Many of you know that I write the Question and Answer Column for Our Sunday Visitor on both their newspaper side and in their magazine, The Catholic Answer. Every now and then a question comes in that seems like a good topic for the blog.
The following question comes up frequently whenever I teach moral theology classes and we cover the issue of lying. In a way it is remarkable that the format of the question almost never changes, and that the usual (and I would argue questionable) answer has taken such deep root in Catholic thinking.
Here is the question followed by my answer to it. (Note that the answers I provide in that venue are required to be brief.)
Q. Is every lie intrinsically evil? I remember 60 years ago, when the Jesuits were still faithful teachers of Holy Mother Church, being taught that if a person was not entitled to the truth, one could, in fact, lead them away from the truth, by lying. For example, if I knew the hideout of Anne Frank and the Gestapo asked me if I knew her whereabouts, according to this theory, if I said I did not that would [not] be intrinsically evil. Ed S., Muscatine, IA
A: Permit a personal reply to this, with the understanding that reasonable people may differ with some aspects of my answer.
Unfortunately, the approach that you cite is a widespread notion related to a questionable concept called “mental reservation.” I call it “unfortunate” because it seems to say that a lie is not a lie.
But in the common example you cite, you clearly would be lying since it meets the definition of lying: speaking that which is untrue with the intention of deceiving. Indeed, the entire purpose of the lie is to deceive the officials by saying what is untrue.
It will be granted that the situation described is dreadful and fearsome. But I, like many moral theologians, am not prepared to say that it is not a lie simply because the situation is fearful and the authorities are bad people.
Perhaps the better approach is to say that it is a lie and that, as a lie, it is intrinsically wrong. However, when one is under duress or sees no clear way to avoid a consequent grave evil or injustice, one’s culpability for such a lie is lessened. It seems rather doubtful that God would make a big deal of the sort of lie you describe on Judgment Day.
But to call any lie good or justifiable is to harm a moral principle unnecessarily. Call it what it is: a lie. It is not good. And it is not permitted to do evil in order that good may come of it.
With this in mind it is better to say that what you describe would constitute a lie, lamentable but understandable. And given the gravity of the situation, there would not likely much if any blame incurred.
Life sometimes presents us with difficulties that are not easily overcome. But to adjust moral principles to accommodate anomalies is to engage in a kind of casuistry that does harm to moral principles. Sometimes the best we can do is to shrug humbly and say, “Well it’s wrong to lie, but let’s trustingly leave the judgment on this one up to God, who knows our struggles and will surely factor in the fearsome circumstances.”
So there’s my view, succinctly stated. There was no room in the column to address the questions that might arise based on my answer, but I will do so here:
- Is this the case even if someone does not have the right to know the truth?
- I am not sure it is right to say that someone does not have the right to know the truth. Certain matters may be no one’s business, but if that is the case then you should respond, “This is not for you to know and I will not answer.” But lying to such a person would not make the lie something other than what it is: a lie.
- What about state-sponsored lying in matters of national security?
- Don’t ask me to call it good or not a lie. But the fact that every nation knows that the others are lying is a factor. This does not make it good or not a lie, but would tend to make the practice less egregious and lessen the culpability of the officials who engage in it. In a big, bad world, permit me to shrug on this one—but don’t ask me to call it good, or virtuous, or not a lie.
- What about undercover investigations by the police or journalists that use assumed identities or present false information or intentions?
- Here, too, don’t ask me to say that telling a lie is really telling the truth. The fact is, it’s a lie. One should always seek to gather information in a straightforward manner. In criminal investigations the lie may be less egregious since most criminals are on their guard for exactly these sorts of tactics. But here, too, I would request that you not insist I call such practices good or even justifiable. I just don’t like being asked to say that it is permissible to do evil in order that good may come of it. The best I can do is to shrug and say, “Even though we live in a big, bad world, this is still lying. But it may not be the most serious sort of lying given the circumstances.” We all know it goes on. Let’s not call it good, but other things being equal, let’s not lose a lot of sleep over it either. There are big lies that cause grave harm and there are smaller lies that cause less harm. Not every lie is a mortal sin or equally harmful.
OK, now it’s your turn. But before answering, remember your Catechism:
A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving … To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error … The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity (CCC 2482 – 2484).
