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Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

High Definition Sin

Sister St. Aloysius is on the roof. The house is so old and termite ridden we mapped out a path for her to walk up there so she won't come crashing through the ceiling. Meanwhile, I'm moving Sister Mary Fiacre around down here in her wheel chair to everywhere Sister St. Aloysius is not, lest Sister St. Aloysius crashes through anyhow right where Sister Mary Fiacre is parked and lands in her lap. The insidious morning glories have wrapped themselves around all the wiring coming into the house and are making their way up the phone line from the house to the alley. If we don't stop them, they'll go up the phone lines and cover the planet.

This is our high tech work of the day. Which brings me to today's question:

Sister, I hope you can help me with a moral dilemma. We have satellite tv at our house and a DVR (Digital Video Recorder). We recently purchased a new HDTV and I wanted to upgrade our satellite receiver to HD also. The satellite company offers specials deals and discounts to new subscribers only. We had an unrelated problem and called for a technician to come fix it. While he was here my husband asked him if there are any "deals" for existing customers. The technician stated that he had an HD-DVR in his truck that he could sell us at half price. When my husband came and told me this (I was busy in my sewing room and had left tv matters to the menfolk) I was delighted and got out the checkbook and gave it to my husband so he could pay for the HD-DVR. Several minutes later my husband came back and said the technician can only take cash. I thought that was odd but, since there is an ATM at the corner, not a problem. After the technician left my husband told me the technician explained that his boss had given the HD-DVR to him and he didn't want it so he was selling it to us. My husband thinks the technician stole the HD-DVR (he also charged us for the service call and we later noticed the receipt he gave my husband said "N/C", so we know he is dishonest). Now my husband wants to "make it right". My question is: How? Call the police and turn ourselves in for receiving stolen property? Turn in the technician? My husband wants to give the satellite company a money order for the full price amount without explanation. What do you think?

You certainly have fallen short. You should have pressed him for some free channels and TiVo.

I'm kidding.

Both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas believed that the worst sin is that of dishonesty. St. Augustine in particular thought that no type of lie was okay, not even the answer to, "does this dress make me look fat?"

I haven't entirely wrapped my brain around why St. Augustine thought that lying is the worst sin. My puny understanding is that in some way lying is involved with just about every sin. Certainly you often have to lie to yourself in order to march headlong into sinning. If you never lied (which also involves lies by omission), you might not sin so much. Maybe.

But in your case it could be that nothing bad happened here at all.

You didn't set out to buy a stolen HDTV receiver or cheat the DishTV people, so you didn't have the intent to sin in the first place.

I think there might be a logical explanation for the whole event that doesn't even involve sin: TV installation guys often have stuff left over to sell you at half price. He can't take a check because the money is going to him and, well, you might be dishonest and write him a bad check. Maybe he needs the cash to give to his drug dealer.

I'm kidding. But it's not particularly odd that he's ask for cash.

A smelly rat tip toes in when the Dish TV guy charges you for installation. Was that cash too? Because if it was, the rat just sat down to supper. If you made out a check to the satellite company for the installation then nothing bad has happened.

He sold you some equipment he had, charged the fee from the company for the installation and wrote "N/C" on the receipt because you weren't charged for the equipment.

If you handed that guy cash for the installation, I'm not sure you sinned at all. You were just suckered is all. Maybe you'd rather feel like a sinner than a sucker.

Here's where St. Augustine comes in. If you are handing that guy cash for installation, you've smelled the rat and kept your yapper shut...maybe that's a sin.

If you paid cash for your installation, call the company and tell them the story. I imagine you have a nice telephone, since your lovely high definition TV comes in through your phone line.

If you still feel like you've sinned, go to confession. Give some money to the poor who don't have big fancy high definition TV's.

I'd be interested in discussing St. Augustine's point of view if anyone is up for it. Here are the two main points:
1. Lying is the worst sin.
2. No lie is okay because if you can make an excuse for lying you can make an excuse for, say, murder.

I want St. Augustine to tell me how to answer the question, "Is the Frank family hiding in your attic?"

Otherwise I'm on board for, "Your dress isn't very flattering, dear."

By the way, can we all come over and watch "Harry Potter"?


