You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor – A Reflection on the 8th Commandment

The Eighth Commandment proclaims the splendor and the beauty of the truth. It is not often that we hear of the truth described in this way, but consider how precious and essential a foundation the truth is for our lives.

Without the truth there can be no trust, and without trust there can be no relationships with others. Without the truth there is cynicism, fear, and an atmosphere of exclusion and secrecy. Without the truth, lives are ruined or lost by error and falsehood. Without the truth, countless men, women and children are misled by deceitful and destructive philosophies that sow confusion and error.

Jesus declared just how important and essential the truth is by describing it as the fundamental purpose of his saving mission: For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. (John 18:37). Jesus also taught, If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (Jn 8:31)

Dedication to the truth – The first implication of the eighth commandment flows from the importance and essential nature of the truth. The Catechism teaches:

Christians must be dedicated to the truth and live according to it. The Old Testament attests that God is the source of all truth. His Word is truth. His Law is truth. His “faithfulness endures to all generations.”[Ps 119:90; Prov 8:7; 2 Sam 7:28; Ps 119:142] Since God is “true,” the members of his people are called to live in the truth. (Catechism 2465) To follow Jesus is to live in “the Spirit of truth,” whom the Father sends in his name and who leads “into all the truth.”[Jn 16:13] To his disciples Jesus teaches the unconditional love of truth: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes or No.'”[Mt 5:37] (CCC # 2466).

Witness to the truth – Not only are to be dedicated to the truth and to love it, we are to witness to it by word and deed. This is particularly the case with the truth of our faith, the truth which has set us free. This witness is a transmission of the faith in words and deeds. Witness is an act of justice that establishes the truth or makes it known. All Christians by the example of their lives and the witness of their word, wherever they live, have an obligation to manifest the new man which they have put on in Baptism and to reveal the power of the Holy Spirit by whom they were strengthened at Confirmation. (CCC #  2472).

Since the eighth commandment upholds the goodness and beauty of the truth we must avoid all sins against the truth. There are numerous ways that the truth is undermined. It will be fruitful for us to consider them each in turn.

I. False Witness – Scripture says, A man who bears false witness against his neighbor is like a war club, or a sword, or a sharp arrow. (Proverbs 25:18) Nothing can be so injurious to individuals as to harm their good name or reputation. Without a good reputation it becomes difficult for an individual to successfully relate to and interact with others whether it be for business or merely at a personal level. Clearly, to bear false witness against someone is to harm their reputation and we are forbidden to do so.

In the the most technical sense, false witness is something which takes place in a court of law and, since it is under oath, is also called perjury. But it is also often the case that false witness is given in daily matters through lies, half truths, exaggeration, and the like. Clearly our call to love the truth and to respect the reputation of others forbids us engaging in such activities.

Respect for the reputation of others also forbids us from:

A: Rash judgment (assuming without sufficient foundation the moral fault of a neighbor),
B: Detraction (disclosing another’s faults and failings without a valid reason to others who did not know them)

C: Calumny (imputing false defects to another with the knowledge that they are false).

II. Flattery – Yet it is also possible to offend the truth by inappropriately praising others or by refusing to correct them when it is proper to do so. Flattery distorts the truth when it falsely attributes certain good qualities or talents to another. This is usually done to ingratiate oneself to individuals or for some other ulterior motive(s). Such behavior becomes particularly sinful when it confirms another in malicious acts or sinful conduct.

III. Lying A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving…Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord…The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” [Jn 8:44]….By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity…A lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision…Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust…and tears apart the fabric of social relationships. (Catechism 2482-2485)

Acts of lying are sins from which we must repent. Lying is also a sin that demands reparation. That is to say, since lying causes actual harm and real damage. These damages must be repaired. The actual truth must be made known to those who deserve to know it. The reputations of others which have been harmed by the lie must also be restored.