46 Replies to “Is It Ever OK to Lie?”
Please Note that I do not, by this post indicate a negative stance about the Planned Parenthood videos, or what Lila Rose has done in the past. While there are journalistic standards to be followed in this sort of investigative journalism, I do not say it is good per se, but given the circumstances in which such things are done and that such things are often “expected” by agencies, one could say that culpability is reduced, perhaps to a minimum. But I do not like to be asked to call such things “good” or “not really lying.” I think the best we can do is to say it is a regrettable but understandable and judgment is best left up to God in terms of the relative seriousness of such a lie. To my mind, it’s not a big lie, given the circumstances. But I am thereby saying there is nothing wrong. All can do is shrug. (Can you see me shrugging?)
17 Abiathar’s son Jonathan and Zadok’s son Ahimaaz were waiting at the spring of Enrogel, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, because they did not dare be seen entering the city. A servant woman would regularly go and tell them what was happening, and then they would go and tell King David. 18 But one day a boy happened to see them, and he told Absalom; so they hurried off to hide in the house of a certain man in Bahurim. He had a well near his house, and they got down in it. 19 The man’s wife took a covering, spread it over the opening of the well and scattered grain over it, so that no one would notice anything. 20 Absalom’s officials came to the house and asked the woman, “Where are Ahimaaz and Jonathan?” “They crossed the river,” she answered. The men looked for them but could not find them, and so they returned to Jerusalem. 21 After they left, Ahimaaz and Jonathan came up out of the well and went and reported to King David. – 2 Samuel 17:17-20
The above passage shows that the spy for David deceived Absalom’s men. Lying to an enemy in war is acceptable in the Bible. YHWH nor David rebukes the servant-woman for lying. Hence, this is another instance where deceiving the enemy by lying to them is permissible
It’s important to remember that anecdotes, even Biblical ones, can not be taken as doctrine. Just as David dancing before the ark doesn’t justify liturgical dancing, so an anecdote in which someone lies and doesn’t seem to be rebuked for it means that lying is permissible.
Good reply. I also deal with this same thought further down the thread here
I understand what you are saying. In the definition of lying you gave, “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving … To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error” I find that perhaps the case of Anne Frank, and even St. Pius Xll was not intend to “lead someone into error”, but protecting someone from torture and death. It seems to me it is about intent. But, the part that “deceived” the guards is an “unintended” thing, like unintended death when dealing with a dying person and pain management or a pregnancy in the tubes of the woman…having to remove the embryo to save the mom’s life. Does this make sense? I find it hard to believe that Anne Frank’s host would not have been guilty in some fashion if they had thought, “Oh, I can’t lie…there is a Jew in the attic Mr. Guard. The Pope hiding the Jews was intent to deceive. I don’t think it is as clear as what you are explaining.
Your reply misses the mark since it doesn’t apply “intent” to the object of the act. In a certain sense every one intends something they perceive as good or beneficial when they act. But one may not do evil, even if they mean something good to come from it. The proximate and focused intent of lying is to deceive someone by saying something we know to be false. The lie wouldn’t work if it wasn’t a lie. This is still the case even in the difficult cases of WWII. One may think they have good reasons to lie, (and this would point to the circumstances), or one may lie because they think it will bring a better outcome (and this points to intention). And though circumstances and secondary intentions may lessen blameworthiness they cannot make a lie good or not a lie.
Maybe a quick analogy: If I come to a door and am in a hurry (circumstances) and put the wrong key in the lock even thought I think it is the right key (intent) the door isn’t going to open. Because no amount of circumstances or good intent can make my error not an error. It has an objective quality that cannot be undone by any of my thoughts, feelings, or internal dispositions. It’s just plain the wrong key and no one would reasonably say it was OK or a good thing to use the wrong key. My blameworthiness is lessened by the circumstances and my intent, but the door is still shut and I am still in error. It’s just never a good or proper thing to put the wrong key in the lock.
If someone broke into your house and asked your wife and children were in order to rape or kill them and you “deceived them” them in order to save their lives it is nor a sin at all. The motivation of your act is what God will Judge Not your adherence to the letter of the Law.
Scripture id full of these circumstances. The Angels have disguise themselves ll the time and present themselves as something they are not in order to perform a greater good. Are the Lord’s Angel’s lying?