Michelle Galo said...

No Franks here.

Seriously, I don't know what's so hard about the question of lying to protect the innocent. The story of Rahab is a perfect example.

Heck, in that example the people she protected weren't even innocent, per se. They were spies. They just happened to be spies for God's people. So if it's okay to lie for God's chosen spies, surely it must be okay to lie for God's chosen Franks.

Unknown said...

It was interesting to read the sister's response. I happen to agree with St Augustine. Lying is a pretty big problem. I know we will all do it under the right circumstances but it is a pretty big no no.

I wonder sister if you ever considered that this guy could well be telling the truth, and that he takes cash simply because the facts are, money that shows up in bank accounts can be more easily tracked for taxes.

Overstocks are sold at auction all the time. His boss may well be OK with him selling overstocks in a pinch to a customer. He might be fine with him selling this one as a used product. It was written off against the business, and viola. This sort of stuff happens.

Doesn't mean that either the technician, or the customer, are lying or buying stolen goods.

Katie Alender said...

Usually if I start to think I've done something wrong, it means I have.

Anonymous said...

St. Augustine seems to have thought that the correct answer to "Is Anne Frank in your attic?" is something along the lines of, "If she were, I would never tell." He considers whether it is ever "useful to tell a falsehood with the intent to deceive." He puts the Anne Frank argument like this:

"They who think it is, advance testimonies to their opinion, by alleging the case of ... the Egyptian midwives, who to save the Hebrew infants from being slain at their birth, told a lie, and that with God's approbation and reward: and many such like instances they pick out, of lies told by persons whom you would not dare to blame, and so must own that it may sometimes be not only not blameworthy, but even praiseworthy to tell a lie. They add also a case with which to urge not only those who are devoted to the Divine Books, but all men and common sense, saying, Suppose a man should take refuge with you, who by your lie might be saved from death, would you not tell it? .... By these and such like arguments they think they most plentifully prove, that if occasion of doing good require, we may sometimes tell a lie."

But Augustine, who was very pure indeed, replies that when we tell a lie we are committing a wrong, and that the fact of direct disobedient to the 8th (or however you count) commandment cannot be excused by any temporal contingency. Not even to preserve "pudicity of body," i.e. to prevent a rape, because purity of mind is even more important and when we tell a lie we corrupt our own mind, while when our bodily chastity is violated without our consent we do not sin. And obviously someone's convenience and vanity are not as important as our mental purity --so "you look lovely" is out. "That dress doesn't deserve you" is nicer, though.

In the end Augustine's argument basically boils down to the Doctrine of Double Effect, which defines when it is OK to bring about an unintended evil effect as a consequence of an intended good effect. For example it is permissible to vaccinate a lot of children to stop a diphtheria epidemic even though you know that some vaccinated children will have a bad reaction and even may die from the vaccine. There are as I recall 4 conditions:

1. The nature of the act must be intrinsically good (e.g. preventing disease)
2. The intention must be for the good effect (e.g. you intend to prevent disease and not to hurt anyone.)
3. The good effect must be sufficiently good to outweigh the rosk of the evil effect, which must be limited as much as possible (e.g. saving millions from death by dyphtheria is worth the risk that a few people will be harmed by the vaccine)
4. The good effect must not be intended by means of the evil effect (e.g. the bad reactions do not prevent disease.)

Lying has problems at conditions 1 and 4. Deception is inherently evil, and the lie is the means by which the SS is deflected from the door. There is no "unintended bad effect." The bad effect --deception-- is intended and in fact the good effect cannot work unless the bad effect comes about.

This is the general rule that we don't get to stop others from sinning by sinning ourselves. We have to do the right thing -obviously we must be as prudent and tactful as possible in so doing-- and trust God to work out the consequences. It's not so very different from the bazillion other sacrifices demanded all the time. (Yes, you have to go to Mass even if your mother says you only have one weekend in your visit and it hurts her feelings that you would take time to go to church and anyway since they started singing those songs instead of nice Latin it's not even pretty anymore....)