Is lying always so evil? 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. (Catechism 2484). Thus there are big lies and smaller ones. Nevertheless, it is always wrong to intentionally lie. This includes so called “polite lies.” For example suppose a phone call comes in for someone in the household who has indicated a preference not to be disturbed just now. It is a lie to say, “She is not here.” Yet one could say, “She is not available now.” Other social situations are less simple! For example, if Mrs. Smith asks you, “Do you like my new hairstyle?” Suppose you do not. It is in fact wrong to say, “Yes, I like it.” Granted, we all feel a bit stuck in such situations! Perhaps we could answer truthfully but discreetly and say, “You look alright.” (Presuming that we do think so). But wouldn’t it be nice if we actually felt secure enough, either to indicate charitably our true feelings, or to indicate our preference not to answer the question? Wouldn’t it be even better if our relationships with others were so based in sincerity and truth that people both gave and expected honest answers? It is to this blessed state that the Lord points when he says, Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ (Mt 5:37).

IV. What about secrets? This reflection has thus far emphasized the goodness and the splendor of the truth as well as the importance of communicating that truth to others who need it. However, the right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional..fraternal love…requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it…Everyone should observe an appropriate reserve concerning persons’ private lives. Those in charge of communications should maintain a fair balance between the requirements of the common good and respect for individual rights. Interference by the media in the private lives of persons engaged in political or public activity is to be condemned to the extent that it infringes upon their privacy and freedom (Catechism 2488, 2489, 2492).

However, the fact that we are permitted, even obliged, to keep certain secrets and maintain discretion, does not mean that we are free to lie. For example we cannot say, “I don’t know anything about that.” Neither can we make up false answers to requested information. When we must decline to give information that is properly to be kept secret we must still remain truthful. We might say instead, “I am not free to discuss this matter with you now.” Or, “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on that.” Or, “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Occasionally we may need to be more direct and say, “This is a private matter and not for you to know.”

Thus secrecy and discretion are often proper. Here too however, absolutes must be avoided. Sometimes we are asked to keep secrets that we should not keep. For example, suppose someone confides in you that they intend to commit a serious crime, or bring harm to another? It would be wrong to keep such a secret. Other things being equal, secrets ought to be kept, save in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very grave harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth. (Catechism 2491).

An exception to this is the seal of confession which may never be violated for any reason whatsoever: The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore, it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason. (Catechism 2490).

Jesus has taught us that the truth will set us free (Jn 8:32). If this be the case then anything which distorts the truth leads to bondage. Thus the eighth commandment calls upon us to love the truth and to love one another by proclaiming the truth and witnessing to it in sincerity with mutual respect and love.

I couldn’t think of a video to post today, but then it struck me that there was something very honest about this video.

54 Replies to “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor – A Reflection on the 8th Commandment”

  1. Dear Msgr Pope,
    But how do we judge those who see truth when others are blind to truth? I believe that to some God gives the talent of seeing patterns which reveal truths which are not easily seen by others. And even the guilty are “proven” innocent when the patterns are not accepted as truth. Christ spoke the truth and was condemned – put to death even. The spiritually-blind could not see or accept the truth. So, what support can be given to those who see but who are condemned by the blind?

      1. Well, it is a reversal of perceptions to the ponit of view of the evil one. The evil one in authority claims “false witness” of a holy man (even though the holy man tells the truth, but the evil hides the truth) and the evil one convinces the world that the holy man is lying when, in fact, he is telling the truth. With God, the holy man does not sin, but under the government of the evil one, the holy man is punished for the false crime of bearing false witness when, in fact, he is telling the truth. I know this is complicated – apologies. 🙂

  2. I suspect you could do a whole series of posts on confession, Msgr.; for now, could you shed light on whether the “seal” applies only to those who genuinely confess – and receive absolution – or anyone who enters into confession, irrespective of whether absolution is granted. There are some countries that wish to strip many professional settings (if we can include the confessional in that) of the right to privacy if a person admits to a crime.

