A reader struggles with the whole “lying in a desperate situation” problem

…writing:

You were a big force in my conversion a few years ago, so I’m hoping you can help me. You’ve said the Church teaches lying is always a sin. I’m having some trouble with that. Let’s say I’m sheltering a woman from her abusive husband. He enters in a drunken rage demanding to know where she is. In a panic, I can only think of lying as an alternative to the truth (I don’t have the presence of mind to deflect the question, etc). That’s still a venial sin? But God hates all sin and would prefer we didn’t commit even venial sin.Does that mean He’d have preferred me to tell the truth? Because that seems monstrous to me.

Thanks for your kind words. To be clear, the Holy Spirit was the big force in your conversion. He just happened to use stuff I said or wrote to scratch where you itch. I cannot (thank God) cause anybody to convert. I can (alas) deter people from converting with my sins.

The Church teaches that lying is intrinsically immoral (i.e., can *never* be justified).

2485 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. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray.

At the same time, the Church leaves lots and lots of room for reduced culpability. One of the things that reduces culpability is simple unpreparedness for an extreme situation. People do the best they can, but sometimes it’s not perfect. The prayer of the Church is “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.”

So, for instance, we have the example of the Hebrew midwives, who lied to save children from Pharaoh. What is interesting is that St. Thomas (in his affirmation that, yes, lying is always sinful) distinguishes between their obvious (and obviously commendable) attempt at fidelity to God and the means by which they sought to perform that fidelity:

Objection 2. Further, no one is rewarded by God for sin. But the midwives of Egypt were rewarded by God for a lie, for it is stated that “God built them houses” (Exodus 1:21). Therefore a lie is not a sin.

Reply to Objection 2. The midwives were rewarded, not for their lie, but for their fear of God, and for their good-will, which latter led them to tell a lie. Hence it is expressly stated (Exodus 2:21): “And because the midwives feared God, He built them houses.” But the subsequent lie was not meritorious.

“Not meritorious” means that lying adds nothing virtuous to what they did. And that means that they could (with sufficient chance for forethought) have done something besides lie since God does not force us to sin. What might that be? Well, there are various options if we take Jesus for our model. As I wrote here:

Jesus cannot lie since he is God and God, according to his own word “cannot lie” (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2). Jesus not only speaks truth, he is the Truth. It would contradict his very nature to do otherwise. That said, what he can (and often does) do is not put all his cards on the table as he speaks in elliptical ways for various purposes. So, he often
• equivocates, (“Are you the King of the Jews?” “Thou sayest.”)
• evades, (“Why do you call me good? There is none good but God”)
• uses ambiguous language, (“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”)
• allows people to draw wrong conclusions (as when he does not contradict the witnesses at his trial who use his saying about destroying the temple to claim he is a sort of terrorist.)
• speaks in paradoxes designed to provoke questions (as when, for instance he commands us not to engage in meaningless repetition and then immediately prescribes a prayer we are to endlessly repeat, or when he tells the Syro-phoenician woman that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and then turns around and answers her prayer for exorcism from an unclean spirit–all directly on the heels of preachments about how all foods are clean. In other words, his point is that Gentiles are “kosher” now and are being called into the Church which is the house of the Israel of God–a house that is open to all peoples.)
• or keeps silent–or commands silence, as at his trial, or when he tells demons to shut their traps about his true identity or tells his disciples to keep the Transfiguration under their hats.

But, of course, we aren’t Jesus and so we are not necessarily going to be thinking of all that when Adam Lanza bursts into a classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary where you have hidden children in the closet and demands you tell him where they are. So if, like the heroic and blessed Victoria Soto , you can think of nothing but to tell a lie, you do your best.

The trick here is recognizing the difference between culpability for an act and the nature of the act itself. Her culpability, like that of the Hebrew midwives, was essentially zero while her obvious heroism and virtue, like that of the Hebrew midwives, was off the charts.

But the moment somebody uses her try to make the intrinsically sinful act of lying a virtue, they immediately make a wrong turn. Because the obvious fact is that it was the fidelity to virtue—not the lie—that is praiseworthy. And if you try to say that lying itself is praiseworthy, you wind up saying that God, who is Truth, contradicts himself. Go down that road and (I have witnessed it myself) people wind up saying that Jesus blessed and practiced lying himself. That way madness lies (so to speak).