Note that a solution to this conundrum could come in one of two forms. It may be that: (1) The immorality of lying admits of exceptions such that there is no objective evil, or at least no subjective evil (guilt), in lying to the thugs; or (2) a very careful definition of “lying” will show that speaking falsely to the thugs is not a lie at all. Great and holy thinkers have wrestled with both possibilities, but it is perhaps more logical to take up first the question of the definition of “lying.” By carefully defining our terms, will we find that there is a distinction between speaking falsely and lying, just as there is between killing and murder? Are some falsehoods not lies? What precisely does it mean to lie?
One of the stronger philosophical traditions, endorsed by Aquinas and discussed by Augustine, posits that lying is “deliberately speaking against one’s own mind.” (Throughout this discussion, “speaking” means any sort of communication.) This was the most common definition among the scholastics, and it became a staple of theological manuals by the first part of the 20th century. As Fr. John Hardon puts it in the Modern Catholic Dictionary, “When a person tells a lie, he or she deliberately says something that is contrary to what is on that person’s mind; there is a real opposition between what one says and what one thinks” (an opposition that cannot be merely apparent, explained by ignorance or misstatement).
It is evident from reading the Bible that it does give permission for one to lie, to save innocent lives, to use deception in war and to shield people from being harmed, persecuted and other examples. Do click on the following links (below) where I have made a brief statement on the verses and have provided Bible-commentaries to get a better understanding of the passages.
Old Testament & New Testament:
1. Exodus – Midwives
2. Exodus – YHWH & Israelites
3. Joshua – Rahab
4. Kings – Elisha & YHWH
5. Judges – Jael
6. Samuel – Spy
7. Samuel – Samuel & YHWH
8. Kings – Spirit & YHWH
9. Samuel – Michal
10. Samuel – David
11. Samuel – David
12. John – Jesus
13. Mark – Peter
14. Corinthians – Paul
Past Church Fathers who endorsed Lying – Deception:
Church Fathers Who Endorsed Lying – Deception
I believe even Pope Francis would agree with this.
Sometime you have to choose what is Good because what is Perfect is unavailable. It easy for theologians or religious to say “its a lie” don’t do it but that not true life at all and most likely people like that aren’t living life to its fullness.
God know’s the heart… The Church saves hundreds if not thousands of lives due to deceiving the Nazis. Had they not done that through those means and would have stood by a “letter of the law” principle they surely would have living a bigger LIE for easing their cowardice.
If you Love God AND His people these answers are easy. Love is all you need and the Laws will flow through you. If you are a Pharisee you will obey every one perfectly by the letter but God’s Love will probably not show in you.
No time to read your whole point, but, in your first scenario, I would be lying, I doubt I’d have any culpability given the duress and injustice described in the scenario. But if I could find another solution than lie, I should do it. I think this is best way to under scenarios like you paint. It doesn’t make sense to call something not a sin at all. Why be so absolute. My intention cannot make the act good or correct any more that a good intention will open a lock when I put the wrong key in it even though I intended to put the right key. Thus in your first scenario, it is wrong to sin, but probably without blame. Best we can do here. The law doesn’t need to serve your every whim so as to justify all that you do. Sometimes it broken, though without personal blame due to circumstance and evil intent, hence culpability applies less or not at all.
The Old Testament did permit lying, but Christians are called to a higher standard – either speak the truth or remain silent. Admittedly, living exactly as Christ would can be extremely difficult. Taking the three NT quotes in order, Jesus did not lie, he changed his mind. Peter lied and had to be reinstated as an apostle by Christ because of it. Paul was not lying – he psychologically took on the position of the people he dealt with to understand them as much as possible in order to accomplish their conversion.
Would a deceptive prank be lying? One could argue that undercover work is like a prank in that the deceiver intends to reveal the truth later and does.
But I don’t like that answer. Pranks and undercover work exploit people’s trust. That’s not “good.”
Would registering for a website with a false name be lying? You could argue that the websites expect some false names and therefore giving them what they expect isn’t lying.
I would caution against reducing culpability too readily. Indifference isn’t mercy, it’s a snare of the devil.
Fair enough, your caution is good, but we should also balance the notion you properly advance with the understanding that there in fact big lies and little lies, and that circumstances do affect one’s blame. My “shrug” approach is not meant to sound glib, but sometimes I feel pressure to say that certain forms of lying are good, or at least OK. I am not willing to go that far but the complexities of lies (e.g. jocose vs. malicious, a lie told under duress and experienced injustice vs. a merely self serving lie, etc) admit of a range of blameworthiness. But your flag on the field the field is a worthy one.