    1. My layman’s understanding: The seal is inviolable even if someone entering is full of baloney. The only wiggle room is over whether such-and-such entered into confession; but that is a stretch under what I call the Everyone-Knows-What-Their-Chosen-Act-Is rule. If the priests understands he is in a confessional setting, he is bound. There was some noise from the Irish government about criminalizing the withholding of crimes confessed in the Sacrament from the secular authorities, but I don’t think it got much past the sabre-rattling phase. In the unlikely event that such happened, priests would have no choice but to disregard the law under consciencious objection and take whatever consequences come with that.

  3. Msgr.
    Can you comment on Equivocation and Mental Reservation? St. Alphonsus Liguori taught these are morally acceptable, but they have always seemed at root dishonest to me. Is there an official Church teaching here?

    1. I too am skeptical of these concepts, especially given the damage the Jesuits often did with them. I am more of the school that a lie is an intentional falsiloquium – that is the deceptive speech intends to mislead what ever is going on the mind. It seems a little game of pretend to me to speak of mental reservation.

      1. But sometimes it is a (sort of) game! But one that means no harm, and does no harm!

        For example one of the deacons at my church often preaches the homily, and honestly I really find him amazingly dull. However, it is likely that others like his style (there is, after all no accounting for taste) for he is often asked to preach, and I see lots of little old ladies running up to him afterwards to say how much they enjoyed his sermon. So, while I do not volunteer my opinion, if I am asked what I thought of a sermon I thought boring, pablum, my usual response is to give a wide eyes smile and to say “He was a veritable Sampson!” This has the benefit of ending the conversation, as my questioner usually goes off, trying to figure that one out 🙂

        What I mean of course is “I have been slain with the jawbone of an ass!”

        But you can’t say that in church. Or shouldn’t perhaps, for it is a sin against charity which would seem a greater sin than the sin against truth involved. (Not to mention being much less fun).

  4. Where does gossip fit in? Gossip that is true, so not lying per se. Not sure if it’s false witness either, since it’s often not false. I know a lot of women, including myself, struggle with gossip.

    On the hairstyle example, I can’t see myself saying the truth in that situation. Maybe something like “It must feel great to have a fresh style.” I think a better choice is for people not to ask questions like that.

  5. And then there’s the lie of omission. Quite easy to do and quite difficult to undo.

  6. Msgr. Pope, I like this post, but I would offer one slight thought. You say that it is a lie to say “She is not here,” but not “She is not available.” However, a rather old high school Catholic religion text I used to own made the point that saying “She is not here,” or “She is not at home,” has the accepted social meaning of “She is not at home right now to visitors/callers” and thus was fine for those who needed to use those phrases (which back in the day that textbook was written included personal secretaries and domestic servants). In other words, because people (at least in that day) understood “She is not here” to mean a) she is not physically here, b) she is not available to speak to you right at this moment, or c) she is not at home to any callers, it was okay to use the simple shortcut phrase “She is not here,” when one’s employer preferred it as the most polite form of refusal.

    I suppose we could discuss whether or not “She is not here” still has that same accepted social meaning, and thus whether it is appropriate to use it these days. But I think that it is a good example of an idiomatic English expression that does not always mean exactly what the literal words say–and that those who are unusually scrupulous about such idioms should double-check with a confessor as to whether they may be used. There are many such idioms, especially in business–the “He is in/will be in a meeting” expression comes to mind as another example, which can mean anything from what it literally says (e.g., that the person is actually attending a meeting of several people for a fixed time) to a simple expression of unavailability (e.g., the person expects to be busy talking to only one other person for only a few minutes, but needs to keep his schedule open until that happens). The point, I think, is that these idiomatic expressions do not ordinarily intend to deceive, as it is expected that those hearing them will understand their range of possible meanings.

    1. Perhaps, but why not just say, “She is not available” ?? I accept that there are idioms as you say, such as saying “I’m fine” when you really are not. I am not sure the phone example is such a case and would generally not wish to expand the notion of idioms too easily.