All that said, the main issue in a lot of Noble Lie apologetics is not so much lying as scandal. Scandal does not mean “doing something naughty with Khloe Kardashian and getting caught by paparazzi”. It means deliberately leading somebody to do something evil; that is, becoming your neighbor’s tempter. When we do that, we assume the guilt for their evil. Very often people will appeal to the example of the Noble Lie (e.g. the Hebrew midwives) in order to justify using lies to ensnare Bad Guys (undercover cops are a beloved rationale for this). But it is Jesus, not undercover cops, who is supposed to be our guide here and, in fact, there are lots of grave moral issues with tempting people to do evil in order to then bust them for the evil that we tempt them to do. Lying is just one form of that temptation. As cops in Hawaii are demonstrating by authorizing themselves to have sex with prostitutes in order to arrest them for prostitution, there are others. In the story from the Register above, we also see cops trafficking in child porn in order to catch pervs. Paul’s teaching is succinct: you shall not do evil that good may come of it. Leading people into grave evil is a quick ticket guilt for that very evil.

So in brief: a lie can be excused for lack of culpability or forgiven when there is culpability. Most lies, as Thomas points out, are venial sins. But “venial” is not Latin for “It’s not really a sin, so go ahead”. Venial sin is, in our tradition, akin to “young tumor”. We are to cut it out and excise it from the soul, not coddle it till it metastasizes. So no lie, not matter how small, can be praised as a virtue. People who lie can and should be praised, as the Hebrew midwives were, for attempting virtue. But their lies add nothing to that virtue.

  • Dave G.

    That’s the best. We had a priest from a nearby Dominican college at our parish back during the big Lila Rose thing. I asked him about the various scenarios being tossed about. Lying in a pinch to save a life. I asked if there would be need for confession. He said of course not. You shouldn’t even think you’d need confession. The fact is, you’ve already made a wonderful choice. You chose to try to save a person and put yourself in potential harms way for their safety. You could have just thrown them under the bus to save your own butt. If the best you could do in taking the chance on saving the life of a brother was lie in a pinch, you’re fine. You don’t get bonus points for lying, but you did well. And then he said something completely awesome when we discussed the fabled Nazis and Jews scenario. He said if you think of it, if you’re in the situation where you lie to save Jews from Nazis, you’re already a minority. Most of your fellow believers threw their lot in with the Nazis. Either because they wanted what the Nazis wanted, or they just went along to get along. Most of the rest who didn’t kept silent and did nothing at all. So if the worst you ever did was told a lie to save a fellow human being from death because you were one of the few prepared to risk it all to save a brother or sister, it’s OK.

    The internet, being what it is, warped and twisted such common sense during the at debate. On *both* sides of the debate. This is a great post reminding everyone of that.

  • Paul Connors

    (a) Again with this very, very, very difficult topic. Some parts of what Mark Shea says is his own opinion, and not a reflection of Church teaching.

    (b) It would be well worth anyone’s time to find out what (e.g.) Saint Alphonsus Liguori (a Doctor of the Church) taught about what was permissible to say, and what was not. I think they would find some very surprising things about what was permissible (and completely free of sin) under the appropriate circumstances.

    • Fr. Denis Lemieux

      Well, even a Doctor of the Church is not ‘Church teaching’. Most of what Mark is saying here is taken pretty much from Thomas Aquinas, another Doctor of the Church. But what ‘the Church teaches’ is what is in the catechism, not in this or that doctor/father/saint.
      That being said, I don’t think you are substantially contradicting him in the words you write here. He does say (along with Aquinas, etc) that the culpability of the Hebrew midwives, the teacher in Norwalk CT, and the person sheltering the Jews from the Nazis is essentially zero, and that their motivations are entirely praiseworthy and noble. That is the same as saying that they are ‘free of sin’ – that’s what ‘culpability’ means.
      Always leaving, of course as we always do, the final judgment of all human actions to the perfect justice of God.

      • Paul Connors

        When Victoria Soto told the Sandy Hook gunman that the children were in the auditorium, when she knew they were not, she did not lie. She did not lie according to Augustine’s definition of a lie, nor did she lie according to Aquinas’ definition of a lie, nor did she lie according to the Catechism’s definition of a lie. There was no lie in her lips. But Mark Shea apparently concludes otherwise, though he explains that she had little time to think. But even if she had ample time to think (just as we do now) her words would still not qualify as a lie.

