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Chesterton on Lying: Fresh Evidence

February 5, AD2014 13 Comments


“…the Church is always the only thing defending whatever is at the moment stupidly despised.”

—G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion, 1926]

“But every man is a casuist or a lunatic.”

—G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion, 1926

Gilbert Keith Chesterton is considered by many Catholics to be among the towering giants of early-20th-century Catholic writers, if not the cream of the crop. It even appears that his cause for beatification/canonization is beginning. I jokingly associate him with one miracle already—the miracle of having written so very, very prolifically. How could one man write so much?

Therefore, it’s easy for individual readers like me to discover nuggets of Chestertonian prose previously unknown to us. This happened not too long ago when investigating how great Catholic thinkers have understood the morality of “lying” and its expression in Church teaching. I had completely overlooked Chesterton’s assertions as found in The Catholic Church and Conversion, a 1926 work that matter-of-factly happens to assert the permissibility of Catholics holding a view that sometimes so-called “lies” are in fact morally permissible.

Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism came at a time when Protestant and Catholic England remained embroiled in back-and-forth accusation and defense against prejudicial and stereotypical charges and countercharges regarding matters of faith and morals. Thus, the Protestant charge was that the “Jesuitical” priests of the “Popish” Church could not be trusted because in the worst moments of England’s conflicted faith history, Jesuit priests sent undercover to minister to the Catholics of England employed verbal deception to evade being captured and executed by the Anglican state. This gave rise to the Protestant prejudice against the “Popish” priest-as-liar. “Casuistry”—which in essence means viewing moral decision making more on a “case” basis (examining concrete cases to understand moral right or wrong)—was a specialty of the “Jesuits” and the English Protestant view was decidedly biased toward Catholics and their “casuistic” view of truth and truth-telling.

Chesterton’s 1926 book The Catholic Church and Conversion is his account of various aspects of his becoming Catholic. He surveys a variety of things affecting his journey of faith. He recognizes, he says, that “there is a state of transition that must be allowed for in which a vague Protestant prejudice would rather like to have it both ways.” He says regarding “these dying calumnies” that it is “necessary to some extent clear them away.” He says “let us consider the evidence of all these things being black, before we go on to the inconvenient fact of their being white.”

It is clear that Chesterton’s intention in writing is to reveal the false and assert the true regarding the many Protestant claims against “Popery”. The following passage is such an example:

 “A shade more plausible than the notion that Popish priests merely seek after evil was the notion that they are exceptionally ready to seek good by means of evil. In vulgar language, it is the notion that if they are not sensual they are always sly. To dissipate this is a mere matter of experience; but before I had any experience I had seen some objections to the thing even in theory. The theory attributed to the Jesuits was very often almost identical with the practice adopted by nearly everybody I knew. Everybody in society practised verbal economies, equivocations and often direct fictions, without any sense of essential falsehood. Every gentleman was expected to say he would be delighted to dine with a bore; every lady said that somebody else\’s baby was beautiful if she thought it as ugly as sin: for they did not think it a sin to avoid saying ugly things. This might be right or wrong; but it was absurd to pillory half a dozen Popish priests for a crime committed daily by half a million, Protestant laymen. The only difference was that the Jesuits had been worried enough about the matter to try to make rules and limitations saving as much verbal veracity as possible; whereas the happy Protestants were not worried about it at all, but told lies from morning to night as merrily and innocently as the birds sing in the trees. The fact is, of course, that the modern world is full of an utterly lawless casuistry because the Jesuits were prevented from making a lawful casuistry. But every man is a casuist or a lunatic.

“It is true that this general truth was hidden from many by certain definite assertions. I can only call them, in simple language, Protestant lies about Catholic lying. The men who repeated them were not necessarily lying, because they were repeating. But the statements were of the same lucid and precise order as a statement that the Pope has three legs or that Rome is situated at the North Pole.”

Go back and read that again, once or more. This is Gilbert Keith Chesterton acknowledging that:

1. The theory attributed to Jesuit “casuistry” included permitting “direct fictions” that paralleled the practice of Protestants.

2. The Jesuits’ casuistry had rules and limitations to “save as much verbal veracity as possible.”

3. The “modern world” had a “lawless casuistry because the Jesuits were prevented from making a lawful casuistry.”

4. “Every man is a casuist or a lunatic.”

5. The “general truth” that “every man is a casuist or a lunatic” was “hidden” by “Protestant lies about Catholic lying.”

Chesterton’s conclusion that “every man is a casuist or a lunatic” is extremely important. It is how Chesterton himself affirms the “theory” and the “practice” he mentions as being “very often almost identical.” It lets us know that, on this point regarding the use of so-called “lying” or “direct fictions,” Chesterton clearly affirms the existence of a “*lawful* casuistry” permitted as a theological opinion in the Catholic Church, one that does not exclude sometimes using “direct fictions.”

That is, the Protestant “lie” here was that the Catholic priest was an unbounded liar and Protestants weren’t. The Chestertonian “truth” here is that Protestants were really the unconcerned liars, while it was the “casuistry” of the Jesuits’ more careful case-by-case articulation of whether all so-called “lying” was sinful (concluding that it wasn’t in all cases) that expressed a desire to save “as much verbal veracity as possible.”