Personally I would probably lie in the Anne Frank case. AND so did Corrie Ten Boom, and you can read about it in her book "The Hiding Place," which if anyone hasn't read you should. It has a bit where Corrie's niece and sister refuse to lie to the Nazi storm troopers. They ask "where are your men?" And the child says "under the table!" And they get mad and go away. On another occasion they ask "Is this woman Jewish?" and the sister says, "Yes," although she had excellent papers and a non-stereotypic appearance. Miraculously, no one is harmed in the telling of these truths.

Michelle said...

I had someone ask me just last night if all of my six pregnancies were planned...he just had to know. Personally, I don't think this is any of his business. I don't think he has any legimate need to obtain the "truth" of whether or not my husband and I weighed thoroughly the pros and cons of conception each and every time we chose to engage in activity that might thus result. Am I morally beholden to answer Mr. Nosy with an honest answer? And what exactly IS an honest answer? Should I give him, to the best of my memory, my emotional reaction to the knowledge of each pregnancy? Was my generic laugh and smile and "Well, they were all welcomed" truly honest enough when I know how upset I was with #3?

If lying to the Nazis about the location of the Frank family is wrong, then hiding them in the first place was even more wrong. You are intending to deceive the government about their whereabouts after all. If the law says, "Hand over the Jews," either you agree with and obey the law or you disagree with and disobey the law. If you disobey the law, then you are lying - not with your tongue, but with your actions. To differentiate between the deception of hiding the Frank family and the deception of actually saying, "Nope, I haven't seen the Frank family in months," seems silly.

So, then, is it sinful to hide the Frank family? Is it sinful to disobey an immoral order given by an illegitimate government? I can see it now: this corner of purgatory is reserved for all those nuns who baptized Jewish children and claimed them as Catholic orphans from the war...and that corner of purgatory holds all the nuns who ran immediately to the Nazis with the names of all the nuns who were sheltering Jewish children because they didn't want to sin by lying.

I absolutely despise lying. I'm direct and upfront about everything and hate it when people feel the need to flatter someone or withhold the truth in one way or another. I come down hard on my kids for lying, and I would be devastated if I found out that my husband were letting me wear a dress that looked awful on me.

But I consider the actions of any individual or group who resist immoral laws by helping their innocent victims to be heroes. This includes those who lied to Nazis, those who helped slaves escape via the Underground Railroad, and those who work today to keep the Faith alive in China by hosting secret Masses.

"Bearing false witness against yuor neighbor," saying that Herr Schmidt is hiding Jews when he is NOT, is horrid. Murder is horrid. Hiding Jews and playing dumb about it is a good thing. Fighting for the Allies and killing Nazis, which is not murder, is a good thing too.

Anonymous said...

My uncle and another guy work construction together, they were on the roof of a house and the other guy stepped onto a soft spot and just dropped through the roof and ceiling and landed in front of the homeowners son who was watching TV. He was a little bruised but other wise fine.
Get some Round-up for the morning glories and keep Sister on the ground.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother told me it was OK to lie if people ask you nosey questions. My personal answer to the question "were your 6 children planned? Are you having any more?" is "I don't discuss my reproductive plans with strangers". I offended the checker at the grocery store with this response recently. I was amused that she was offended that I wouldn't answer a personal question.

On the more serious matter of lying about the Franks in the attic; THe problem I have with the clever response is that I'm not very clever. It's much easier to lie than to think up some clever evasion that doesn't violate the truth, especially under extremely tense conditions.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother told me it was OK to lie if people ask you nosey questions. My personal answer to the question "were your 6 children planned? Are you having any more?" is "I don't discuss my reproductive plans with strangers". I offended the checker at the grocery store with this response recently. I was amused that she was offended that I wouldn't answer a personal question.

On the more serious matter of lying about the Franks in the attic; THe problem I have with the clever response is that I'm not very clever. It's much easier to lie than to think up some clever evasion that doesn't violate the truth, especially under extremely tense conditions.

PraiseDivineMercy said...

I agree with Michelle on this point. We may be require to "render unto caesar" but disobeying unjust laws falls under giving "to God what is God's."
Martin Luther King might be in purgatory (after all he didn't get to make a confession) but it's not for breaking those stupid segregation laws during the civil rights movement. When law opposes the gospel, I would say we are duty bound to subvert it.
It troubles me would choose the avoiding possible venial sin over saving the life of another person. I also question whether Augustine was speaking of protecting another person or in simply protecting individual virtue. Natually, a saint would choose personal bodily harm over sinning.
Also, think of how many early Christians lied to their neighbors when asked why they were out of the house every Sunday.