        This is a very complex and very difficult topic, and there is no simple or short way to explain things. Saint Alphonsus Liguori examined the practicals of the subject in some detail. And also the Blessed John Henry Newman wrote about it (some of which can be seen here). But it’s a subject that has perennially come up from other Catholic teachers as well.

        • Dave G.

          Please explain how it wasn’t a lie. I’m not being snarky. I mean I’d like to hear that perspective.

          • Paul Connors

            There has a been a long history in the Catholic Church of people (the early Fathers, moral theologians through the centuries, Saints, and even Doctors of the Church) saying that there are occasions in which it is possible to tell falsehoods — particularly with the goal of hiding information — without any sin, even venial. The issue has been approached by these people in various ways. But with the exception of “strict mental reservation”, the Church has simply never given any precise ruling on these claims, one way or another.

            Mark Shea has omitted pretty much all mention of this history, and thus all mention that he is expressing his own particular opinion. Much of what he says is entirely accurate — but not all. This may end up giving a very misleading impression as to the strength of his argument.

            Now (in my opinion) the issue revolves around whether or not it is possible (in appropriate circumstances) to tell a falsehood for the purposes of hiding information, without necessarily relying on deception. (Because if such a falsehood necessarily involved deception then it would automatically qualify as a lie, as Catechism #2482 defines it.) I am persuaded that there are circumstances when this is possible. But the issue is very complex indeed (and wholly unsuited to the tiny confines of a blog comment!).

            • Silverback

              This is a correct summary of Catholic tradtition and history.

            • Dave G.

              Good enough. Thanks for the time for the response.

        • chezami

          Of course she lied. She did the best she could, but she lied.

        • wineinthewater

          How can speaking a falsehood that you know to be untrue ever be anything other than a lie? Is there a detail I may not know in my lack of deep familiarity of the case that makes her statement true?

          Defenders of “just lying” often make reference to a lack of unanimity in the Fathers on the topic of lying as a way to justify lying, but there just isn’t much there there. The contention among the Fathers is not much about lying, but deceptive speech.

          For instance, the Newman piece that you reference does not justify lying, it justifies equivocation, where you say something that is true even though you know that someone is likely to interpret it wrongly. And that is where most of the discussion lies, not in lies but in statements that deceive. Very few theologians try to justify lying, but there is a fair amount of discussion about what we might call “deceptive truths.” While unequivocally condemning lying, the Church has been fairly silent on deceptive truths, with the notable exception of strict mental reservation. And that is telling, the only form of equivocation that the Church has condemned is the one that looks like lying.

          • Paul Connors

            “How can speaking a falsehood that you know to be untrue ever be anything other than a lie?”

            One simple example: when Tolkien wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”, that was obviously a falsehood, since hobbits do not exist. But Tolkien’s purpose was not to deceive us, but … well, he could have had quite a number of other purposes in mind. And even if some children should actually be deceived into thinking that hobbits were real, that still does not make Tolkien’s statement a lie. Deception was not his purpose; nor were his intentions achieved by means of a necessary deception.

            So the question arises: what exactly is the full range of purposes for which falsehoods can be spoken?

            Catechism #2282: “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving”.

            Here the Catechism makes clear that a purpose of deception is what makes a lie.

            “Defenders of “just lying” often make reference to a lack of unanimity in the Fathers on the topic of lying as a way to justify lying”

            I am not trying to justify lying under any circumstances: lying is always wrong. Some of the Fathers (etc.) thought there were circumstances under which it was possible to utter a falsehood. Others were convinced that lying was always wrong. While it’s possible to think that these two positions are incompatible, I think they can be reconciled.

            I think part of what makes the discussion on this topic particularly difficult is that some people are convinced that the goal is to allow lying under some circumstances. It’s not. The goal rather is to carefully distinguish between deception and other purposes. For example, Aquinas looked at the issue of ambushes during wartime, and came down on the side of permitting them, because they were in essence matters of hiding plans, rather than deception.

            “The contention among the Fathers is not much about lying, but deceptive speech.”

            Not sure what you mean there. I think lying is intentionally deceptive speech.