      1. Msgr. Pope, I think that there are circumstances in which “She is not here,” with the understood *possible* meaning of “…to callers…” is allowable and in which “She is not available,” might be less helpful. Maybe I can illustrate.

        The problem with “She’s not available,” is that it is often taken to mean, “She is here, physically present, but doesn’t want to see/speak to you right now, either because she is busy, or can’t be bothered, or because she doesn’t like you or doesn’t wish to speak to you, or because you’re a low priority as far as she’s concerned.” I suppose you could argue that it’s the only polite way to say that someone doesn’t wish to see/speak to someone else without having to give them unnecessary detail about why, but is it any more true than “She is not here?” After all, “Not available” means that the person is unavailable to come to the phone or see the caller, right? But what if technically she is not really unavailable–that is, she’s just as available technically for caller A as she is for caller B, in that she’s not any more busy or tied up when A calls as when B does? However, she has said that she must see caller A today (especially in a business setting) but caller B is a salesman who wastes her time and she will put him off as long as possible. So isn’t saying “She’s not available” to caller B just as much of a “lie” as saying “She’s not here (for you right now)?”

        What I’m trying to say here is that “She’s not available” is also an idiom (and one which is probably more confusing to non-native English speakers than “She’s not here,” which is also something to consider). It could mean that she’s present but busy, it could mean that she’s present but not busy but not interested in seeing or speaking to callers or to a certain caller, it could mean that she’s present for a few more seconds but then heading to a meeting, etc. But a boss who tells her secretary, “I’m not here from two to five this afternoon,” doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll be physically absent during the entirety of that time, any more than a boss who tells her secretary, “I’m not available from two to five this afternoon,” means that she’ll be so busy that whole time that she can’t come to the phone. That’s one reason why the phrase “out of the office” has been so prevalent lately in business settings; “I’m not here,” might mean I’m just not taking calls, but “I’m out of the office,” means I’m not coming in to work at all during the specified time, or am working offsite or from home, etc.

  7. Fr. Pope,

    This is topical now because the group LiveAction is performing undercover exposes on Planned Parenthood.

    Some are arguing that what LiveAction is doing is wrong even gravely wrong, and I am persuaded by their arguments except, but one thing bothers me.

    In John 7, It seems to me that Christ himself went “undercover”, deceived the disciples about his intentions and went to the festival in Jerusalem. Of course, Christ knew what was really happening there without going, but was he acting in an incarnational way as an example of how it is permitted to go “undercover”?

    I’m conflicted. It seems that Christ clearly deceived his disciples. He said he wasn’t going “to this feast” and then went anyway in secret.

    Others have tried to explain this scripture to me, but I’ve not been satisfied by it. It seems like there’s a clear message here that it is OK to deceive people in the service of secret undercover investigations.

    1. Well, I don’t like to be asked to call something good, just because good things may result. I am not going to say “Lying is good.” However, I am not that convinced that what they are doing is a serious lie given the circumstances and context. But I won’t call lying or misrepresenting oneself “good.” As for your example of John 7 it is difficult to say what Jesus did exactly since he may simply have changed his mind. I’d rather not draw too many conclusions given the uncertainty of the details.

  8. Msgr. you said: “Is lying always so evil? – 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. (Catechism 2484). Thus there are big lies and smaller ones. Nevertheless, it is always wrong to intentionally lie.”

    Yet Scripture includes a number of occasions where God’s holy people did lie, and were not condemned.

    The midwives when ordered to kill the baby boys of the Hebrews told Pharoah “Oh Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women. They are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

    Abraham, afraid that Pharoah would kill him if he knew that he was Sarah’s husband, passed her off as a sister. However God did not punish Abraham for this “lie”. God punished Pharoah for setting up a system that required an honest man to lie.

    And most difficult for me of all. Jesus’ story of the “dishonest steward.” The steward was going to be fired for incompetance or whatever, but went out made friends with all his masters debtors, forgiving their debts (which he had no right to do) and thus obtaining the hope of being able to ask them for favors once he got fired.

    Yet his master praised him.