Anonymous said...

I have also often thought that "lying", or maybe more accurately, "lack of integrity" is probably the worse of sins.

It is a major character flaw when a person lacks integrity. It means he can lie and cheat on little things as easily as in big things. That can affect relationships, marriages, businesses and the whole of society. If a person gets into the habit of lying, even just a little, it can become an inherent character trait which may be impossible to get rid of. (Hence the warnings against telling little lies, because even in this way we are giving a "toe into our soul" to the Father of Lies himself.)

This is a vice which has a way of growing and spreading and infecting the entire society, too. Take, for instance, the businesses, politicians and governments, the world over, who operate deceitfully on a daily basis. They bring aggravation to countless millions every day, and in the case of big governments, they may bring extreme misery, burdens -- and even death -- to individuals or even entire populations to serve their own deceitful purposes.

Anonymous said...

oops, that should say "worst" not "worse"

Anonymous said...

Isn't there something in the CCC about this? I think it says that not everyone deserves all the information you know. A possible answer to the Frank situation would be, ""There's no one here but my family!" Because we are all children of God. If you are ever hiding Jews in your attic (or the equivalent situation) it would be worth thinking through an answer since you know you will be asked the question. It still seems like a very minor fault if what comes out of your mouth under pressure is, "No, they're not here!"

My mom (my cheif source for answering moral theology questions) also went with the not everyone should know everything line. Hence the dress question should NOT be answered "Wow, you look like a circus tent!". I like my husband's answer, "It doesn't make you look as good as you usually do."

Anonymous said...

There's a difference between having a duty not to lie and having a duty to inform. We have no duty to tell people everything we know. But we do have a duty not to lie to them. We may have a duty not to tell --and my daughter's Dutch godmother has a great-aunt whose fingers were cut off one by one because she refused to tell where her relatives were hiding. She was right not to tell. And notice that she did not lie.

Certainly we have no duty to discuss private matters with strangers. But refusing to tell is different from lying.

Any of the commandments may require heroic virtue to obey it. Most of us do not have heroic virtue handy & cannot imagine summoning it. But I think this is supposed to be the part where we can "do all things through Christ who strengthens us."

I think anyone heroic enough to have 6 children is heroic enough for anything. I'm not --I'm not and I don't pretend to be able to avoid all sins. And deception isn't necessarily the worst one; murder nd adultery and the other Big Ten are evil, too. But it's a sin; Augustine was right. EVen if we "would never dare to blame" Rahab or the Egyptian midwives.

Fortunately our sins are forgiven. We do our best, we fail, we repent. That's life. Why do we need to say it's not a sin to lie? God loves us liars and we love each other. We should try to be truthful to the best of our ability. When we mess up, we mess up.

Anonymous said...

i haven't read st. augustine in almost 20 years, so i don't recall his exact argument. i would speculate to say something similar to what you said sister, that lying makes all sin possible. it's the medium, that which most other sins exist upon. so he must make the argument that because it is somehow "necessary"for sin (the very act of sin being an attempt at the deception of god) therefore, it is the "mother" (generator?) of all sins, hence his calling it the worst of all sin. also, i would argue that deceiving someone might be seen as even worse than killing them. deception does harm to the soul, that of the deceiver and the deceived, because it's inherently the exact opposite of the truth/good/beautiful/pure. in the example of the dress, it's probably better to think up a kind truthful response, then lie. if they really look hideous, are you doing them any favors by saying they don't? that brings me to the third point, if you are hiding the truth, or from the truth, then the ultimate result is going to be a bad one. the woman in the ugly dress, who you said looked fine, may go get on a bus and sit next to the man who she was supposed to marry, he may see her in the ugly dress and never look at her again. if you had been kind enough to say, hey, another dress might work alot better for you...her life might have turned out totally differently-my only point is, the truth can be much more important than we might realize, even given a stupid, silly example.
the difficulty with the frank family example, is not setting the precedent for "the ends justifying the means". this is a dangerous road to go down. however, in the case of war, it does seem that the rules do change a bit. a soldier is not considered a murderer as long as the war is a just war. so, if you are hiding good people from a despot hunting them down to kill them, then i would say the war rules apply and you would be justified in lying. it's really a fascinating question sister, i don't begin to do it justice.