            “the Newman piece that you reference does not justify lying, it justifies equivocation”

            Newman supports the idea of a “material lie”, where a falsehood can be uttered under some circumstances, in a way that’s different from the methods of equivocation. So he claims that in some circumstances: “supposing I was driven up into a corner, I think I should have a right to say an untruth”. I would support exactly that behavior, but would (I think more simply) claim that it is not a lie of any kind, because its purpose is not deception, but the hiding of information.

            Another part of the great complexities of this topic is being able to see that some spoken falsehoods do not necessarily work because of deception — though deception may occur. It’s not so easy (as some think) to simply claim that a purpose in telling a falsehood is hiding information, and then be able to say anything we like. It must also occur that the falsehood does not necessarily work because of deception — else it immediately qualifies as a lie. There is no easy loophole here.

            • chezami

              The social convention called “fiction” depends on the fact that the hearer knows perfectly well that the story being told is not true. There is no intention to deceive. Your claim that obvious lies are not lies ignores this fact.

              • Paul Connors

                “The social convention called “fiction” depends on the fact that the hearer knows perfectly well that the story being told is not true. There is no intention to deceive.”

                Of course: agreed. I was responding to the commenter who asked: “How can speaking a falsehood that you know to be untrue ever be anything other than a lie?”, by giving a very simple example. However simple that is, it does at least establish the idea that falsehoods can have purposes other than deception, and that it’s only falsehoods that work by deception that have always been condemned by the Church.

                The example of fiction also shows that it is sometimes not reasonable to be deceived by some kinds of statements. If someone takes a clear fiction as truth then have somehow deceived themselves — it would point to some kind of error in their thinking, such as a child might make or someone with problems.

                So if, say, a gunman goes into a school bent on killing the children, it is unreasonable for him to have an expectation that all statements he hears from the teachers will be true. The teachers will be aiming at the thoroughly good goal of thwarting the gunman.

                “Your claim that obvious lies are not lies ignores this fact.”

                The other thing I pointed out (when giving Tolkien as an example) is that words can have more than one meaning behind them — even silence. There are established methods in morality that must be used when dealing with actions that have more than one effect.

            • wineinthewater

              I think we are very close to agreeing.

              Lying is intentionally deceptive speech. But you can deceive with the truth as well. And that is where most of the contention among moral theologians has resided. The majority view has been that lying is always to be condemned and deceiving with the truth *can be* allowed, but some have held that all deception is to be condemned.

              Newman is an interesting case, because he represents what is really a fairly modern strain of thought, the justified falsehood. He reads as very reluctant to endorse the “material lie” with just cause. I think it is much safer to stick with the majority opinion in the Church. I’d be very reluctant to take a tentative endorsement from Newman over a clear condemnation from Aquinas and Augustine.

              • Paul Connors

                “I think it is much safer to stick with the majority opinion in the Church.”

                I think that the majority opinion in the Church has been something like: “Lying is always wrong. But these edge cases in unusual situations are very puzzling. Not quite sure to make of those.”

                “…a clear condemnation from Aquinas…”

                Aquinas taken as a whole is much less clear than is apparent. His explanation of how killing in self-defense can be permitted (simultaneous effects of one action) has an analogy to the case of lying.

                • wineinthewater

                  “His explanation of how killing in self-defense can be permitted (simultaneous effects of one action) has an analogy to the case of lying.”

                  I don’t think it does. Remember that Aquinas does not justify the act of killing, he justifies the consequence of death due to the act of self defense. There may be a parallel for deception, but I don’t see one for lying. Lying is the act, not the consequence, therefore it cannot be justified the way that Aquinas justifies the consequence of the aggressor’s death.

                  • Paul Connors

                    “Lying is the act, not the consequence”

                    No. Firstly, the permissibility of self-defense works this way: Let’s suppose that in some given specific circumstances the only available way I can save my life from an attacker with a gun is to shoot them in the head first. Then the action is “shooting a gun at someone’s head.” One intended effect is “I save my life because the attacker doesn’t shoot me”. The other foreseen but unintended effect is “the attacker dies”. Shooting a gun at someone’s head is not an intrinsic evil. Hence Aquinas’ argument permits this self-defense.

