National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 18, 2003

Lies, damned lies, and duplicity


The current search for weapons of mass destruction takes place amid a national murmur about lying and leadership. Have President Bush and his administration lied about their information? Have they deceived us into thinking that there are links between al-Qaeda and Iraq? Are they fibbing when they say that further tax cuts are really designed to stimulate the economy?

I myself don’t believe that we’re often going to catch members of the Bush administration telling blatant, flat-out lies. We may find them changing their minds, breaking a few promises, not telling the whole story, or cleverly putting a spin on things. That’s arguably a bit different, though, from materially telling a bald-faced lie.

I prefer to call the process of selectively holding back information and putting a spin on things a form of duplicity. Duplicity involves deceit, but not just any old deceit. A flat-out lie is not duplicitous. Duplicity involves a “two-ness,” like being a double agent or using a double meaning. It can involve painting a situation to look one way while knowing that it is another way.

As an American Catholic, I look within my tradition to consider whether there might ever be moral justification for equivocation or duplicity in the face of what is perceived to be a clear and present danger.

When I was in seventh grade in Resurrection School in Philadelphia, Sr. Helen Magdalene brought up the dilemma of what to say if you were hiding Jews in your basement and the Nazis came knocking on your door. She advised that upon being questioned as to where the Jews are, you should respond aloud, “I don’t know,” and then quickly under your breath say “whether I should tell you or not.” With the completed sentence, you and God knew that you were not materially lying. You were only deceiving the Nazis for the sake of a cause that God himself would approve.

Thomas Aquinas supports this position in the Summa Theologiae, citing Augustine as his authority. Although it is not permissible to tell a material lie even to free someone from danger, one can prudently mask the truth.

I teach at the University of Dayton, Marianist in heritage. One of my favorite stories about Blessed William Joseph Chaminade, the founder of the Marianists, involves deception. As a young priest in France who was being hunted in the wake of the Revolution, Chaminade disguised himself as an old man. Soon after he turned a corner, he came upon some of the soldiers who were seeking him. Upon being questioned as to whether he had seen Chaminade, Chaminade pointed back and said, “He just went around that corner.” Prudently masking the truth indeed.

I’m inclined to think that members of the present administration are nearly as clever as Chaminade in using materially true statements in order to achieve what they perceive as necessary ends. When Condoleezza Rice, months preceding the war, said, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” she made sense. It wasn’t a bald-faced lie. There’s still some truth in the remark taken at face value.

But it was a remark that took its weight from a pile of supporting presuppositions that had more to do with communications policy than with sharing the real but messy data with the voting public. It was a remark made within a context in which the administration had already decided about what they judged needed to be done on a variety of grounds. One of those grounds, the WMD, became the main way that the war was sold to the American people. The process of justification was one of fitting together selectively a number of true things in order to make happen what the administration thought needed to happen.

An example of duplicity with special significance for Catholics is provided by Donald Rumsfeld, during the height of the war, when he was interviewed on “Meet the Press” (March 23). Tim Russert asked for his reaction to these words of Pope John Paul II: “Whoever decides that all peaceful means available under international laws are exhausted assumes a grave responsibility before God, his own conscience, and history.” Rumsfeld replied that what the pope said is true, and that “very few people could disagree with what the pope said.” With passion he explained that the president did not want to go to war, that all diplomatic means had been exhausted, and that he even gave Saddam a 48-hour opportunity to leave Iraq. Rumsfeld explicitly emphasized that this war was a “last choice,” a phrase that consciously echoed the “last resort” criterion of the Catholic just war tradition.

Rumsfeld did not lie materially in any one of his sentences, even though his overall response was deceptive. He knew that John Paul II had expressed deep anguish not only with Iraq’s refusal to properly disarm but also with the United States’ action in invading Iraq. Rumsfeld also knew that what Catholic just war tradition means by “last resort” and what he meant by “last choice” are two different things.

Rumsfeld thus allowed the uninformed to believe that he agreed with John Paul II about the war. Like Rice, he used materially true statements to prudently mask the truth. As Sr. Helen Magdalene had advised us to deceive the Nazis, so Rice and Rumsfeld were holding back from their audience in support of what they judged to be a higher cause.

In this case, though, their deceptions did not diffuse a crisis but exacerbated one. Their deceptions did not save lives but led to many deaths. Their deceptions were not in the face of a clear and present danger but were precisely about whether a clear and present danger existed.

And, in this case, the ones knocking on the door were not the Nazis but the American people.

Dennis Doyle teaches theology at the University of Dayton and is the author of Communion Ecclesiology: Vision and Versions and The Church Emerging from Vatican II.

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2003

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