Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Veritas - the Truth. We have a duty to the truth, and always being truthful is a part of that. This duty I have seen most painfully questioned in regard to situations where the questioner has no right to know; such as in the historical case of person who would have been hiding Jews during WWII, what to say to the direct question of the SS/Gestopo: are there Jews here?

I’ve seen this discussed in various places, but I’d not heard the doctrine of equivocation until reading it in Fr. John Gerard’s “The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest.” For context, it’s the closing days of the sixteenth century; Father Gerard S.J. has been arrested, moved to the tower of London, and after torture, is questioned by the crown:

The Queen’s Attorney-General put to me a series of questions, following, as he said, the same phrasing, order and form that he would observe in the actual prosecution.

He started with my priesthood and my coming to England as a priest and a Jesuit. Then he asked whether I had dealt with any people with the intention of seducing them from the faith and religious profession approved by law, to the Pope’s allegiance. I confessed straightway that I was guilty on all these counts-that was sufficient for a legal sentence. But when they asked me to name the persons with whom I had plotted against the government, I denied I had done any such thing. Nevertheless they persisted: how could I be so anxious for the conversion of England, they urged, and yet keep out of politics, which were the best means to my purpose?

As near as I can recall now, this is what I answered:
‘I will speak my mind plainly in this matter of conversion and politics, so that you will be left in no doubt and have no need to question me further. I call on God and His Angels to bear me out – I am not lying. I am hiding nothing from you that I have at heart. If I could have fulfilled all that I wish and desire, I would want the whole of England to return to Rome and the Catholic faith: the Queen, her Council, and yourselves also, and all the magistrates of this realm; yet so, my Lords, that neither the Queen, nor you, nor any officer of state forfeit the honor or right he now enjoys; so that not a single hair of your head perish; but simply that you may be happy both in this present life and in the life to come. But do not think that I want this conversion for any selfish reason of my own – that I may be freed and may enjoy the good things of life. I call on Almighty God to witness: I would gladly go out tomorrow morning to be hanged just as I stand before you now. These are my thoughts, my aspirations. I am not an enmity with the Queen nor with you, nor have I ever been.’

For a few moments the Attorney-General was at a loss for an answer. Then he asked me to name the Catholics I knew. Did I know so and so?

‘I don’t’, I said, and, as usual, I explained that, even if I did know I could not mention their names. Then he went off on to the question of equivocation and began to disparage Father Southwell’s character.

Now at his trial Father Southwell had refused to admit that he knew the woman who was brought in to give evidence for the prosecution. Though she swore he had visited her father’s house and had been received there as a priest, Father Southwell denied it – and he had been captured in that very house and in the very hiding-place which that woman had betrayed to the pursuivants. She was a monstrous creature and thought nothing of bartering away her own father’s life and Father Southwell’s too. But Christ who came not to set peace, but a sword, between the wicked and the good, separated this wicked daughter from her good parents.

Father Southwell was astonished at the woman’s impudence, but he denied everything she alleged. And he explained why he did so, putting his reasons well and showing clearly and convincingly that it was wrong for him to increase the burden of those who were already suffering for their faith and had been kind to him. Then, following up, he argued very learnedly that it was lawful and in some cases even necessary to resort to equivocation. Though many, he said, abhorred the doctrine, he showed there were solid reasons for it, and it rested on amply authority in Sacred Scripture and the Doctors of the Church.

The Attorney-General reprobated such teaching, and tried to show it countenanced lying and undermined social intercourse between men. Against this I maintained that equivocation was different from lying. In equivocation the intention was not to deceive, which was the essence of a lie, but simply to withhold the truth in cases where the questioned party is not bound to reveal it. To deny a man what he has no claim to was not deception. I showed that this teaching in no way destroyed the bonds of society, or made human intercourse impossible. ‘Equivocation’, I said, could not be invoked in contracts, since every man is bound to give his neighbor even his smallest due, and in contracts truth is due to the contracting party. Nor could it be invoked in ordinary conversation to the prejudice of plain truth and Christian sincerity, and still less in matters falling under the lawful cognizance of the State. For instance, a man cannot deny a crime if he is guilty and lawfully interrogated.’

‘What do you mean by lawful interrogation?’ asked the Attorney-General.

‘The question must be asked by a person who has authority or jurisdiction and it must concern an action in some way harmful to the State, otherwise the law cannot take cognizance of it. Wrong acts, that are merely internal, are reserved to God’s judgment alone. Again, there must be some evidence adduced against the accused person. In England it is the custom for the accused, when asked whether he is guilty or not, to answer ‘Not guilty’, until witnesses are produced against him or a verdict of guilty returned by the jury who examine the case. This is the general practice and no one calls it lying. In general, equivocation is unlawful save when a person is asked a question, either directly or indirectly, which the questioner has no right to put, and where a straight answer would injure the questioned party.’

Then I explained that this was the practice of Our Lord and of the saints and all sensible men. ‘The board examining me now’, I said, ‘would do the same if, for example, they were questioned about some secret sin or were attacked by thieves and asked where their money was hidden.’

When did our Lord use equivocation?’ they asked.

‘When he told His Apostles’, I answered, ‘that no one new the day of judgment, not even the Son of Man; and again, when He said He was not going up to Jerusalem for the feast, and then went. He knew He was going when He said He was not.’

Wade broke in.

‘Christ was ignorant of the day of judgment as Son of Man.’

‘The word “ignorant”’, I said, ‘cannot be used of the incarnate Word of God; His human nature was hypostatically untied to the divine. He was constituted Judge by God the Father, and would therefore know all that touched His office. Moreover, He was infinite wisdom and knew all that concerned Himself.’

Now, Protestants don’t admit all St. Paul teaches. They claim, of course, to follow him, but this was a case in point; Paul teaches that the fullness of the Godhead resided in Christ, corporally, and that in Him were all the treasures of the wisdom and knowledge of God. However, this passage did not occur to me at that moment.

They had practically no answer to make. But the Attorney-General wrote down every word and told me he would use it against me before very long when I came up for trial. But he did not keep his promise, for I was unworthy to enter the house of God. Nothing defiled can enter it, and I was still to be cleansed, and made to pass much time in exile; and then, if it please God, be saved, yet as by fire.


  1. I'm anxious to read this book.

  2. You will like it. Have you read Edmund Campion by Evelyn Waugh? I found Gerard's book makes reference to things that having read Waugh's book helps!

    There is also "Lives of the English Martyrs" and "Mementoes (sic) of the English Martyrs and Confessors" - both available online; any others to add to this short list?