                    The case under discussion falls out like this: Let’s suppose that in some given specific circumstances the only available way I can save someone’s life from an attacker is by uttering a falsehood about (e.g.) their current location. Then the action is “uttering a falsehood”. One intended effect is “someone’s life is saved because the victim’s location is not known”. The other foreseen but unintended effect is “the attacker is deceived”. Uttering a falsehood is not an intrinsic evil. This is directly parallel to Aquinas’ argument, and this scenario is thus also permitted.

                    On a related point, I notice that elsewhere in this thread you said: ” But in Catholic moral theology, either the intent or the action can be evil. Some actions are sinful or not based on the intent of the actor. Some actions are sinful despite the intentions of the actor (thus intrinsic evils).”

                    But in no case can we conclude that a moral evil has been committed merely by seeing an action performed (e.g. Veritatis Splendor #78). It has to be a knowingly chosen action. Someone (e.g.) can entirely innocently blaspheme in a language they don’t know, having been tricked into saying it under the impression it meant something else. Intrinsic evils are always morally wrong regardless of the intention — but there has to be some intention to perform them, which cannot exist if the action is sufficiently misunderstood.

                    • wineinthewater

                      I don’t think the two are analogous. The intrinsically evil action is lying, not uttering a falsehood. Uttering a falsehood is not an intrinsic evil, which is why fiction is not sinful but lying is.

                      For the two to be analogous, we would have to change the conditions of the self-defense. It would have to be “shooting a gun at someone’s head with the intention of killing them.” This, Aquinas specifically condemns. In Aquinas’ formulation, once the intent to kill has been introduced, the means has been altered from an act of violence for which death is an unintended consequence. Killing has become the means, and therefore cannot be justified under Double effect.

                      So, to bring it back to lying, the hypothetical that you propose includes the intention to deceive. That is the whole purpose of uttering a falsehood, the means by which the other person is saved. The action is not just uttering a falsehood, it is lying. It is not just the verbal equivalent of shooting at someone’s head, it is the verbal equivalent of shooting at someone’s head with the intention of killing them.

                    • Paul Connors

                      “The intrinsically evil action is lying, not uttering a falsehood. Uttering a falsehood is not an intrinsic evil, which is why fiction is not sinful but lying is.”

                      Lying is uttering a falsehood with the intention of deceiving — with the deception being either an end or a means. If there is any other kind of intention, then it simply isn’t lying. That’s why fiction isn’t lying — because the author has no intention of deceiving the reader (into, e.g., thinking that hobbits are real). Instead the author has intentions of (e.g.) illustrating something about human nature, or entertaining us for a while, or whatever. And none of those intentions are attempts at deception — either as a means or as an end.

                      So lying isn’t simply an action, it’s an action necessarily accompanied by a specific intention (else it’s not lying). Hence we say: telling a falsehood with the intention of deception is always wrong.

                      So, if a falsehood is told with some other intention … then it needs a different analysis. The hypothetical I proposed did not include deception as an intention.

                      “…the hypothetical that you propose includes the intention to deceive. That is the whole purpose of uttering a falsehood, the means by which the other person is saved.

                      In the hypothetical I proposed (telling an attacker a false location of a proposed victim) deception is not the means by which it works. The success of the falsehood is entirely measured by whether or not the attacker learns the victim’s real location. Consider the particular case where the attacker hears the false location, but has no idea whether or not the stated location is correct or not. Then the attacker is not deceived into believing some false fact, but has still not learned the right location. Deception has not occurred, but the intention of hiding the information has still succeeded! Deception is not necessary, and hence is not the means aimed at.

                    • wineinthewater

                      “That’s why fiction isn’t lying — because the author has no intention of deceiving the reader (into, e.g., thinking that hobbits are real).

                      That was my point, so we are in violent agreement.

                      “So, if a falsehood is told with some other intention … then it needs a different analysis. The hypothetical I proposed did not include deception as an intention.”

                      If there is no intention to deceive, then there is no lie. But our actions can have more than one intent. In the hypothetical you give, there may be an intention to protect, but there is also an intention to deceive. If not for the intention to deceive, the falsehood would have no purpose.

                      “The success of the falsehood is entirely measured by whether or not the attacker learns the victim’s real location. And whether or not the hearer is deceived does not matter, what matters is the intent to deceive.”