On the human right to the truth:
“No authentic progress is possible without respect for the natural and fundamental right to know the truth and live according to that truth.”
– Centesimus Annus, 29c
Msgr., I understand you may not have had space for this in an OSV column, but in this blog post I do wish you’d given your stance on the inevitable follow-up to the Jew-and-Nazi dilemma: “How do you morally justify handing over an innocent girl to an undoubtedly evil persecutorial power?”
One answer I’ve encountered (in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, ’60’s edition, I think) looks to the meaning of “communication”, since lying isn’t merely making what one knows to be an inaccurate statement of fact, but rather vitiating the full and honest communication of the truth as one understands it to an interlocutor who seeks to know. The article floated the possibility that between the Nazi and the homeowner no true communication is actually possible, because the Nazi’s conditioning, prejudices, acting under orders, and unmistakably morally objectionable intentions are so thoroughly incompatible with the homeowners’ that the two will never understand each other (one could say with moral, not absolute, certainty). I don’t know if I buy this argument, but I’d like to hear your opinion on it.
I don’t try to morally justify it. But neither do I want to be asked to call a lie not a lie or to say that a lie is good. I realize that sometimes people feel stuck. But the best I can do is to say that circumstances (such as the grave duress in the “tiresome” example of the Nazi thing) may lessen or even reduce guilt to a minimum and leave the rest to God. I would not condemn a person fro lying under such circumstances and I don’t thin God would either. Somewhere we have to trust God and not try to reduce everything to an airtight legal case.
The logic implicit in your “How would I justify handing a girl over….” is a flawed logic. We all make decisions that may have results we do not intend. For example if there are two people drowning and I rescue one, I do not thereby condemn the other to a watery grave. They may in fact end up in a watery grave, but that is not something I did, it is not an act of my will. Telling the truth does not amount handing innocent people over. Frankly, if I were to perceive the certainty as you describe it I would either be silent, not giving an answer, or I might lie. But I would not try to say I was not really lying. I would consign my case to God and trust he would understand and take into account my conundrum. But why should I ask the whole world to tweek the definition of lying to make what I am doing right? Can’t we leave a few things to God? Again, why does there need to be an airtight legal argument for everything? We want to be safe through the law, rather than safe through God. The tiresome Nazi example is an extreme example, one rarely faced by most of us on a daily basis. There may be some in corrupt regimes who make difficult decisions like this more often, but lets consign a few things to God and remember that trying to legislate for every anomaly usually produces bad law and creates all sorts of unintended conclusions.
If the world be so evil that it wants all the Ann Franks dead, you will not save her or anyone with a lie. Trust God to keep Ann safe or to call her home, either way it is His decision, your lie will not can not keep her safe. Just know in a world as evil as this they are heaping hot coals upon their heads and the cup of iniquity will soon be filled and then judgement, your lie will not do you or anyone else any favours, God is in control, that is what you speak.
OK, Granny crocheted you a hideous hat and matchingly hideous mitts. Do you like them? Have you been wearing them? asks Granny affectionately. “yes Granny, I love them and I love to wear them!” Is this a lie??
So couldn’t you say, “I don’t wear them all the time, but these are so unique, Granny, and I get so many comments on them! You are a darling for thinking of me and making me something to keep me warm. THANK YOU.” I think you dodge the question and affirm the gift and the giver’s love.
I think what’s key here is that venial vs mortal distinction. Lies are intrinsically evil, just like stealing but no one would make much of a man stealing bread to save his starving family. Yes the theft is still wrong, begging would be the moral alternative, but few would punish someone under those circumstances. So lying in extraordinary cases could be, not justified, but rather judged to require very little punishment.
In the case of the starving man, it is not theft but appropriation.
The Catechism puts it this way:
2408 The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others.
1 David went to Nob, to Ahimelek the priest. Ahimelek trembled when he met him, and asked, “Why are you alone? Why is no one with you?”
2 David answered Ahimelek the priest, “The king sent me on a mission and said to me, ‘No one is to know anything about the mission I am sending you on.’ As for my men, I have told them to meet me at a certain place.
3 Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever you can find.” – 1 Samuel 21:1-3
King David, one of the greatest Prophet’s, who was the ancestor of Jesus, he was said to have deceived Ahimelch the Priest. The purpose was to safeguard the priest from knowing if he knew what David did – if the king found out, Ahimelech would have been slaughtered. Although David had good intentions to protect himself, he used deception to achieve this. Hence, this is another verse amongst many more where the Bible permits one to lie in those circumstances.
