Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lance Armstrong, Means, and Ends

On sports talk radio the past two days, the general consensus concerning Lance Armstrong's admission to having doped his way to 7 Tour De France's has been this:

"I don't care that Lance cheated, he's helped so many people with cancer."

This is certainly an understandable sentiment.  We all know people taken by cancer, and so anyone who brings awareness and fund-raising clout to the fight is a most welcome participant.

But, as with all sin, Lance's lies didn't just affect himself.  It can't be said "well, he has to deal with his lies and get right with God."  Lance crushed people to keep the lie going.  He trashed people's credibility, tore people down, etc.

Most people, again as evidenced by talk radio on a day-in day-out basis believe something the Church considers VERY problematic...most people believe that the ends justify the means.  That is to say that most people believe the results are what matters, and if you have to break a few rules along the way, well, that's okay.

One of the best paragraphs of the Catechism is paragraph 1887:

"The inversion of means and ends...make Christian conduct in keeping with the commandments of the divine Law-giver difficult and almost impossible."

I had philosophy and theology teachers in college try to beat it into us that "the end justifies the means" that "the H Bomb being dropped on Hiroshima (bad means) was justified in the end because it probably would have saved more lives (good end)", that "a Jewish woman hiding in a basement from the Nazi's should kill her screaming baby (bad means) to save herself and her other children (good end)" etc. etc.

The Church very clearly says, however, that 

The end result never makes the way you got there okay

The way you got there was either good or bad

The ends NEVER justify the means

But as the Catechism notes, if we disagree with the Church on this idea, and we instead think that ends can justify means, then truly following God becomes

difficult and almost impossible

Why would thinking ends can justify means make it almost impossible to follow God...because as any teenager can tell you, if the ends justify the means, then pretty quickly Anything goes, as long as this long line of actions of mine is justified by something positive at the end.

This is an important thing we have to help people begin to understand again - the ends can't justify the means...even if the end is raising lots of money for cancer.  The end result is great, the path was not, and the path is not vindicated by the end result.


  1. Father John, My family loves to read your blog. My son Kevin and I have been having a long discussion over the "ends and means" for the past month. I believe that their are times that the end is justified by the means. For example, should the Christians who were hiding Jews not lie (bear false witness) in order to save their life during the Nazi Holocaust. An immoral mean to justify a greater good. Looking forward to your response. If I don't agree with it, it might require a dinner discussion at my expense. Thanks for all you do as an awesome Catholic Priest. - Joe Banich

    1. "Jose" - great to hear from you. Your question is a great one. The ONLY "sin" that Catholic theologians debate vigorously on as possibly being able to do in certain circumstances is lying. Some theologians say "we can never lie" and that Christians should have not lied to protect Jewish people, while other Catholic theologians argue passionately that the very nature of the word "lie" might mean something slightly different, and the debate typically starts to look at what the Hebrew word for "lie" is or the Latin or Greek word etc., and I usually get lost.

      Here's a good excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
      "Following St. Augustine and St. Thomas, Catholic divines and ethical writers commonly make a distinction between (1) injurious, or hurtful, (2) officious, and (3) jocose lies. Jocose lies are told for the purpose of affording amusement. Of course what is said merely and obviously in joke cannot be a lie: in order to have any malice in it, what is said must be naturally capable of deceiving others and must be said with the intention of saying what is false. An officious, or white, lie is such that it does nobody any injury: it is a lie of excuse, or a lie told to benefit somebody. An injurious lie is one which does harm.

      It has always been admitted that the question of lying creates great difficulties for the moralist. From the dawn of ethical speculation there have been two different opinions on the question as to whether lying is ever permissible. Aristotle, in his Ethics, seems to hold that it is never allowable to tell a lie, while Plato, in his Republic, is more accommodating; he allows doctors and statesmen to lie occasionally for the good of their patients and for the common weal. Modern philosophers are divided in the same way. Kant allowed a lie under no circumstance...St. Augustine, however, took the opposite side, and wrote two short treatises to prove that it is never lawful to tell a lie."

      You can find more (a fascinating article) here:

      Another article titled "Some Things Catholics Do Not Believe":

      "Catholics do not believe that it is allowable to break a lawful oath, or tell a lie, or do any other wicked thing whatever for the sake of promoting the supposed interest of the Church, or for any good, however great, likely to arise from it. The false and pernicious principle that the end justifies the means, or that we may do evil that good may come, is utterly condemned by the Catholic Church."

      So, to answer your question, good Catholics disagree on whether one can ever lie, and that is the one sin that is debated as potentially, in some circumstances, the end can justify the means. No matter which camp a person is in, it ought to be clear to all Catholics that under no other circumstance (no other type of sin) can this question even be discussed.

      (one quick p.s. - St. Thomas Aquinas also says it is okay for a person who is on the verge of death to steal food in that instance.)

  2. Father John, Thanks for the reply. I get it. I struggle with it but I do understand the position of the Church which is what Kevin has been trying to get through to me. Now I certainly have a few other topics that I need your guidance on that Kevin and I have spoken about in the past couple of months. I would love to do this over a dinner. - Very Best Regards - Joe.

