If Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century mathematician and Jansenist philosopher, could read the Murphy Report on clergy sexual abuse in Dublin, he would doubtless say, “I told you so.”

Some Irish prelates invoked the concept of “mental reservation” to justify misleading others about the abuse situation. For example, Cardinal Desmond Connell, the archbishop of Dublin from 1988 to 2004, told a victim that he did not lie to the media in order to cover up the use of diocesan funds to settle the victim’s case. The cardinal emphasized that “he had reported that diocesan funds are not used for such a purpose; that he had not said that diocesan funds were not used for such a purpose.” According to the victim, “Cardinal Connell considered that there was an enormous difference between the two.”

In his Provincial Letters, Pascal mercilessly satirized the whole idea of mental reservation, particularly as defended by Jesuit moralists. In the process, he gave Catholic casuistry a bad reputation that endures to this day. If you look up “casuistry” on Dictionary.com, the first definition you get is “specious, deceptive, or oversubtle moral reasoning, esp. in questions of morality.”

After reading the Murphy Report, it is tempting to say Pascal was right. In my view, however, giving in to that temptation would be a mistake. Any moral framework is subject to abuse. But when applied in good faith, it is able to pinpoint the underlying problem with the Irish deception—something that Pascal’s critique, for all its cleverness, simply cannot do.

Lying, defined as “speaking a falsehood with intent of deceiving,” is viewed by the church as an intrinsically evil act. Consequently, it is never right to lie, no matter what the consequences. Nonetheless, it is sometimes permissible to give an ambiguous answer—not a falsehood—in the hope that the questioner will take it the “wrong” way and act accordingly. By articulating this concept of permissible equivocation, sometimes called “mental reservation,” Catholic moralists tried to do justice to our complicated reality. They recognized that the integrity of human communication depends on the practice of speaking the truth, while acknowledging that others will press us for information they have no right to know, sometimes to harm innocent people. The balance between these two values is difficult to strike. The Holy See condemned the more extreme “strict mental reservation” in 1679 because it allowed a speaker to deceive others by saying part of a true sentence out loud, and reserving the other part in one’s own mind.

The Elizabethan Jesuits were no strangers to the hazards of truth-telling. Henry Garnet, SJ, and Robert Southwell, SJ, both wrote treatises on the topic—which was of far more than academic interest to them. Both risked their lives bringing the sacraments to recusant Catholics, because saying or attending Mass was a punishable offense. When caught, tortured, and interrogated, they practiced mental reservation—not to save themselves, but to protect their fellow believers. Convicted of treason, both Southwell and Garnet were hanged, drawn, and quartered.

It is the courage and sacrifice of Southwell and Garnet that reveal why the use of mental reservation was so problematic in the Irish sexual-abuse situation. Pascal’s approach suggests the root problem is that prelates such as Cardinal Connell were culpable for lying—because to Pascal, mental reservation always amounts to lying. But that suggestion is incorrect. Suppose one altar boy—a victim of abuse—attempted to protect another potential victim cowering in the closet by saying to the abuser, “He is not here—he is not feeling well.” That’s a mental reservation if there ever was one. But it’s not a lie. And in this case, every Catholic moralist would say it is completely justified.

Mental reservations, pace Pascal, are not always wrong. But they are wrong in some circumstances. In his treatise on the topic, Garnet took pains to argue that no form of mental reservation was justified, and might even be a mortal sin, if it would run contrary to the requirements of faith, charity, or justice.

What were the circumstances under which the Irish prelates practiced mental reservation? According to the Murphy Report:

"The Dublin Archdiocese’s preoccupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The archdiocese did not implement its own canon-law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the state."

The truths of faith are illuminated by the lives of the martyrs. Southwell and Garnet practiced mental reservation to save innocent victims while sacrificing themselves. The Irish prelates practiced mental reservation to save themselves while sacrificing innocent victims. And that difference makes all the difference.


More on the Murphy Report: Nicholas P. Cafardi, Fraternal Correction
Thomas Lynch, Preaching to Bishops

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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Published in the 2010-01-15 issue: View Contents
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