It seems to me that in the case of Anna Frank that telling the truth could have been an excuse to avoid personal cosequences. So then telling the truth or lying would have both involved a moral dilemma. There are ways to speak truth without lying . . . A sarcastic response, answering a question with a question, making an observation (all the while praying for God’s guidance).
Those trying to carve out exceptions for lying have to construct some pretty interesting scenarios to make it work. Namely, scenarios that give the illusion that the only choices literally are lie or betray and nothing else. Everyone I’ve ever encountered that held to the non-negotiable truth that lying is intrinsically wrong have also made it clear that when people are being seriously threatened or otherwise under duress then they aren’t really responsible for their actions. I.e. it’s merciful. But note carefully: if we propose someone who does something other than lie or betray (like dodge the question, avoid the question, flee, plead, pray, excoriate, fight…really the list of possibilities other than lying is rather large yet conveniently ignored by the yay-for-lying guys) and is unsuccessful, then the pro-lying crowd regards him as a Pharisee, lacking in love, will be condemned by God, blah, blah blah. That is, somehow in the same stressful situation, the person is fully culpable for his actions. Well, that’s just our old demonic friend consequentialism.
I originally posted this query, “Is every lie intrinsically evil?” because of an article in which the premise was that since we cannot know the resulting consequences and implications of a lie, all lying is, or can be intrinsically evil. (Monsignor, I concede that the example given of Anne Frank and the Nazis is time worn but as I recall, it was the example given by my Jesuit prof, circa 1955.) He even elaborated further that since a simple “yes” or “no” would not lead the questioner away from the truth that a manufactured, blatant, out right “untruth” is guiltless under Catholic moral teaching. Again, I was questioning the nature of the “intrinsically evil” caption being ascribed to lying. I am satisfied that your readers have done an excellent review of the subject.
Thanks Ed, by the way the your question and answer will appear in The Catholic Answer magazine, next issue. Thanks for sending it. I thought to present it here due to the capacity for comments. I remain troubled by the “solution” that seeks to say a lie is either not a lie or good. I prefer a solution that admits it is wrong but accepts that difficult circumstances lessen guilt if not to a minimum in the rather extreme cases sometimes imagined by such scenarios
I would like your opinion on the following post:
Simple, Deacon Jim Russell is simply wrong about the teaching on lying being non-magisterial. He’s been corrected a number of times on this, but continues to dig in his heels. A shame because his writings on other subjects is quite good.
Sorry I seem to have missed the discussion here, but evil is a privation or distortion of truth, yes, every lie is intrinsically evil. Yet, when every other option involves evil as well, an evil that might be deemed grater, I would think that God would be understanding. If one regrets the evil that is the lie, and would have avoided the lie if it were possible to avoid the greater evil, it would seem to be excusable (forgiveable).
The problem some have is conflating justification for excuse when they are really two different things. One says the act is not wrong or is even a positive good. The other says the act is wrong, but mitigated in part or in whole so as to reduce culpability.
Exactly. And I would add that another danger is the attempt by some to be “safe through the law” (as twisted by us) rather than to be safe through God to whom we entrust our case when we are confronted with impossible situations. I resist the attempt to fashion a law for every anomaly or extreme situation so that I feel safe on my own terms or some expert’s machinations. I would rather strive to respect God’s law as best I can and when faced with really weird situations where I don’t see an easy way out, to trust him who will regard my poor estate and assign culpability as he sees fit. He is afterall the final judge of all this, and some things we can’t figure out are best left to him.
The second part of the definition is interesting, “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error”, in the hypothetical case of Anne Frank, if one knows the question was asked in order to kill Anne, and murder is a great “error” in the form of a mortal sin, can a lie be used to prevent that error? In this case could it be “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone away from an error” is itself a merciful act?
Very interesting discussion. I do think some of the points brought up by the commenters are absolutely critical, namely, what does scripture say, what have the various Church Fathers said, and what have Popes said. Peter’s post in particular was very informative. I also don’t believe you can completely dissociate the circumstances surrounding a particular action from the action itself when determining whether a particular action is moral or not. For example generally speaking it is wrong to shoot someone but if it is done in self defense or in a just war it may not be wrong. Also, when Pope John Paul II contradicted previous Church teaching by suggesting the death penalty was usually wrong, he justified it by appealing to external circumstances. In that case he said that the fact that modern prisons were more secure meant that the death penalty was no longer needed.
