two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus, “they were near the village to which they were going, and Jesus acted as if he were going farther” (Lk. 24:28). The original word in Greek is pretended. So, Jesus, shall we say, feigned as if He did not intend to spend more time with the two disciples. His acting as if He were “going farther” prompted them to freely invite Him to stay with them, and Christ intended His pretense to give them this opportunity. Surely, this alone demonstrates that not all false signification is immoral.

Monica Migliorino Miller

Professor of Theology, Sacred Heart Major Seminary

Detroit, Michigan


I thank these correspondents for their thoughtful engagement with my article. The nearly perennial teaching of Catholic moralists I defended is challenging, and many questions arise naturally as to its justification and implementation. I hope that in time the concerns these readers raise can be made clear. But for reasons of space, I will respond to Monica Migliorino Miller’s more detailed letter.

Dr. Miller begins with an understandable but regrettable error. She states that, for me, “natural-law morality requires that we always speak words that communicate literal reality.” For this reason, she claims, I must condemn statements that are literally false but reveal a person’s mind based on linguistic convention. She goes on to imply, though not explicitly assert, that I must similarly condemn a person’s choice to remain silent (not revealing known truth), as well as deceptive acts and words, including an implied condemnation of (or at least ambivalence regarding) broad mental reservation.

This is, frankly, a caricature of the natural-law position. I said relatively little about the positive norms for communication. My article, as its title suggests, is centrally about whether the few contemporary defenses of so-called white lies are plausible. I argue they are not. Unfortunately, Miller does not engage these arguments, even though they apply directly to her proposed defense of white lies, which is nearly identical to Janet Smith’s (the primary subject of my analysis).

I did not attend to every nuance of the natural law regarding communication, not from neglect but for reasons of space. Those who would like a detailed examination of how the natural law applies to communication, including the myriad issues I could not address in my article — such as obligations to speak or remain silent, deceptive acts, and mental reservation — would do well to read my book An Introduction to Ethics: A Natural Law Approach (2018), particularly the section on “The Principle of Double Effect and Deception.” There I agree with nearly everything Miller suggests is permissible, except for her defense of lies.

On the view Miller attributes to me, maliciously intended lies that accidentally state the truth are not lies (since they, in fact, do “communicate literal reality”) while sincerely believed and communicated falsehoods are lies, as are nearly all idioms. These are surprising conclusions that might have engendered caution before making the attribution. To the question “What’s up?” the only literally true answer involves clouds, the sky, and celestial bodies.

The natural-law view I briefly defend is that we are obliged to use our communicative power toward its natural end, namely, to reveal our mind. But we can communicatively act to reveal our mind in many ways, not merely by an assertive speech act the truth of which is fully literal. I can reveal my mind by metaphorical assertions, too (e.g., “it’s raining cats and dogs”). I can reveal it by jokes, consoling words, rebukes, or commands. I can also reveal my mind by statements that are open to interpretation — including false interpretation — as long as at least one natural (i.e., conventional) interpretation is in keeping with what I think. A mind is not an encyclopedia of literal, descriptive facts. Saying I am doing “fine” on a bad day asserts hardly anything at all, but it does manifest my intention to exchange polite pleasantries, given current linguistic conventions.

We reveal our minds by employing conventional communicative standards, including standards for what counts as an assertion. For this reason, I can no more mean “yes” when saying “no” than I can flatly declare “I did not see Dan at the office on Wednesday” and, unbeknown to any listener, intend the statement as a joke. Conventional norms govern both the meanings of words and the characteristics of speech acts, no matter our private intentions. Nor did I imply that we must always communicate, even in contexts in which a question is posed to us. When we are permitted to refrain from using one or another of our powers is a matter determined by circumstances. After all, it would be impossible to employ every natural power all the time.

According to Miller, I claim that the restricted condemnation of lying when there is a right to knowledge occurs “only in an early French edition” of the Catechism. She rightfully points out that it was included in the 1994 English edition, too (no. 2483) — an edition that includes a qualification: “This translation is subject to revision according to the Latin typical edition (editio typica) when it is published.” The “only” is her insertion, not mine. The French edition I referenced was published in 1992, two years prior to the early English editions, and is thus the more natural reference.

Miller’s attention to an early edition that included “right to know” helps drive home an important point: These early editions were explicitly “subject to revision” and were, in fact, revised on the very point under discussion. Leaning heavily for support on retracted statements in this context is telling. Moreover, I never dismissed them, despite Miller’s assertion to the contrary. An attentive reader will see that I agreed with them: Asserting falsehoods to those who have a right to know is a lie and is wrong, just as those early editions say. But it’s also wrong for me to tell the store cashier that I’ll soon be a contestant on Survivor or that I’ve just been diagnosed with stage-four cancer. The cashier has no right to know the contrary — these are thus ostensibly “white” lies — but are wrong, notwithstanding. Early editions of the Catechism may not have ventured to call these latter statements “lies,” but they also did not declare them permissible. Common sense tells us they are wrong, in exact accordance with the position of the natural law, and the official Catechism confirms the deliverances of the natural law and common sense on this point.

Finally, Miller’s proposal for white lies appears indistinguishable from the views I analyzed in my article. For her, words can be compared to weapons, and lies to social acts like self-defense. That’s well and good as a model for understanding when lies are “white.” But as I pointed out, vacating communication of any internal teleology — subsuming it as merely another way to socialize — implies more than its advocates could hope to intend. Moreover, the proposal is just as naturally applicable to other powers that involve socialization, such as sexuality, with results that clearly run contrary to the perennial Christian tradition.

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