Anonymous said...

Wow! So is it okay for her to keep the TV?
It makes me think of the line, "There's so such thing as a free lunch".

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

There are a couple of issues mixed up in these two meta-examples.

1. Does this dress make me look fat?

A truthful answer is not required to be rude and unkind.

"It makes you look like a hippopotamus," or even "Yes," may be a truthful answer, but is neither kind nor polite. Anyway, the person who asked you already knows how many pound she weighs. What she really wants to know is whether the dress looks good on her. That is certainly possible to answer truthfully and kindly.

"That dress doesn't really become you."

"I like that green dress of yours better."

As for the Anne Frank example, I seem to recall reading in some of my many Catholic books that while lying is inherently sinful, the eighth commandment does not require us to indiscriminately furnish any and all information we possess to whoever asks.

That certainly covers nosy people who question you about private details which are none of their business.

It also covers those Nazi stormtroopers who keep showing up in this kind of discussion. Besides, and this goes all the way to my second grade First Communion CCD class (taught by nuns!), we are not required to obey unjust laws or the demands of even lawful authorities when they require us to do wrong.

Not to mention that it is sinful to help someone sin. So those Nazis are just out of luck -- we don't have to tell them anything.

Anonymous said...

The devil "is a liar, and the father of it."

I dunno about lying being the worst or most fundamental sin - I have been used to thinking of pride as being the most basic component of sin. But perhaps we have to lie to ourselves on some level before having the prideful gall to place our will before God's.

This much I know, however: God is Truth, and anything we say in opposition to Truth is in opposition to God. Every lie we tell, no matter how well intentioned, or how noble and just the desired effect, separates us to some degree from God's essence. This statement applies to both the very palest white lie, or the very blackest lie.

I also believe that it is through the practice of virtues and vices that we develop habits (either for good or for ill). Once a particular action (ie. lying) has gained the aspect of a habit, we cease to consider [as] carefully before performing this action again (once you've done something once, it's easier to do it again). Our judgment can gradually become so impaired that our very ability to recognize what is true is damaged, so used have we become to lies and lying. (This might explain why theologians would consider lying as the worst of the sins).

That being said, while we cannot tell lies under any circumstances, we are not obligated to give information to those that have no right to it, or those who would take the truth in order to do some evil. Under certain circumstances, I believe that the Church admits of the use of "mental reservation" (you can look it up on newadvent.org)

Christy said...

Perhaps if one waits until the Franks are hiding the the attic to attack the question of dishonesty, then one has waited too long. Don't you think much lesser lies contributed to those horrible events? Enough people pretended that ghettos weren't really oppressive, that marked clothing wasn't really so very awful, and so forth. I think those little acts of dishonesty create situations where dishonesty seems the only choice.

Sister Mary Martha said...

christy, those are my thoughts exactly when I consider how the war even began.

But here is the problem. I fear that many many people were being perfectly honest when they put those stars on people's clothing and so forth.

Anonymous said...

I once heard a priest say that it is lying to someone if that person 'has a right to know'.

Sounded good to me although it doesn't answer all the questions.

PraiseDivineMercy said...

To anonymous:
Is that not similiar to the concept of "sinning by omission? For example, a boy was imprisoned not long ago because he watched a woman get raped. He did not participate in the crime, but by being present and failing to mention the wrong to police he was considered equally responsble.
Saint Augustine is one of my favorite saints, and I take his arguments very seriously, but I must disagree with him on this point. Lying is usually a sin, but lying to the devil is probably not. If the magisterium authorizes lethal force in the protection of another human being from harm, then it follws that a more peaceful alternative such as lying is allowable under certain circumtances.

Anonymous said...

Only two months till Halloween Sister, I know you have posted on Halloween before but...when does harmless fantasy fun become dabbling in the occult? I participate in a 'haunted house' for fundraising every year. Let me tell you we scare ourselves. Is there a line we shouldn't cross?