    The way I read that passage “make friends for yourself with unrighteous mammon” is that wealth is meant to be stored up in the “bosoms of the poor, the houses of widows and the mouths of children.” (I think that is a quote from Ambrose). When the system is corrupt, the rules change.

    Or do they? Because Jesus also said that not a word of the Law could be taken away, and that He had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.

    1. That scripture reports an event does not mean it is necessarily told with approval. In some cases scripture is just happened. The lack of punishment is little more than an argument from silence. I like you have probably escaped punishment from God from things I have done. This does not denote approval from God. That the midwives fear the Lord does not mean they do everything right. My only point here is to say that we need not conclude approval for every detail. If they did tell a lie (as it seems from the story), given the context and circumstances, it may have been wrong, but not seriously wrong. In the case of the dishonest steward, Jesus is not praising dishonesty but using irony to illustrate that the wicked are more ingenious in dealing with the world than the saints in dealing with the kingdom.

  9. I know of at least 2 examples that seem to allow lying under certain circumstances. The first: when the Hebrew midwives were commanded by Pharoah to kill all newborn baby boys, and the midwives disobey and lie. “Exo 1:19 – 21 – The Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women: for they themselves are skilful in the office of a midwife; and they are delivered before we come to them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied and grew exceedingly strong. And because the midwives feared God, he built them houses”

    The 2nd example is when Rahab hid Joshua’s spies and lied to Jericho’s soldiers. God certainly blessed Rahab for this act, such that she would be in the Davidic line of Christ.

    Would you explore these 2 passages and help me to understand how they fit in the context of the 8th commandment?

    1. I addressed the one above. As for Rehab, I would say something similar, in that I think the scriptures report what happened but don’t go much further as if to say lying is good. Here too, I won’t call what she did good, but given the circumstances, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. There are big lies, little lies and statistics 🙂 Again my point would mainly be that we cannot always resolve everything and make everything fit. Sometimes people make the best of a bad situation and in doing so fall short of what is the best or right thing to do. It’s understandable and to some extent the human condition, just don’t ask be to call it good. It’s not good to lie, but sometimes people do it and their struggle is understandable. Some things are just best left unresolved.

      1. not to belabor my point, but you mentioned in the comment above (in your reply to Shari) that “This does not denote approval from God.” But the text I quoted directly from Scripture states plainly, “Therefore God dealt well with the midwives: and the people multiplied and grew exceedingly strong. And because the midwives feared God, he built them houses”. That is not an implicit approval; it is an explicit one.

        1. Well it is clear that God dealt well with them for not killing the babies. It is less clear that he dealt well with them specifically and per se for lying.

  10. how about the secret of Fatima that is still being withheld to the public?


    The above essay outlines a number of other passages where God’s people did not tell the truth and were not condemned. I agree with the author that “while it is apparent that God requires His people to be honest and truthful in their heart toward God and his people, it is also clear that there can be situations where faithfulness and loyalty to God and His people is more important in the eyes of God than satisfying our own law of self-righteous honesty.

    1. I don’t have time to read the article but I know I don’t like the title “Righteous Lying” While I’m willing to accept that not all lies are as serious as others, I surely don’t think lying should be called righteous. At the very best it is regrettable and perhaps understandable when people are in serious duress such as the classic example of people hiding Jews in their basement in WWII and lying to the Nazis who ask if there are any Jews in the residence. While I understand these sorts of difficult situations and would not be hard on one who did lie, I still don’t want to be asked to call it good or righteous.

      1. Well here are a few more examples (from the above) which have not been previously mentioned:

        In 2 Kings 6:18 – 20, Elisha asked the Lord to blind the equestrians and charioteers who had come to capture him at the orders of the king of Syria. When blinded by God, Elisha told them that he would lead them to the one they sought. But instead, he led them into Samaria, to the King of Israel. Then he asked God to open their eyes. Instead of being slain by the King of Israel, Elisha asked that the King give them food and water. Here God seemed to support Elisha in his deception.