                      Then why bring it up? The only way the falsehood can hide the truth is through deception. That is the only way a falsehood can be the means. Otherwise, the means is actually silence (not divulging the truth), not deception. You just happen to do the two together.

                      Finally, I have to say that it is idiotic to give misinformation to an assailant if you don’t intend to deceive. If you don’t intend them to believe your falsehood, you are only inviting them to take more strenuous means to get the truth out of you .. one that may be successful. If you don’t intend them to believe your falsehood, you almost certainly make yourself their enemy. If you do not intend them to believe the falsehood, you are revealing that you do know the truth, and even that can be a dangerous piece of information for them to have.

                      I don’t think that anyone in this scenario would utter the falsehood without the intention of deceiving. The real-world examples given so far in this thread have all included the intention to deceive. That intention may be laudably mixed with other intentions, but the intention to deceive has been there, and so they have all been examples of lying. And, the immensity of their heroism in putting themselves at risk was also there.

                    • Paul Connors

                      “If not for the intention to deceive, the falsehood would have no purpose.”

                      You said a few things along those lines, and they all substantially fail to reflect the genuine aim of someone whose goal (in appropriately constrained circumstances) is to respond to a question without giving away some particular piece of information.

                      Suppose an attacker arrives and asks for the location of a victim, who happens to be very nearby. The responder’s thought-process might conceivably run along lines such as: “How can I respond? If I say nothing, that may clue him in that the victim is nearby. If I tell him it’s raining, that would be correct, but it would irrelevant and again make him suspicious and he may still look nearby. If I ask him to explain more about his goal, as a distraction, he may again get suspicious. I think any of those kinds of response are going to make him suspicious. So what can I say that does not contain any information about where the victim is? If I wrongly say the victim is in a house about a mile away, that also doesn’t contain any information about the true location of the victim. So saying that will successfully achieve my goal of not giving correct information away. But won’t the attacker be deceived? Well, if he doesn’t believe me, and is not deceived, he still won’t know where the victim is, and that’s exactly what I want right now. So I’ll tell him that.”

                      To generalize somewhat: in appropriately constrained circumstances, if I have a goal in saying something false, and that goal is successfully achieved even when the hearer disregards what I say, then the goal was not deception, but something else. And hence there was no lie.

                    • wineinthewater

                      “You said a few things along those lines, and they all substantially fail to reflect the genuine aim of someone whose goal (in appropriately constrained circumstances) is to respond to a question without giving away some particular piece of information.”

                      It does not fail to reflect it. It recognizes that the only way to achieve the “genuine” aim is through the means of another aim (or intent), and that is deceiving with a falsehood, ie lying. The falsehood only keeps the truth hidden if the interloper is deceived. If he is not deceived, then your falsehood has failed to hide the information; the information has actually been hidden through an accompanying silence.

                      But to add some texture, I think we should keep a couple of things in mind. The first is that the scenario that you construct creates a very near occasion of sin, something the Church calls us to avoid. Even if the construct is valid, to utter a falsehood without “really” intending to deceive, but only intending to hide the information, is so hair-splittingly close to lying that we should avoid it as a near occasion to sin lest our intent not remain focused so laser-like on the constructed “genuine aim” and we stray into the intent to deceive.

                      The second is not all that original: qorban. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for coming up with a technicality that allowed them to skirt the intent of the Law (honoring their parents) while adhering to the letter of the Law. I fear that attempts to define lying in just such a way so as to permit something that functions, for all intents and purposes, like a lie without actually being a lie, follow the tracks of Pharisees rather than those of Jesus.

                    • Paul Connors

                      “The falsehood only keeps the truth hidden if the interloper is deceived.”

                      No, because (to repeat my argument in short form), (a) the falsehood doesn’t contain the truth; and (b) if the the attacker is not deceived because (e.g.) he does not know whether or not the statement is true, then the truth is still successfully hidden. This demonstrates that deception is not necessary, being neither means nor end. This is directly analogous to Aquinas’ argument for the permissibility of self-defense.

                      “The first is that the scenario that you construct creates a very near occasion of sin…”

                      Either something is a sin or it is not. The scenarios I raise are all where there is a significant necessity for hiding some information. Since failing to hide such information can itself be of grave moral importance, a path that avoids either sin (of deception, or of the revelation of harmful information) must be found.

