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when prudence dictates silence

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 03, 2010

 “Never write when you can talk, never talk when you can nod your head.” That advice was offered to political neophytes by “The Mahatma,” Martin Lomasney, a famous Boston ward boss of the early 20th century.

Lomasney had his own good reasons for wanting to be sure that he was not always held accountable for what he said—or, more likely, left unsaid. Trained in the rough-and-tumble competition of urban politics, he was not a choir boy, and he liked to keep his options open. Still, even for someone with a more idealistic view of human nature, his advice is quite sound. Which one of us hasn’t said something that he later regretted saying?

In an age of instant communication the risks of speaking too soon are magnified. It’s dangerously easy to hit the “send” button and launch an email message that cannot be retrieved—that can, in fact, be forwarded to a virtually infinite number of readers. An ill-considered remark can be relayed around the world in a matter of seconds. Discretion is more important than ever.

“The Mahatma” never met Leo Strauss, and the machine politician from Boston would have found little in common with the political philosopher who established a devoted academic following at the University of Chicago. But Lomasney might have taken a keen interest in Strauss’s theory about “secret writing,” and the professor would surely have recognized the practical wisdom behind Lomasney’s reticence.

Strauss taught that many philosophers realize their opinions would be regarded by the general public as subversive. So in order to avoid persecution, he said, philosophers do not express themselves openly. Instead they regularly engage in “secret writing.” That is, they disguise their true meaning, so that only the most astute readers will recognize their real intent. In this way, Strauss believed, one generation of philosophers speaks to the next, in an esoteric dialogue that the careless reader never truly understands. 

Here I am oversimplifying Strauss’s argument. (Dedicated Straussians might suspect that I am doing so intentionally, to hint at some deeper point that only the cognoscenti will appreciate.) But Lomasney and Strauss would agree on this much: Sometimes it’s wiser to be silent than to send messages that will inevitably be misunderstood. Some things are best left unsaid.

For the past two weeks, Pope Benedict has been under fire because of something that he said, regarding the use of condoms. His actual words have been widely misinterpreted, and successive attempts to “clarify” his message have only complicated matters further. What can be done? Not much, I’m afraid.

The Holy Father was making a valid, logical, and eminently orthodox point. Someone who is engaged in an objectively immoral activity—a homosexual prostitute—might still have a subjectively good motive for his actions. We can judge the objective gravity of the act; we cannot judge the subjective disposition of the actor.

Casuistry can be a useful study, when it is done in the classroom, where everyone realizes that the exercise is completely theoretical. It can be far, far more useful when it is done in the confessional, where the penitent can give an honest accounting for his own actions. But the field of casuistry is not a good ground on which to fight a political battle.  

We can say with some confidence—and the Church does say, and has always said—that the use of condoms is objectively wrong. But we cannot say—and the Church does not say, and has never said—what is in a given person’s heart when he performs an action that is objectively wrong.

So what is there to discuss, really? What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.  

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