  3. Of course there can always be discussion. But in this case there is only one right answer. As the Catechism puts it, "By its very nature, lying is to be condemned." In other words, lying is intrinsicly wrong, meaning there are no circumstances that justify. There are however some circumstances that excuse it. There is plenty of room for discussion is how grave the lie is and how culpable one is for doing it. So in the famous Nazi's at the door scenario, the extreme duress renders a person not responsible for what he says, so his culpability is practically non-existent. For more see Dr. Ed Feser:

    1. Scott, as Fr John has pointed out, it is a debated subject. Just because it is in the Catechism, doesn't make it infallible. If it was infallible, it wouldn't be open for discussion.

  4. Yes, what constitutes a lie is debatable. Also, how grave certain lies are is debatable. And how culpable one would be for telling a lie is debatable. But as far as lying as an act in and of itself, Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium all teach that it is intrinsically wrong.

    1. Okay, so a person lies, then they find out that it is intrinsically evil. Then, in order to get around that, they change the definition of lie. This has been done before, I am aware. If you want to just argue with me by repeating yourself then have at it, but you won't get any responses by me. To sit there and say that lying is NEVER justified but then say it is excused is like saying lying is always wrong but we won't count me that's just stupid. You could do the same thing with should not have had an abortion because it is intrinsically evil but because of your circumstance, we just wont count it, it's "excused". Or, you could just change the definition of abortion.....having an abortion due to rape is not an abortion and therefore not you see my argument? And again....stating something in the catechism does not make it irreformable, ie infallible.

    2. Then, in order to get around that, they change the definition of lie.

      Who changes the definition of a lie? Occasionally, I see someone try to say actors in a play are lying, but these don't meet the criteria of a lie; they are pretenses with no intent to deceive. This is what I was getting at when I said what constitutes a lie is debatable--that is, there is more to meeting the criteria of a lie than a mere falsehood.

      If you want to just argue with me by repeating yourself then have at it, but you won't get any responses by me.

      Obviously if are done with the discussion, there is nothing I can do about it, but I will continue for the sake of anyone else reading. It's not about arguing, it's about getting to the truth. I'm not sure why this warrants what seems like agitation or impatience.

      To sit there and say that lying is NEVER justified but then say it is excused is like saying lying is always wrong but we won't count me that's just stupid.

      Excused is probably a poor word choice on my part. What I mean is the relative gravity and the subjective culpability of someone who tells a lie. The Dr. Feser article can explain it better than I can, but in short, lying is always wrong, but not all lies are grave, and not everyone who tells one is fully responsible for it if it was coerced or with other circumstances.

      You could do the same thing with should not have had an abortion because it is intrinsically evil but because of your circumstance, we just wont count it, it's "excused".

      Again, excused is a bad word choice. Abortion is of course always wrong as a chosen act, and the Church even has automatic excommunication for those who do it. But as you may or may not know excommunications are not meant to be permanent, and in some cases the automatic excommunication does not apply. I'm no canon lawyer, but I think being underage is one of those exceptions. The abortion is still wrong, but some of the penalties are not applied. It works the same way in the secular legal system as well. If we are talking about it as mortal sin, we need to remember that mortal sin requires a grave wrongdoing, knowledge that it is wrong, and done with free will.

      And again....stating something in the catechism does not make it irreformable, ie infallible.

      I only gave a very small piece of the Catechism. It's in a rather lengthy section on the 8th Commandment. I've seen many people wrangle with it, but I have yet to see anyone point out an error in it. Scripture, Tradition, and the Magesterium all affirm the wrongness of lying and "The Catechism isn't infallible" isn't an argument.

    3. Scott, I first want to apologize for my nastiness on my previous post, I don't know where that came from.

      My problem here is that Fr. John's post suggests to me that this subject has been in debate heavily in the past and not just whether something is a lie but even that some lies are not immoral. It seems incorrect to say that scripture, tradition, and the magesterium all affirm this when, based on Fr's statements, there have been differences of opinions. I don't think you can know what kind of debating has gone on with the magesterium on this subject in the past. I say that the Catechism isn't infallible because you appear to use it like it is infallible when you say it's not up for discussion and therefore I think it is a valid argument. You can't just say that something is not able to be discussed just because it's in the catechism. I hope this comment sounds less disrespectful and look forward to your response.

  5. Thanks. Apology accepted. I've had a lot of experience discussing this topic and it more than almost any other gets heated and personal fast. For the record, I sometimes stumble and tell small lies to avoid trouble, so I'm not trying to play holier-than-thou. But therein reveals the problem: lying is to the mind what masturbation is to the body. They are sins that are immediately available to us and easy to indulge if we don't remain vigilant. They are also very easy to rationalize with "What's the big deal?"

    You are right that the Catechism is not infallible, but it is authoritative and our "sure teaching norm", and the official (so to speak) teaching, binding on the faithful, is that lying is intrinsically wrong.

    1. Okay, well then lets get back to the situation where a person tells a lie to a nazi about the location of some Jews to keep them from getting killed by the Nazi's. Now I can understand how the weight of a person's sin does not amount to much, but to suggest that it is a sin at all suggests that the lie was not something that God wanted the person to do at all, but rather tell the truth, but telling the truth would get those Jews killed. Based on the instrinsic evil argument, this is still a sin and therefore not what God wanted the person to do.