To re-re-re-clarify for the umpteenth time

To re-re-re-clarify for the umpteenth time May 16, 2013

…for those who assume I am a moral idiot who thinks a priest could not use a disguise to hide from those trying to murder him, be aware that I have, many, many many times pointed out that not all deception is lying.  So, for instance, disguises are not lying. Equivocation (“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”) is not lying.  Mental reservation (I am neglecting to inform you of what I talked to my confessor about) is not lying.  Evasion (Nazi: Do you know about any subhuman Jews hiding in this neighborhood?  Me:  I don’t know of any subhuman Jews in the neighborhood, but may I say that I admire the way your Fuehrer makes the trains run on time?  And your uniforms are, I must say, very smart looking.  Would you like to come in and search my apartment?  I was just reading this morning in my Bible Paul’s injunction to obey Caesar.  Its in Romans 13.  I think it’s *so* important for Christians to be good citizens, don’t you?”… all while neglecting to mention that secret room in your attic where the Jews are well hidden.)

But lying *is* lying and does not magically become “not lying” merely by the declaration that the person you are lying to “has no right to the truth.”  So when a LA agent says “I want an abortion” that is lying.  Lying is “by its very nature” to be condemned according to Holy Church.  It matters not one  bit that this is not infallble.  It remains authoritative.  And it remains common sense, because if we start going around declaring that a lie is magically not a lie merely because the victim of the lie “has no right to the truth” then we have flung open the door to moral relativism.  It means that 2+2=5 is never a lie just so long as we decree that the person we say this to “has no right to the truth”.  Folly.

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  • Imp the Vladaler

    Well, had the Church “flung the door open to moral relativism” when, in the first edition of the Catechism, it condemned only lies told to those who were entitled to the truth? You did your readers a service by linking to Akin’s analysis of this issue; you might do a further service by engaging with it.

    • chezami

      I think it was precisely because the Church saw the danger of the way the first edition was worded that they tightened it up in the second edition. Inerrancy is not a charism granted catechism editors.

  • Linda C.

    I’ve always understood that in a case where one believes the questioning party “has no right to the truth” (the Nazi asking if you are hiding Jews, for example), that silence as a response is not the same as lying or moral relativism. our thoughts?

    • Linda C.

      That would be, “Your” thoughts?

    • I can’t imagine any scenario where silence — refusing to answer a question — could be construed as a lie.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      Correct. While it is not acceptable to lie, there is no impetus for you to say anything at all.

      Take Christ’s example on this count. He kept his mouth shut during his whole trial even while the governor was questioning him.

    • chezami

      True. Jesus was silent and did not open his mouth. That does not make him a liar.


      This pretty much explains it….

  • The Jerk

    I’m confused. Could you submit your answer in the form of an opera?

    • That Guy

      The Walking Dead is basically this, with zombies instead of arias.

    • SteveTirone

      How about Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites?

    • chezami


  • James

    Getting tired of clarifying yet? heh

  • thomasc

    You might be right about the “no right to the truth” argument (though I have strong doubts about it), but if you are right it has nothing to do with moral relativism.

    If it is legitimate for me to lie to someone asking me a direct question they have no right to the answer to, that is not a relativist position. The question of whether or not they have a right to ask me that is a real question with a real answer (and actually the situations where they have no such right are probably pretty limited: the legitimate law enforcement authorities probably do have a right to ask me things even if my telling them would allow them to enforce an unjust law, for example – hence all the 16th/17th century English Catholic debates as to the circumstances in which a priest could avoid answering the question “Are you a priest?” given that the result would be execution and the cessation of his ministry – my vague recollection is that if a magistrate was asking the question directly, the general view was that it couldn’t be evaded). Yes, people might use this question badly, and act relativistically, but they do that all the time with difficult moral questions.

    • Imp the Vladaler

      The fear, I think, is that once we announce that there may be some people who are not entitled to receive the truth (or ask the question), it becomes easy to justify many lies by deciding that the inquisitor doesn’t have the right to that information.

      And really, the situations under which someone indeed has the right to information are small. If you start looking at your day-to-day interactions, you could conceivably find many circumstances where you are asked for facts by someone who doesn’t have a right to that information. (Do your co-workers have the right to know what you did over the weekend?) So it seems that this exception would swallow the rule.