Bottom line: Chesterton attests to the history of the issue of lying in the Church—theological opinions that not all so-called “lying” was sinful were not only permitted but also put into practice in order to save lives and assure the Catholic faith in Protestant England.

What About Those “Chinese Torturers”?

Can I offer any additional corroborating evidence to support this claim? Well, Chesterton *himself* certainly can (also from The Catholic Church and Conversion):

 “I remember that when I was first on the Daily News, the great Liberal organ of the Nonconformists, I took the trouble to draw up a list of fifteen falsehoods which I found out, by my own personal knowledge, in a denunciation of Rome by Messrs. Horton and Hocking. I noted, for instance, that it was nonsense to say that the Covenanters fought for religious liberty when the Covenant denounced religious toleration; that it was false to say the Church only asked for orthodoxy and was indifferent to morality, since, if this was true of anybody, it was obviously true of the supporters of salvation by faith and not of salvation by works; that it was absurd to say that Catholics introduced a horrible sophistry of saying that a man might sometimes tell a lie, since every sane man knows he would tell a lie to save a child from Chinese torturers; that it missed the whole point, in this connection, to quote Ward\’s phrase, \”Make up your mind that you are justified in lying and then lie like a trooper,\” for Ward\’s argument was against equivocation or what people call Jesuitry. He meant, \”When the child really is hiding in the cupboard and the Chinese torturers really are chasing him with red-hot pincers, then (and then only) be sure that you are right to deceive and do not hesitate to lie; but do not stoop to equivocate. Do not bother yourself to say, \”The child is in a wooden house not far from here,\” meaning the cupboard; but say the child is in Chiswick or Chimbora zoo, or anywhere you choose.\” I find I made elaborate notes of all these arguments all that long time ago, merely for the logical pleasure of disentangling an intellectual injustice. I had no more idea of becoming a Catholic than of becoming a cannibal. I imagined that I was merely pointing out that justice should be done even to cannibals. I imagined that I was noting certain fallacies partly for the fun of the thing and partly for a certain feeling of loyalty to the truth of things.”

Take some time to reread this one, too. Let’s reformulate what is said into easier propositions and look at Chesterton’s response to them:

1. Proposed: “Catholics introduce a horrible sophistry of saying that a man might sometimes tell a lie.”

Chesterton: False. “Absurd.”

Why does Chesterton say it’s a “falsehood” and “absurd”—because “every sane man knows he would tell a lie to save a child from Chinese torturers.”

2. Proposed: Catholics justify their right to lie by appealing to the quote attributed to W.G. Ward: \”Make up your mind that you are justified in lying and then lie like a trooper.\” “

 Chesterton: False. Protestants have “missed the whole point.”

Why? Because Ward’s argument had to do specifically with the so-called “Jesuitry” known as “equivocation,” wherein ambiguous but not false assertions are used precisely to avoid the objective “lie.” The “point” of Ward’s statement, according to Chesterton, is “do not stoop to equivocate” if you believe yourself “justified” in lying (so-called)—just “lie like a trooper”! Chesterton was saying that Protestants who merely use this quote as primary evidence of the  Catholic “sophistry” of permitting a man to “sometimes tell a lie” have missed Ward’s whole point about *equivocation* being unnecessary.

Fresh Evidence: The \”Money Quote\”

But wait—there’s more! This just in!

In the course of additional recent research on this subject, I’ve happened upon yet another Chesterton quote that is the real “money quote” for anyone interested in Chesterton’s take on the morality of lying. Nestled in the pages of his “All Things Considered,” tucked away in the portion labeled “Christmas,” Chesterton says this:

 “There is no ethical necessity more essential and vital than this: that casuistical exceptions, though admitted, should be admitted as exceptions. And it follows from this, I think, that, though we may do a horrid thing in a horrid situation, we must be quite certain that we actually and already are in that situation. Thus all sane moralists admit that one may sometimes tell a lie; but no sane moralist would approve of telling a little boy to practise telling lies, in case he might one day have to tell a justifiable one. Thus, morality has often justified shooting a robber or a burglar. But it would not justify going into the village Sunday school and shooting all the little boys who looked as if they might grow up into burglars. The need may arise; but the need must have arisen. It seems to me quite clear that if you step across this limit you step off a precipice.”

Beautiful! And plain as day. “All sane moralists admit that one may sometimes tell a lie” makes it crystal clear that Chesterton, like many other faithful Catholics of his day and ours, held the “less rigorous view” that differs from the Augustine/Aquinas absolute prohibition on directly asserted falsehood in all “cases” and situations.

As someone who has spent much time and energy on this moral question and the centuries-old debate surrounding it, which continues in our time, I find it very encouraging to know that the great Chesterton and I seem to think alike on many things, including this aspect of “sane” morality, which may indeed make us both “casuists”—but it saves us both from being “lunatics.”

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Deacon Jim Russell is a lifelong St. Louis resident, "cradle" Catholic, husband, father of eleven, and grandfather of two. Ordained to the Diaconate in 2002, Deacon Russell serves as Director of Liturgy for Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, the second-largest parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He remains an active supporter of Catholic radio and the Catholic blogosphere and has just begun blogging here at Catholic Stand. Deacon Russell’s theological interests include the sanctity of marriage and the work of Blessed Pope John Paul II, particularly his “Catecheses on Human Love” (Theology of the Body). Follow Deacon Russell on Twitter at @MarriageSTL.

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