                      “Jesus condemned the Pharisees for coming up with a technicality that allowed them to skirt the intent of the Law (honoring their parents) while adhering to the letter of the Law…”

                      The Pharisees did not adhere to the letter of the Law, and were instead condemned for failing to adhere to the very clear statement of the Law.

                      ” I fear that attempts to define lying in just such a way so as to permit something that functions, for all intents and purposes, like a lie without actually being a lie, follow the tracks of Pharisees rather than those of Jesus.

                      The definition of lying that I have used comes from the Catechism. No conclusion I have reached is in conflict with anything the Church teaches. The conclusions I reach have been reached in the past by various saints and Doctors of the Church. Your fears have no solid foundation.

                    • wineinthewater

                      Something is either a sin or it isn’t. But the near occasion of sin is a fundamental part of the examination of conscience. Avoiding the near occasion of sin means both avoiding situations where we are likely to be subjected to temptation and avoiding actions that would only take a slight shift in intent to make them sinful. I think that, even if you allow that the construct you offer is valid, it is a course of action where keeping the intent away from the intent to deceive, and therefore the action away from sin, is very, very difficult.

                      But I still don’t think the construct you offer is valid. You can say all you want that there is no intent to deceive, but the use of an unmitigated falsehood means that there is the intent that the hearer possibly be deceived. Morally, I think that is a distinction without a difference. When you consider what the catechism and the Fathers have to say about lying, the intention that the hearer be possibly deceived fails the obligation to justice and to the truth in such a way as to make it morally indistinguishable. In some ways it is worse because it attempts to avoid the moral culpability of an act through placing the blame for the consequence (being deceived) on the other party.

                      This can be seen in how the construct you offer does not really align with Aquinas’ doctrine of self defense. Aquinas requires a moderation of the violence in order to avoid the unintended consequence of the assailant’s death. This is one of the ways that the person demonstrates that the consequence was indeed unintended. To apply this doctrine to your scenario, the speaker would have to moderate his falsehood in order to avoid the “unintended” consequence of the hearer being deceived, rendering the action nonsensical. Considering that you can accomplish the exact same goal with a diverting truth, applying the rationale behind Aquinas’ doctrine of self defense would actually require you to not utter a falsehood at all.

                      Which returns me to my earlier point, the falsehood only actually hides the truth if it deceives. In all scenarios, being silent hides the truth. An obfuscation, misdirection, lie or other action can then further hide the truth by diverting the inquirer elsewhere. If the falsehood does not deceive, then it does nothing and the truth has only been hidden by silence. Therefore, the only way for a falsehood to hide the truth is if it deceives. The intention to hide the truth with a falsehood necessitates the intention to deceive.

                      I do not see how the conclusions you have drawn align with any Doctor of the Church, most of whom took a rather hard line on allowing falsehoods in any circumstances, even in jest. As to saints, a tepid endorsement by Newman of a concept that doesn’t quite align with how the catechism defines lying doesn’t go very far.

                    • Paul Connors

                      “Avoiding the near occasion of sin …

                      In the kinds of circumstance that have been under discussion, there are two sins that are possible. One is using deception as a necessary means of achieving a desired goal (which is never permitted), and the other is revealing private information that will cause damage to someone else. If an attacker asks me the location of a potential victim under my protection, and my response contains no falsehood but gives away the location of the victim, then I have sinned. Simply to analyze the situation as though it were only lying that was a near occasion of sin is not going to be helpful.

                      “…the use of an unmitigated falsehood means that there is the intent that the hearer possibly be deceived…

                      No. I have demonstrated that (in appropriate circumstances) deception is neither end nor means. In those circumstances, that the attacker may be deceived is foreseen, but not intended. This is classic double effect.

                      “Aquinas requires a moderation of the violence in order to avoid the unintended consequence of the assailant’s death.”

                      What Aquinas says is: “…if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful…”

                      Aquinas indicates that the level of violence that can be employed should not exceed what is necessary for self-defense to be successful. Nothing here limits what level of violence may be necessary.

                      “To apply this doctrine to your scenario, the speaker would have to moderate his falsehood in order to avoid the ‘unintended’ consequence of the hearer being deceived”

                      No. The speaker must moderate his falsehood so that the least possible deception is foreseen, consistent with the goal of hiding private harmful information.