      • thomasc

        I think there is probably a difference between being entitled to demand information and being entitled to be treated honestly. My co-workers can’t complain if I refuse to tell them what I did, but I think they could complain if I deliberately set out to deceive them.

        Lying does seem worse than merely giving the wrong impression (though I think a lot of people could legitimately complain of the latter too). After all, we are the animals that live together in a special way because we talk, and in that sense falsehood does seem to strike at the root of our common humanity.

      • Andy, Bad Person

        The fear, I think, is that once we announce that there may be some
        people who are not entitled to receive the truth (or ask the question),
        it becomes easy to justify many lies by deciding that the inquisitor
        doesn’t have the right to that information.

        This. I’d add that the state of “not being entitled to the truth” means that a person doesn’t have to answer at all, not that we are morally free to lie to them.

  • SteveTirone

    Honest thought experiment: a hunted priest who is wearing a disguise is stopped by the police and point-blank asked if he is a priest. He attempts distraction, equivocation, all the tactics listed above. The police, being experienced in these tactics, continue to bluntly ask “are you a priest?” Does the priest sin by answering “no?”

    (For the record, I personally am fine with the answer “yes.” To deny Christ in the face of persecution is an unequivocal sin, although, contra the Donatists, it.can be forgivable.)

    • thomasc

      It’s not quite a thought experiment because that was done, extensively, under Ellizabeth I. cf Donne’s fourth Satire, the line “by your priesthood tell me what you are”. My recollection is that the general view was that the priest had to answer such a direct question honestly, but I can’t remember where I read this. Like a lot of current debates over the power of the state and the individual, this was extensively argued over in the sixteenth century.

    • Mariana Baca

      The priest sins by saying no.

      The wiser course of action is the remain silent in the face of questioning by the police unless one is ready to plead guilty.

    • Newp Ort

      What if that same priest, instead of being stopped by police, ducks into a drinking establishment. He approaches the bar and sits between an Orthodox Rabbi and an Irishman…

  • vox borealis

    And it remains common sense, because if we start going around declaring that a lie is magically not a lie merely because the victim of the lie “has no right to the truth” then we have flung open the door to moral relativism.

    I agree with you, but this obfuscates the point. The issue is not *really* that a lie might not be a lie, but rather that a lie might not be a sin.

    • Mariana Baca

      “Lying is by its very nature condemned” is not clear enough? Ok, in situations of duress there might not be full consent and one is not fully culpable for the sin, or someone who is misinformed about moral principles might not be culpable on account of ignorance, and a minor lie might be venial, but a lie is always a sin — this is what they mean that the act is condemned by its nature.

      • vox borealis

        Yes, the language is clear enough…I was not really being clear. It seems to me that the CCC, which is being cited here by all as the authority, puts a number of qualifiers on un-truthful statements. Yes, lying is condemned, but a “lie” is defined variously as ” To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error,” but also “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving .”

        Moreover, the gravity of the sin of lying varies based on context: “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.” This seems to largely but not entirely exonerate the person who (in the standard hypothetical) lies to the SS investigator about the location of the hidden Jews. Surely the context lessens the gravity of the sin, moreover the victim of the lie (the SS trooper) is not really harmed by the sin.

        Lastly, the CCC gives directions, albeit general, for when and how to dance around the truth: “Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. 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.”

        So, I guess what I meant is that the issue is not trying to come up with reasons for why a lie is not a lie, but rather to consider the gravity of the sin depending on the circumstances.

  • J.D. Locke

    Good thing Rahab didn’t take your advice and turn over the Israelite spies. (cf. Joshua 2)

    In seriousness, in any offense, be it against God or against the state, intent, state of mind, and the intended end all matter. (Then again, I’m a Jesuit-educated lawyer. 😉 )

    • Geoffrey Miller

      Yeah, the thing is, the Bible doesn’t offer a systematic moral theology, and that’s why I don’t bother constructing one. Lying is fine to mislead evil people, set up sting operations, and whatnot. The injunction is against bearing false witness and lying to cover up sin or make selfish gains.

  • Stephen J.

    Thank you for the reply, and I apologize for contributing to your aggravation.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    I occurred to me (since the rest of Pathoes Catholic blogosphere is debating Abstinence-only education) that the lengthy debate on what is a lie, when is lying allowed (if ever), etc. is rather like talking to teens about “how far is too far”. Is kissing okay? What about French kissing? Exactly WHERE can I put my hands. It ends up focusing on the wrong thing–what can I do without it being a sin. I understand that the question of hiding a good person from immoral authority is one that some people in the world have faced and do face today, I think the person in that situation will be informed much more by habit and their trust in God to protect them and the person they are hiding.