        In Judges 4, the Israelites fought for deliverance from the Canaanites and God delivered the Canaanites into Israel’s hand. But Sisera, captain of the Canaanite army fled to the tent of Heber, because there was peace between Jabar, King of Canaan and Hebar. Jael, Hebar’s wife promised Sisera safe refuge in her tent from the Israelites. However, when he fell asleep, she drove a stake through his temple. In other words, she lied to him. In chapter 5, Barak and the prophetess, Deborah praised her as, “Blessed above women. . .”

        Moreover, it is also recorded where God has told someone to lie or deceive. In Exodus 3:18, God commanded Moses to request of Pharaoh permission to worship three days in the wilderness. Clearly, the sacrifice wasn’t the real reason for their leaving, and although Pharaoh refused, it was still obviously a deception. In 1 Samuel 16:2, God instructed Samuel to take a heifer as an offering with him to Bethlehem specifically so that Saul would not suspect that Samuel’s true reason for going was to anoint David as King.

        If that’s not enough, there are occasions where God Himself is deceptive! In John 7:2-10, Jesus’ brothers suggest that Jesus go to the Jew’s feast of Tabernacles so that his disciples could see his works (for they did not believe in him). Jesus said, “My time is not yet come: but your time is always ready. . . Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast; for my time is not yet full come. . . But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.” Also, in Ezekiel 14:9, God says. “And if the prophet be deceived when he that spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand upon him and destroy him from the midst of my people Israel.” Similarly, 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12 states, “. . . And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: . .”

        Modern teaching would have these people tell the truth and let God handle the rest. Yet is this not the same counsel Satan gave Jesus: “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, ‘He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee:’ And, ‘In their hand they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou shalt dash thy foot against a stone.’ Jesus answering said unto him, it is said, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God (Luke 4:11, 12).” So it appears that “righteously” telling the truth to the murderer about the whereabouts of your children (as in the case of the midwives), and then expecting God to zap him with a bolt of lightening could actually be considered tempting God. Worse yet is to do so and allow the murderer to fulfill his desires.

        I think that as we look at all these situations we learn that while man looks at the outward appearances, God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Proverbs 17:20 say, “He that has a deceitful heart finds no good. . . .” Obviously Ananias and Sapphira had a deceitful heart because they found “no good” and died for their sin, whereas God rewarded Rahab, the midwives, etc. . . Obviously these other people did not have a deceitful heart and God rewarded them by allowing them to find good. David asked God “who shall abide in thy tabernacle, who shall dwell in thy holy hill?” And then answers his question saying, “. . . .and speaketh the truth in his heart.”(Proverbs 15) It appears that the one who lies in his heart is more apt to be guilty than the one who lies aloud but with a heart for obeying and serving God.

      2. Having said all that, I do feel that one had better have a really, good reason, and that further it would be best that one not profit in any way from such a lie, that it be done entirely for the sake of another (as with the midwives, Moses, and Raab). I do agree that most lies are more on the order of Annanias and Saphira, and are made to glorify oneself, rather than to protect others or to glorify God.,

      3. The Nazi example wouldn’t qualify as a lie if one sees the murderous Nazi as not having a right to the truth, thus the act in that case might be called righteous.

        1. Respectfully Daniel, this is a common error that people get from the Catechism. While it does say some people are not entitled to the truth, that is in no way a licence to lie. When someone is not entitled to the truth, one may keep silent, refuse to answer the question, dodge the question, and possibly a number of other things, but not lie, because it is objectively wrong–meaning the subjective intention of the speaker, nor the circumstance that people mean to do harm hear the speaker come into play so to speak.

          1. Yeah, I agree with you here Scott. I think the only real way to speak of the Nazi example is to call it what it is, a lie. That said, given the circumstances render culpability pretty low to non existent, and the action is understandable. Sometimes people are just dealing with a bad situation and so they lie. I just don’t want to be asked to call it good, but I do understand the difficulty.