Also, as others have said it is critical for police forces and government intelligence agencies to be able to conduct under cover operations. This is not a rare or extreme situation like the tired “nazi” example so many people talk about. It happens everyday and many good people make their living doing these things and save many lives in the process. Does anyone truly think such things should stop? Because if they are wrong then I suppose one must say that all such operations should stop, the CIA should be shut down, etc. I’m not aware that such things have ever been condemned by the Church. Such operations have been going on for centuries. Just something to consider.
I teach teen apologetics and this is one of the favorite discussions. I tend to give the exact same definition and ideology as Msgr Pope. A lie is a lie is a lie. What I would like to know though is this : WWJD? What is the perfect answer to “Is Anne Frank in this house?”
Yes, it is interesting to ponder. There are a lot of questions in this category of WWJD. Another one is, would Jesus given money to an alcoholic street beggar? Etc. There are some today who like to say, “Jesus never condemned homosexual acts.” Well ok, if that is the standard then he never condemned rape either.
I guess in terms of this matter of lying it comes down to the fact that the Scriptures give us principles and we must work out the detail.
what is the perfect answer to “Is Anne Frank in this house?” How about, “well, let me call her and see if she answers. Anne! Anne! (wait to listen). Nope. Not here.” or how about “What makes you think she would be here?” Or how about, “no, there are no franks(sausages) in the house.”
One of my brother’s favorite lines to questions he doesn’t really want to answer is “I cannot say.” How much do you think that car repair is going to cost? I cannot say. How late were you out last night? I cannot say. It makes it sound like he is saying “I don’t know.” but if you think about it for a minute, it also could mean “I’m not telling.” I laugh every time he does it.
Love covers a multitude of sins. We confess the wrong we have done and then trust in the Mercy of God.
It still seems the Jesuit interpretation on this has merit.
How about another, much less dire example. I would contend there are circumstances where you enter a social contract that absolves the lying of it’s inherent evil. When you play a game of poker, the major point of the game is to bluff and deceive your opponents in order to prevail against them in the game. Normally, deception used to exploit another for personal gain would be the textbook example of evil, however, have the players of that game not entered into a social contract that absolves those action of their evil. Haven’t the players all agreed that in regards specifically and only to the function of the game, lying and bluffing are acceptable and even to be commended? It’s a strict line for sure, such that if I make up a story about my grandmother being sick to curry favor and sypmathy during the game I’m engaged in an evil act, but if I represent 3 Kings when I only have 1, that is not per our social contract of gaming.
if gambling wrinkles your nose, you could make the same case for boardgames such as Risk and Diplomacy.
Key point: all the players agreed that bluffing is part of the agreed context. Not so in other examples given here.
I really like this discussion because it makes us think deeply about sin we sometimes take so casually. In thinking about this issue, before I read your article, I realized the circumstances and intent modify the culpability. I expect the nuns and priests who falsified baptismal certificates in WWII understood they were lying, and committing a sin, but also realized there was no way to achieve the greater good of saving childrens’ and peoples’ lives than that act, and so did so. Perhaps they were required to spend time in purgatory for the deception, but I certainly hope God took into consideration their intent and circumstances, and lessened the penalty.
I wish I would always be able to find a way to accomplish the good without ever having to resort to deception, but I know I would lie to save a life. Then I would confess it, being truly sorry I was not clever enough to not lie and still protect the person.
This is a great discussion.
This is not complex…… A Lie is a Lie ….simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.
Regarding this conversation I believe people are confused between the Truth and the facts. You can speak the Truth but it may not be factual. It is not a lie. Many parts of the Bible should be thrown if that were the case starting with Genesis.
The leaders of Jesus’ day were very upset with Him because he wasn’t always factual. He didn’t obey the letter of the Law as they did yet He obeyed the Heart of it perfectly.
If this scenario (regarding the Nazis/murders) happened to me I would simply say “the ones you are looking for are not here” It is not a lie because most likely they would not be there… at least not in front of me. And it appears that St. Raymond felt the same way. Jesus did this type of paradoxing all the time with His leaders especially when it involved the woman who was about to be stoned. His Law said she should be stoned. They were following the letter of the law. But Jesus was great at finding loopholes. What would Jesus Do?? He would find a Loophole. And I pray to God we would to…
Read what St. Raymond suggested and according the EWTN it is acceptable.