    • CS

      Also, there is the related issue of “lying with our bodies”: Wherein we act committed and giving of ourselves even when we are not.

  • Peter Mueller

    Honest question, and I apologize if it’s been addressed before. I don’t know exactly where I stand on the lying question, and I’m wondering how we distinguish between those commandments that condemn intrinsic evils and those that condemn evils? For example, we have “thou shalt not kill”, and killing is always bad, but it is permitted under certain circumstances (self defense, just war, capital punishment in very few cases); and we have “thou shalt not steal”, but I’ve been told that stealing is sometimes permitted (when a starving person is unjustly denied food, for example). But then we have “thou shalt not commit adultery”, for which there is no situation where it would be permitted. My question is, how do we know “thou shalt not lie” falls into the second category and not the first? Why is it always and everywhere forbidden, like adultery, and not sometimes permitted, like killing?

    • Zac

      It’s due to the moral philosophy/theology the church uses to interpret the ten commandments. It’s a very logical system, and it encourages us (among other things) to very carefully analyse the actions in question.
      ‘Killing’ is usually more carefully defined in this context as ‘intentional killing of an innocent human being’. Otherwise, we could hold people responsible even for accidental deaths as though they were murders. So the reality is that both lying (intentionally asserting a falsehood as truth) and murder (intentionally killing an innocent human) are forbidden in all circumstances. Or to put it another way, regardless of the circumstances they remain intrinsically wrong. So, basically you have to look very carefully at the definitions.

      • Peter Mueller

        Thanks for responding. I’m more than willing to believe that the system the Church uses is logical and encourages careful analysis. I guess what I’m wondering is, given that some evils have a blanket prohibition, and others can be permitted, depending on the situation, how do we tell which category a particular evil falls into? In the case of the current question, what is it about the evils of killing and stealing that makes them have shades of grey, while lying, like adultery, is black and white? The only thing I can think of is that maybe there’s a difference between sins that destroy the soul vs. sins that destroy the body (?), but then any sin destroys the soul.

        Sorry to keep going on about this. I’m willing to accept whatever the Church says, I just need to know what that is, and how I can explain it to people who quite naturally feel that it’s ok to lie to the Nazis in the hope of saving the Jews.

        • Zac

          Sorry for the late response.
          I think the conversation on Mark’s other thread helps. The commandment should be read perhaps as ‘though shalt not murder’. ‘kill’ is too broad; a car accident might kill someone, but we don’t consider it volitional, unless extreme negligence is involved. You could say “i killed someone today” and mean a number of different things, some blameworthy, others blameless. Self-defense comes into this, because we should a) not intend the other person’s death, and b) do our best to use only proportionate force. At the end of the day, if the aggressor dies, you want it to be as an unintended consequence of your legitimate act of self-defense…not as a ‘he attacked me so anything goes’ response.

          So the shades of grey are really about ‘is it killing, or is it murder?’

          Stealing is very similar, because the Church takes into account the bigger picture of justice in ownership. ie. if I horde all the available food such that you are unable to feed yourself or your family, then I am acting unjustly. I do not have a right to monopolise the basic necessities of life. If you were to steal from me in order to feed your family, it would not be stealing in a technical moral sense.

          An analogy might help: if you freed a slave, you could be accused of stealing property, but since no one has the right to treat humans as slaves, it can’t be considered stealing in the first place.

          Some people argue that lying is similar in that some people don’t have a right to the truth, so it’s not lying in those circumstances. But I think (and many others too) that there is more to lying than just the other person’s right to truth. There is a more basic part involving the purpose of speech and our relationship with truth.

  • caroline

    Evasion, equivocation, mental reservation require quick thinking and a nimble tongue and not everyone can muster those in a difficult situation nor even have the necessary intelligence for them in any situation. So do the quick witted escape sinning while the dullards pile up sins? I wonder how God really looks at this.

    • Zac

      Fear, panic, lack of quick wits, would all be counted as extenuating circumstances that diminish the gravity of the sin. The problem is that when we hear ‘lying is only a venial sin in these circumstances’ we tend to think “so it’s ‘ok’ then?” In any case, the live-action scenario does not appear to be a case of dullards caught in a difficult situation…

  • Gilbert

    >>>for those who assume I am a moral idiot who thinks a priest could not
    use a >>>disguise to hide from those trying to murder him, be aware that
    I have, many, >>>many many times pointed out that not all deception is

    So someone asks me very politely if I have any people hidden on my property.

