First, let’s consider some facts:
Fact two: Paul Ryan is a Catholic — and touts himself as a devout believer at that. He made a point to go to a weekday mass after accepting the GOP’s vice presidential nomination, talking up his monthly meeting with other Congressional Caths and how church Social Teaching should influence public policy.
And, despite subscribing to objectivism’s radical capitalist political and economic positions, he is widely quoted as saying: “If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”
Both of these facts, of course, cause confusion when examined together.
The moral codes outlined by most world religions — Catholicism being one of them – tend to treat dishonesty as a bad thing.
While some might say that this question represents a straw man of sorts — pointing out religious hypocrisy as a means of criticizing a politician is almost too easy — I still think that it’s important to consider.
Also, I don’t think that the fact that lots of religious over the years have been hypocrites — or outright immoral — really takes away from the importance of this query.
Here’s why: Ryan might actually think that he’s doing the right thing and is justified in lying, depending on how he choses to interpret Catholic doctrine. In fact, he and his supporters might even think he’s being a good Catholic — perhaps an ethical exemplar — in knowingly misleading the American public.
So what’s up?
If you check out Newadvent.org — which is effectively a web-based clearinghouse of Catholic docs — you will see that Vatican doctrine on dishonesty is a lot more complicated than one thinks.
A lot of Catholic teaching appears recognizes three types of lying “injurious, or hurtful, officious, and jocose lies.” While lying is treated as inherently immoral, officious (“white lies”) and jocose (joke-based lies) incidents are not treated as unlawful.
That’s to say that for some, “harmful lies” are mortal sins, whereas white and jocose ones are simply “venial.”
What constitutes one of these “venial” errors, then?
Newadvent.com explains: “They admit thedoctrine of the lie of necessity, and maintain that when there is a conflict between justice and veracity it is justice that should prevail. The common Catholic teaching has formulated the theory of mental reservation as a means by which the claims of bothjustice and veracity can be satisfied.”
Hence the doctrine of mental reservation, first developed by St. Raymund of Pennafort and widely adopted by Catholics until the middle of the 20th century.
That doctrine maintains: “I believe, as at present advised, that when one is asked by murderers bent on taking the life of someone hiding in the house whether he is in, no answer should be given; and if this betrays him, his death will be imputable to themurderers, not to the other’s silence. Or he may use an equivocal expression, and say ‘He is not at home,’ or something like that. And this can be defended by a great number of instances found in the Old Testament. Or he may say simply that he is not there, and if his conscience tells him that he ought to say that, then he will not speak against his conscience, nor will he sin. Nor is St. Augustine really opposed to any of these methods.”
Though Ryan certainly isn’t trying to keep a man safe from murderers, it’s not too far fetched to think that his radical views make him believe that he’s actually doing something similar.
If Ryan believes, for example, that government spending is evil, then he might think that telling factually incorrect and even misleading tales to prevent spending is an instance when justice must trump veracity.
While there’s still a fair amount of debate about how strictly this doctrine should be believed — and while I’m certainly no theologian — it seems like the notion of a “necessary lie” is still a grey area in modern Catholic thought.
Ultimately, Ryan’s deceptions might not pose a moral problem to him or his followers IF they do not consider them “petty” or for personal purposes.