Why Mark Shea is Wrong: A Defense of Live Action

I was disappointed when I read Mark Shea's post attacking Lila Rose and Live Action. I read with an open mind but also an increasing frustration and renewed awareness that yes, we are often our own worst enemies in the pro-life movement. Debate and accountability are a wonderful and healthy thing for Christian people. I do not object to Mark Shea issuing a concern. But even if Shea were right in his conclusion (I am not of this opinion), his timing and methods are questionable.

The Church Militant does not need sensational headlines and clever quips mired in shallow theological blah blah jamming up our comboxes. What we need is a holy boldness that follows the firm direction of the Church. Does that ever involve theological debate over the essential details? Absolutely. Does it justify a public attack against an ally in the midst of a critical battle? I'm not convinced.

I once had a conversation with a leading member of a national pro-life organization. She told me that she doesn't believe the pro-aborts have done half as much damage to the pro-life cause as pro-lifers themselves. She remarked that the biggest and most absurd divisions always seem to come at the most critical times.

Exhibit A: Mark Shea's recent criticism of Live Action.

Shea recently used a public forum to accuse Live Action of using sinful tactics to expose Planned Parenthood. That's a huge charge to make against fellow Christians, particularly one doing more good than most people on the pro-life front. His timing (just when the pro-life momentum is making incredible strides) and choice of venue strike me as being careless. His theology is also a bit careless and that is really where his entire argument breaks down.

First let me say this: I am not a moral theologian... but my husband is. I had my own thoughts on why Shea was wrong and presented the article to the Chief to get his impression. He was immediately able to identify the problems with Shea's argument. I'm hoping he'll write the academic version of this article since he is most qualified. In the meantime, I think the thing just needs to be said: Shea's argument is flawed.

Is lying ever permitted? 

Shea's primary objection to the undercover work of Live Action is that the end doesn't justify the means. Lying is always a sin. Therefore he contends that undercover work, for whatever reason, is not morally justifiable.

There is no question in Catholic teaching that lying is objectively wrong. There is not even room in there for a "little white lie." But there is a also a body of thought within Church tradition (including Fathers and saints) that discusses and weighs the degrees of gravity and culpability (Shea acknowledges this) and also, the idea that it can be morally permissible to withhold the truth in certain circumstances from those who do not have a right to it.

If what Shea is saying is absolutely true -- that Live Action's undercover work is deceptive to the degree that it cannot be justified -- then the following must also be true:

~ Police operations that rely on undercover work in order to stop evil are never justifiable.
~ Undercover military operations designed to stop the spread of evil are never justifiable.
~ Turning evil away from killing or defiling can never be done by withholding the truth.

It is not my intention to overthrow the Commandments of God but rather to issue a question mark to Shea's conclusion in this circumstance. I leave the nitty gritty to the theologians. If Shea allows for the above three examples but denies the same concession to Live Action's work, then he grossly misunderstands the horror and evil of abortion. On the other hand, if he concedes that all undercover operations of police and military are immoral, then he will certainly find himself on the opposite side of a great many faithful theologians and saints.

Worthwhile article on lying here: Is Lying Ever Right?

Is Live Action "tempting somebody to commit a mortal sin"?

This is the primary objection that Shea has to Live Action's undercover work. The lying bothers him but the purpose of the lie bothers him more. He suggests that the presence of a potential customer will tempt the abortionist to have murderous intentions and draw them into mortal sin. He opines that it is possible that the abortionist is on the cusp of conversion and that Live Action may have ruined the moment.

Personally, I think this is the weaker of Shea's arguments. First of all, the doors of the abortion mills are open to the public and they welcome all who can pay. They do not need to be convinced or coerced to schedule a regular appointment. They engage in mortal sin simply by accepting appointments and walking through that door. They advertise and do what business owners will do to get business. Second, abortion is legal, so the undercover work is not designed to "trap" anyone but to find out what goes on in an actual legal consultation. Additionally, Live Action's undercover work is also legal and has not violated any particular rights of the clinic workers. Live Action has only opened doors through which they were invited as potential customers.

To suggest that an undercover operative is disrupting the work of personal conversion is as bizarre as suggesting that it is better to allow a child sex ring leader to convert on his own good time because we wouldn't want to interfere with the work of the Holy Spirit on the man's heart.

A sound argument can certainly be made, however, that the forcible stopping of evil action is good for the soul of an evildoer... that the work of stopping evil can do more for converting a bad man than permitting him to continue in it. We can always do our best to love people peacefully to conversion. In the meantime, we must do what we can to stop their evil actions from claiming the lives and souls of innocent people.

The "lie" of Live Action is that their undercover women pretend to be pregnant and to be seeking an abortion in order to see and hear directly from the abortionists and staff what cannot generally be heard in any other way. Clearly this falls under dishonesty, but again, there are volumes of Catholic debate between good and holy people that discuss whether this type of action in defense of life is ever permissible. And there are a fair number of theologians and saints who would not agree with Mark Shea.

In order to catch evil in the act for the purpose of securing public safety, covert operations are often indispensable. It is not a matter of "trickery" or of causing a person to do what they otherwise would not do. It is a matter of exposing evil actions already being committed to the light of day. In America, abortion is legal and consequently, fighting this battle is complex. This is not  simply a matter of catching a criminal... but of exposing the reality of abortion so that Americans will be moved to stop it through democratic process.

What this really comes down to is that Shea has determined to speak definitively for the Church where she has not chosen to speak. Lying is objectively wrong. No question. But there do appear to be some very narrow areas within that teaching which have been debated by good people (including saints) for centuries. Shea is certainly free to join that discussion, but his attack and divide method leaves a wounded, confused, and weak body, and ammo for the enemy. I have no doubt that he intends well. But I also feel compelled to speak to his error.

A final note...
Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life fully supports the person and actions of Lila Rose and the Live Action organization. I spoke with a representative on the phone today and he was very familiar with Mark Shea's criticisms since Shea has been writing in this vein for quite a while. Apparently, Father Pavone is also aware of Shea's position and yet continues, in spite of that, to enthusiastically support Live Action and link to their work on the Priests for Life website. This does not prove my position, but it does demonstrate that there remains room for healthy debate between faithful Catholics on this matter.

I am not perfect. I am not a theologian. My confidence is not in myself but in Christ Jesus and His Church. I submit this post with humility and subject myself completely to God's grace and mercy. If any unpleasantness comes of it, I offer it for the sake of the unborn children who are scheduled to be murdered in abortion mills. And for their mothers and fathers. If I discover that I have spoken in error, I commit myself to correcting it promptly.

Posted on May 16, 2013 and filed under "Live Action", "lila rose", "mark shea", "pro-life".