    I reply in my own made up language which very few people know about that “I indeed have several people hidden on my property there are in fact 7 in the attic 3 in the basement. and 2 hidden under the shed”. By a very fortunate coincidence this sounds to my interlocutor like “I don’t know of any subhuman Jews in the neighborhood, but may I say
    that I admire the way your Fuehrer makes the trains run on time? And
    your uniforms are, I must say, very smart looking. Would you like to
    come in and search my apartment? I was just reading this morning in my
    Bible Paul’s injunction to obey Caesar. Its in Romans 13. I think it’s
    *so* important for Christians to be good citizens, don’t you?”

    My interlocutor assumed I was replying in the same language he was using. Have I lied or merely deceived him?

    • Do you know of any subhuman Jews? As far as I’m aware, there’s no such thing, so it would be lying to say you are not aware of any.

  • Jose Tomas

    Are you claiming that Pius XII was a serial sinner?

    “While the U.S., Great Britain, and other countries often refused to allow Jewish refugees to immigrate during the war, the Vatican was issuing tens of thousands of false documents to allow Jews to pass secretly as Christians so they could escape the Nazis.” (

    Please, don’t tell me that “issuing documents is not a lie, is only deception”. By your own definition of “lying”, this is the ultimate lie, a written lie, an officially manufactured lie, a false statement with the clearest intention to deceive.

    • Scott W.

      In the first place, it isn’t firmly established that Pius XII authorized this. In the second place, “The pope did it, therefore, it is morally legitimate” is not a reasonable rule especially when you consider guys like Alexander VI.

      • Jose Tomas

        Surely you are not suggesting that we should equate Venerable Eugenio Pacelli, a holy man, an intellectual, one of the greatest popes of the XX Century, a man who is about to be beatified, with Roderic Borja, arguably the worst pope in Church History?

        Or are we to believe that Pius was such an incredibly stupid and incompetent pope so as to have this huge operation being run under his very nose without knowing and approving it?

        • Scott W.

          Please don’t torture the analogy. All it is meant to do is demonstrate that “the Pope did it, therefore it’s morally legitimate” isn’t any argument at all.

          And I think “incredibly stupid and incompetent” as well as “huge operation” is begging the question.

          Bottom line: Lying is always and everywhere wrong which is affirmed by Scripture, Tradition, and the constant teaching of the Church. Accept it.

    • chezami
  • Jeff Kantor

    Here is what I figure.

    I figure that when I read a magisterial document I need help, just as when I read the Bible. Some–including not a few who come from a proof texting, evangelical Bible alone background, seem to think that all they have to do is read with their own mental equipment and all will be “clear”.

    When I see that many otherwise impeccably orthodox theologians of high intelligence read the same documents I do and conclude that there is more than one way of understanding them and of understanding Catholic doctrine on the subject, it’s a matter of basic intellectual modesty to figure that they can read as well as I do and that that they probably understand how to read those documents in context FAR BETTER than I do.

    When Dr Janet Smith, who has given her LIFE to defending the deeply unpopular teaching on contraception writes a paper advocating that lying under some circumstances is morally licit and when virtually all the articles and essays in neutral Catholic orthodox sources indicate that she is part of a minority school on this question, I can figure one of two things:

    1. Whatever I think, it looks like there are two ways to view this question among faithful Catholics, or

    2. It’s all very “simple” and the well trained, deeply versed, committed Catholics who disagree are faking, engaging in a gambit, fools who don’t know how to read, hypocrites, etc.

    That doesn’t mean that I can’t take one position or the other on a contraverted question. Or be passionate about it.

    It DOES mean, however, that the best I can do is to say that I am passionately convinced. I can’t simply state as a fact that I know Catholic doctrine on the subject and someone else doesn’t.

    If I do, that ends up making my Catholicism about me and not about Christ or the Magisterium or anything else. It’s something I owe my brothers in charity and in simple justice.

    The FACT of the matter is that honest faithful Catholics who can read as well as I can or better say that there are two ways to view this issue. I would expect that if one day the Magisterium clearly condemns one or other of them, the faithful on either side will submit.

    Until that time, they should avoid pontificating.