    2. One can always find x theologian or scholar or bible reader who says differently, but these are not the Magesterium. As the Catechism says “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned”. In other words, lying is evil in and of itself. Examples of people in Scripture lying and not being explicitly condemned is no help because Our Lord is plain, “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

      But what also needs to be remembered is that our belief in who Jesus Christ is is based entirely on the apostolic eye-witness testimony, and that testimony is only reliable as long as there isn’t any fudging in the fine print to the effect of “Well you can lie if you have a really good reason.” The whole gospel edifice crumbles if the apostles are running around with an idea no different than Islamic taqqiya.

  12. If the Eighth Commandment were as strictly enforced as some other laws are, most everyone in Washington D.C. would be serving a life sentence… :

  13. There is also detraction, which is telling the truth to cause harm.

    As with all, love of neighbor, charity, sums it up.

    However, I don’t think you state the case about the Guestapo asking if you are hiding Jews. Fiction and Myth aren’t lies in the strict sense.

  14. There is also detraction, which is telling the truth to cause harm.

    We need to be clear, because detraction isn’t merely telling the truth to cause harm, but as Msgr. Charles quoted from the CCC: “disclosing another’s faults and failings without a valid reason to others who did not know them”. So while it is true that charity should guide everything, that is an example of a good intention. But our whole point is that lying is objectively wrong, which means no amount of good intentions or relative circumstances can make it morally acceptable. They may mitigate one’s personal responsibility if one does lie, but lying remains wrong even if the lying is understandable and venial, which I grant is often the case.

    It’s true that fiction and myth are not lies, but rather pretenses. That is, the reader of fiction or hearer of myth is in on it and understands he is not being deceived.

  15. Pope John XXIII, according to the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation ,saved thousands of Jews in Hungary by issuing fake Baptism certificates and forged documents along with others cooperating in this endeavor. He has been proposed as a candidate for the honor “Righteous Among Nations” this information is from the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation website.
    In this case, I think it seems justified.

    1. Why not just say they did the best they could in a bad situation and leave it there. Why do you need to call it justified. I think the wiggle room should focus on the seriousness of the lie given the circumstances or on culpability, rather than to attempt to cleanse the whole thing. An additional thing here is to wonder why a jew, even in the face of death would claim to be a Christian? In Christian circles if we did something like that we call that apostacy or at least denying Christ. Now again, I understand they were under grave pressure and I humanly understand what they did, but I wont call it good. I’d rather say, I understand, and leave it at that.

    2. I should point out that a) He wasn’t pope at the time of the Holocaust and b) According to this article: the claims of authorization of fake baptism certs are either dubious, unconfirmed, or conflate baptism certificates with exit visas or other documentation.

  16. Sometimes the truth hurts. Like when I found out you have more sins than you thought you did.

    But…the truth also liberates. Like when I remembered that God is infinitely merciful to sinners.

    1. Oops, meant to say “Like when I found out I have more sins than I thought I did.”

  17. “Why not just say they did the best they could in a bad situation and leave it there. Why do you need to call it justified?”

    Msgr. Pope,

    With all respect, I’ve thought about this a lot and think it is very important to say whether or not it was justified. Catholic theology is clear that one cannot do evil that good may come of it. If, therefore, we say that this type of untruth is wrong, we must also say that it would be better for these people not to have done it. I don’t think we can fudge and say it wasn’t too bad or that people did the best they could. We can’t have our cake (a categorical statement that all intentional untruths are always wrong) and eat it too (the beneficial consequences of the untruth).

    Catholic theology demands that we either say an untruth was justified, or that it was wrong and something that the persons involved should have not done (after all, we have an obligation to resist even venial sins). I can’t believe the latter is right, and I think Professor Janet Smith has explained the issue well here in First Things magazine:

    1. On the other hand, Peter Kreeft, no intellectual slouch either, sees some room for leaving things unresolved and intuitive:

      We can’t realistically make every scenario fit into our intellectual framework and thus I think we can, as I have step back from making an absolute judgement about very unique cases. I feel like quoting Augustine when folks like you want to pin me down: “If you ask me, I don’t know, if you don’t ask me I know.” Bottom line, I think lying is always wrong (categorical enough for you?) but there are big and serious lies and then there are smaller ones. Circumstances also affect culpability.