Andrew Cruze said...

Sister, I have a question completely unrelated to the discussion. Last night I was playing cards with a friend and I began getting phone calls from someone mistaking me for a kid who owed his brother money. I asked him if he was just trying to mess with me, but he didn’t answer. He seemed more interested in the money he thought I owed him.

The number was from no one I knew. I hung up, but he called back… and called back some more.

He seemed like a meth head, a real speed freak, and after a while I put my phone on silent. Which only made him leave messages. About ten of them. I saved a few of the nastier ones. He said he was going to kill my mom and dad if I didn’t give him the money. He also said he was right outside their place and was about to go in and off my mom if I didn’t call him back in the next five minutes (I checked his number out and it was a landline, so he must live next door to whomever he thought my parents were or assumed I was too dumb to realize he wasn’t on a cell phone. B is probably the most likely scenario).

Eventually, I decided to actually take one of his calls and explain to him one last time that I wasn’t who he thought I was. So I did, and I think he ultimately got it, because he did stop calling me back.

But here’s the rub. I now know who he is (or at least who’s phone he was using), and I still have a few o those messages. Do I let it go and assume everything worked itself out, or do I report it to the police?

Thank you for your legal council. (I just thought this might be a fun one to discuss. Maybe everyone can pray for Rex(?) and Sue, the oldsters he thought were my parents, though I didn’t see their names in this morning’s paper).

Anonymous said...

I would rather err on the side of caution - call your phone company and report the number and the conversation . . . let them take it from there. IF you have the ability to allow them to hear the messages the caller left, I would make that handy to them as well.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Andrew, if this really happened this way, then it's not so much an interesting discussion as an emergency. I think you have a duty in kindness to Sue and Rex to call the police RIGHT NOW and tell them everything in your post, plus save the phone message for them. It's terribly inconvenient for you, but this scary person has dragged you into a state of knowledge that, if shared, could save someone from harm.

PraiseDivineMercy said...

I agree, if there is any question of the couple's safety, then you must call the police and report the matter.

Anonymous said...

What kind of nun are you? I don't even know what half of those things are that the woman spoke of, yet you seem to be SO up on media things...where's the peace in your life? Do you do Adoration with our Lord?

Don't get me wrong, I think you are funny, yet, these questions pop up. ARe you just trying to be funny? Like is it ok to lie to save another person, risk your soul to save another? Why do you question online, place doubt so to speak? I just think you might be confusing some....Do you pray to the Holy Spirit before you write? So many questions, is the picture of you, really you, or are you a new age nun who has no habit just pretending to be one who does?

Anonymous said...

Jamie -

"What kind of nun are you?"

A wee bit inflammatory and rather rude, don't you think?

"Why do you question online, place doubt so to speak?"

Hold the phone here. Questioning and seeking to understand are not the same as doubting. Sister said that she hasn't "wrapped my brain around why St. Augustine thought lying is the worst sin." She never said that she disagreed.

There is nothing wrong with questioning the reasons why the Church says the things she does, so long as the questions are in the spirit of seeking to understand doctrine (as opposed to [trying to] refute doctrine). By questioning and raising objections we can come to a deeper understanding of our Faith. This does not mean that we don't believe what the Church teaches, only that we desire to understand the teachings better.

As St. Anselm wrote: "I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but believe that I may understand. For this I know to be true: that unless I first believe I shall not understand."

Anonymous said...

I meant no disrespect, I was just asking questions. I seriously am wondering what order she is in, how is that inflammatory and rude? I am sorry I offended you, it was not intended. This is a open comment line, which gives me the right to ask her questions.

I believe St Anselm was writing about our belief in God, not in what a nun writes online. I will pray for you, since you are so quick to judge.

Sister Mary Martha, I hope you were not hurt, you seem to be "tough" enough to take it. I guess my faith is that of a little child, which I am glad of, my questions are innocent. These are questions that go through my head when I am reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

Well, prayers are certainly always welcome.

Arkanabar Ilarsadin said...

Sr. Mary Martha does not reveal her order/ affiliation, or very much else about herself, which I consider most prudent.

Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve said...

Is Sr Mary Martha really a nun? I'm not so sure.