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Jim McDermottSeptember 15, 2010

There's a story circulating on the internet today about an comment newly-minted Republican candidate for the Senate, Sarah Pal..er, sorry, Christine O'Donnell made in 1998 on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.

Now, before I talk about the story, a moment on the soap box. Seriously, media/online blogger people, I know she's freaking you out. Ventriloquist's dummies are always scary.

But this was 13 years ago, people, and frankly, is it really that nutty? She didn't say she would tell the Nazis there were Jews there (although that's how you're spinning it). She said God would help her find a way out. You want to call that naive, great, although you ask me, Nazis or the like come to your door, tell me you're not hoping God, however you imagine God, would help you find a way out.

But you want to call that contemptible? I don't think so.

At some point you guys are just out to demonize. Come on. Be better than that.

So, here's the story: on Bill Maher O'Donnell made the claim that she would never tell a lie. Comedian Eddie Izzard pushed the point -- how about the classic example of a Nazi comes to your door. Her response has been spun online as she'd tell the Nazis, because it's always wrong to lie.

Intriguingly, what she actually said is, she believed "God would provide a way to do the right thing righteously." My friends, you could fit a semi through the wiggle room in that comment.

Here's the transcript.

A Jesuit ethicist once posed a very very interesting answer to the Nazi dilemma. Probably the best answer I've ever heard. (And it's killing me that I can't remember who it was. I read about it not long ago, actually, but am having a brain meltdown this morning. Apologies.)

He said, you can tell the Nazis no, there's no one here, with a perfectly clear conscience. Because when a Nazi comes to the door asking if there are any Jews inside, he’s not asking a point of information. This isn’t the census. What he’s really asking is, can I come in and kill any Jews in the house? And the answer to that question is a clear no.

When faced with difficult situations, you need to ask yourself, what am I really being asked here? And that's the question you should be answering.

Some may call that the definition of jesuitical. It could be, if you choose to answer the question they're not asking, to play the game as it were. But applied properly, it's makes a lot of sense. Go you anonymous Jesuit.

UPDATED: First poster Eugene Pagano points out, the Jesuit is Henry Garnet; Jesuit playwright Bill Cain recently presented this idea of Garnet's in his off-Broadway play Equivocation. Thanks, Eugene!

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Eugene Pagano
12 years 4 months ago
Father Cain's recent play "Equivocation" put a very similar hypothetical in the dialogue for Henry Garnet, S.J., who was executed for his supposed role in the Guy Fawkes Plot.
12 years 4 months ago
I'm not saying that a person shouldn't sometimes tell a lie, but what's scary is when they start lying to themselves about lying. 

There was a post at dotCommonweal (http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=5618) last year about the lying and covering up that the church   in Ireland did over sex abuse.  It brought up the doctrine of  "mental reservation" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctrine_of_mental_reservation).  The dotCommonweal post stated  ....

"Church authorities used the concept of “mental reservation”, which allows senior clergy to mislead people without being guilty, in the church’s eyes, of lying .... Ah, mental reservation. The truth but not the whole truth so help you God. Is Father available? No, the secretary says, knowing Father is upstairs not doing much of anything. She has mentally reserved the rest of the truth: that Father is not available to the person asking. Clever concept. Perhaps it’s time to give it a proper burial ..."
ed gleason
12 years 4 months ago
Polish Communist commissar calls in the bishop and asks if he is funneling American CIA money via the Vatican into Solidarity coffers. That was a real life 'Mental reservation' situation

12 years 4 months ago
My question is why would anyone want to post this?  Why start a discussion on this?  Is the author trying to say that Christine O'Donnell would give away Jews to Nazis?

And why make the comparison to Sarah Palin?  There are lot of unsavory implications going on here. 
Gail Grazie
12 years 4 months ago
  Sometimes a lie is less morally objectionable than the truth - oh wait, that would be moral relativism. So let's come up with a legal fiction. I got it- mental reservation - answer the question you "think" you are being asked and not the question you are being asked.  The fact of the matter is that life's situations are not clear cut with one size fits all rules - people must be guided by an informed conscience.
12 years 4 months ago
My mentor and friend , the late William Tome, SJ addressed this issue by defining a lie as withholding a truthful answer when the receiver has the clear right to the truth. Under such a situation, a lie was always wrong in all circumstances. He was rigorous in making sure that the right to truth was defined with logic and not whim or fuzzy relativism.

It is clear that the Nazi at the door, my wife's inquiry about plans for a surprise birthday party and the union president's  '' final offer''in a contract meeting  all would come up as situations where the expectation and right to the truth are missing.


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