      Beyond this I wish to say little more in these unique situations and refer you back to the academy for the knock em down drag em out debates that set up around these things where everything must be airtight and nothing unresolved. Yet the endless nature of these debates suggests that the perfect airtight compartment may be difficult to find.

      1. Msgr. Pope,

        Thank you for your response. I apologize if you thought I was someone trying to “pin [you] down” or to set up an endless debate. I think the issue is important because I think the situation is not as “very unique” as you suggest, at least in parts of the world where Christians and other minorities are violently persecuted. And I think the same general issue arises in many everyday contexts — such as when police officers, intelligence agents, or news reporters are asked to go on undercover operations that require them to state untruths. Are Catholics is those positions obstinately persisting in sin?

        I fully agree with you and Peter Kreeft that there are some issues where intuition should be our guide, but if so, think we need to avoid making categorical statements like “it is always wrong to intentionally lie.” As much as I love the Catechism as a sure guide to Catholic morality, we also need to make sure not to read it as literally as a Protestant fundamentalist reads the Bible. The Catechism is a general, summary document of Catholic doctrine, and although it gives us a quick shorthand for Catholic teaching, before one tries to make any of its statements into a literal binding norm that is universally applicable, one must be prepared to understand the Catechism’s limited purpose and also what sources underlie its expression of the Church’s teaching. I am not aware, for example, of any universal *magisterial* statements that it is always wrong to intentionally lie. (Note: my position doe NOT open the door to saying, for example, that abortion is sometimes permitted. The magisterial teachings on that issue are crystal clear.)

        Thank you again for your thoughtful reflections on this blog.

  18. This is one of the most important issues one can discuss..the very nature of truth and it’s value to mankind. With this in mind I here quickly address the possiblity of untruths appearing in the gospels or Christian teachings as truth. By merely accepting the gospels as the whole truth one can easily fall into a serious non critical state of mind. If by chance the gospels do promote non truthful hearsay stories as truth a great sin can be perpetually reinforced through time. An endless grave sin if you will. However the church and even Martin Luther has declared that priests and Christians are protected from slander even when it seems they promote non truths. A perfect example of a perpetual Christian accepted non true truth is the claim that the “Jews” as a group killed Jesus and accepted the guilt of such an act. Even in 2013 people all over the world still say without any hesitation, the “Jews” killed Jesus. This dispite the fact that modern research has shown eye witnessess are not to be believed because they very often fail to correctly ID the real offender, that in fact the stores that relate this as truth are not even eye witness accounts but hearsay accounts written by people with strong bias and agender, and that these accounts fly in the face of known historical facts, such as testimonials by historians of that era of Pilates true character and the apparent “wisdom” of blaming the ruled “Jews” rather then blaming the ruling government of the mighty powerful Roman Empire. It is also very apparent that these stories mistake Jewish beliefs such as communial guilt. The Jews as a people do not believe in this. The son shall not be guilty for the sins of the father and so on, so to write that the offending Jews declare they accept this sort of guilt goes against their culture. So who were these so called Jews? Simply put it is a mean distortion, a LIE, used to condemn Jews to a horrible fate at the hands of peace loving Christians for all time it seems. THIS GOES AGAINST THE VERY FUNDAMENTAL TEACHINGS OF JESUS yet it is still allowed to persist. Jesus reportedly said the truth shall make you free. However the very nature of truth makes it hard to come by. Its like a diamond. It has to be found for one thing. Then it has to be carefully studied from all sides. The more carefully studied it is the more truth is revealed. However studying just one tree in a forest will have you going round it in circles. To reach the whole truth as best we can, the whole forest must be studied, not just our favorite tree. Ignorance it is said is a sin against God.

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