I feel this should make everyone happy… from EWTN
The common Catholic teaching has formulated the theory of
mental reservation as a means by which the claims of both justice
and veracity can be satisfied.
The doctrine was broached tentatively and with great diffidence by
St. Raymund of Pennafort, the first writer on casuistry.
In regards to murderers bent on taking the life of someone
hiding in the house whether he is in, no answer should be given…however, St. Raymond states one 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.”
Such expressions as “He is not at home” were called equivocations,
or amphibologies, and when there was good reason for using them
their lawfulness was admitted by all. If the person inquired for
was really at home, but did not wish to see the visitor, the
meaning of the phrase “He is not at home” was restricted by the
mind of the speaker to this sense, “He is not at home for you, or
to see you.” Hence equivocations and amphibologies came to be
called mental restrictions or reservations. It was commonly
admitted that an equivocal expression need not necessarily be used
when the words of the speaker receive a special meaning from the
circumstances in which he is placed, or from the position which he
holds. Thus, if a confessor is asked about sins made known to him
in confession, he should answer “I do not know,” and such words as
those when used by a priest mean “I do not know apart from
confession,” or “I do not know as man,” or “I have no knowledge of
the matter which I can communicate.”
All Catholic writers were, and are, agreed that when there is good
reason, such expressions as the above may be made use of, and that
they are not lies. Those who hear them may understand them in a
sense which is not true, but their self-deception may be permitted
by the speaker for a good reason. If there is no good reason to
the contrary, veracity requires all to speak frankly and openly in
such a way as to be understood by those who are addressed. A sin
is committed if mental reservations are used without just cause,
or in cases when the questioner has a right to the naked truth.
Other helpful Cathoilic links to this problem:
One has to be very cautious using mental reservations because lots of people label things mental reservations when they are actually lies. Such as telling a falsehood an the speaker supplying extra words in his mind only that would make the spoken part true.
See here: https://ronconte.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/the-distinction-between-lying-and-mental-reservation/
“Daddy, is there a Santy Clause?” “Daddy, are you Santy Clause?” “Steve, are they planning a surprise birthday party for me?” “Daddy, did I draw a good picture of you?” A lie is a lie is a lie?????? Intrinsically evil?????? C’mon man! Seriously!
Well careful Steve, while I know you are responding to a comment above in the thread, you ought not absolutize what is being said and then scoff at the absolutizing you create. To say lying is intrinsically evil does not mean that it is always grave, mortal or even serious. You’re understanding the matter univocally. It is clear from the comments that while lies cannot be called good, it does not always follow that every lie is grave or that a person incurs grave guilt. Circumstances can ameliorate guilt, and the gravity of the truth distorted also determines the blameworthiness.
As for your “Santy Claus” example note the following: If you ask me I’ll say, “Don’t load you kids up with silly, stupid secularized myths that are not biblical etc. But, of all the lies that go on, I can think of something worse and, since our foolish Western Culture has blabbed this nonsense for so long (Thanks in part to Coca Cola and other advertisers) that the gravity and culpability of this nonsense is less than severe. But if you ask, it is a lie and it ought to cease. But frankly I (and you) have bigger fish to fry that “Santy Clause.”
“Seriously” yes, but what you seem to mean is “absolutely” And that term is your invention, not that of moral theology which regards lying as intrinsically wrong, but not of equal (absolute) gravity.
Luke 16:10 “He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater: and he that is unjust in that which is little, is unjust also in that which is greater.”
The argument in favor of exceptions for lying paints one into a corner. Apparently it suggests lying in small things to spare feelings (ignoring the possibility of being able to do so without lying) is fine, as well as in big things to avoid serious harm even though Commandments are supposed be stronger as the seriousness increases, not weaker (lying is a violation of the 8th Commandment). What it boils down to is only tell the truth as long as it isn’t inconvenient to anyone. In short, lie your butt off most of the time.
G.K. Chesterton, the wondrous apostle of sanity, explains why, as he grew into adulthood, his belief in Santa Claus increased:
G.K. Is up for Sainthood..
Here is another sites view on G.K. And santa: good read:
Well, I’ll just state my point again on Santa: If you ask is the Santa Claus OK,I’ll say, no, it’s a lie. But don’t ask me because frankly I don’t care. In other words, why sweat the small stuff?
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