                      “In all scenarios, being silent hides the truth.

                      Not at all. Silence can give the game away. Silence, like deflection, sometimes reveals that one of the replies is correct, but that there is some reason why you don’t want to give it. This lets the listener figure out what it was you were choosing not to say.

                      “I do not see how the conclusions you have drawn align with any Doctor of the Church, most of whom took a rather hard line on allowing falsehoods in any circumstances, even in jest.

                      The Doctors Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, and Saint Jerome all allow for falsehoods in some circumstances.

                    • wineinthewater

                      I think there is a confusion about what is the sin here. Uttering a falsehood is not inherently a sin. Uttering a falsehood only becomes a sin with the intention of deception. But deception itself is not inherently a sin either. It is a sin whenever it is linked with uttering a falsehood and it is a sin when the intent in the deception is evil.

                      So, contrary to what you say, deception as a necessary means of achieving a just goal is actually permissible as long as it is not wed to a falsehood. I can deceive with the truth, I can deceive with a misdirection, I can deceive with an ambiguity, but I cannot deceive with a falsehood.

                      Lying is this special confluence. When a falsehood is brought together with the intention to deceive, it becomes a lie, and only the two together create an intrinsic evil. Neither alone is intrinsically evil.

                      But, back to Aquinas and self defense, considering that no falsehood is needed *at all* to achieve the goal of hiding the truth – silence, obfuscation, ambiguity, misdirection, etc. are all means also at our disposal, and far more effective than a falsehood not intended to deceive – our obligation to moderate our means would obligate us to use no falsehood at all. Just as if we had a non-violent means of self defense, we would be obligated to use no violence at all.

                      But ultimately, I do not think it is possible to utter a falsehood without an intention as to the hearer’s deception. That is the nature of communication. Either we intend the hearer to be deceived (a lie) or we positively intend them to not be deceived (fiction). And I would say lack of honesty as to the nature of the falsehood is an inherent intent to deceive.

                      “The Doctors Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Saint
                      Alphonsus Liguori, and Saint Jerome all allow for falsehoods in some
                      circumstances.”

                      Exactly, they all allow for falsehoods or for deception, but to my knowledge none of them allow for the two together – lying – in any circumstances. And none of them parse the intent to deceive the way you do, creating a construct where a falsehood can be uttered without the intent to deceive or not deceive. In all their writings that I have read, they either parse the circumstances into the speaker intending that the hearer be deceived or intending that the hearer positively not be deceived. No nebulous middle ground.

                    • Paul Connors

                      “Uttering a falsehood is not inherently a sin. Uttering a falsehood only becomes a sin with the intention of deception. But deception itself is not inherently a sin either.

                      I agree with those three sentences.

                      “It is a sin whenever it is linked with uttering a falsehood and it is a sin when the intent in the deception is evil.”

                      The first half of that is a little vague to me. The definition of lying that I have been using all along is the Catechism’s: “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” So the word ‘linked’ doesn’t seem exact enough. The relevant link is that of intention.

                      The second half, as written, doesn’t seem to help: “[deception] is a sin when the intent in the deception is evil”. Well in general, any evil intention is evil, so that doesn’t seem to say anything specific about what kinds of deception are evil.

                      “silence, obfuscation, ambiguity, misdirection, etc. are all means also at our disposal, and far more effective than a falsehood not intended to deceive

                      While those are preferable means that are indeed often available, I flatly and totally disagree that they are always available.

                      “Either we intend the hearer to be deceived (a lie) or we positively intend them to not be deceived (fiction).

                      Or (in appropriate circumstances) we intend to hide information, and the deception or lack of deception is neither means nor end.

                      “But ultimately, I do not think it is possible to utter a falsehood without an intention as to the hearer’s deception. That is the nature of communication. Either we intend the hearer to be deceived (a lie) or we positively intend them to not be deceived (fiction).

                      That’s incomplete because, as I’ve pointed out, there’s another possibility: If I utter a falsehood, and you have no idea whether or not it is true, then you are not deceived. If I tell a falsehood where I don’t achieve my purposes unless you believe or rely on that statement, then I’ve lied. But if I achieve my purposes whether or not you believe or rely on the statement, then there is no lie.

                    • wineinthewater

                      “So the word ‘linked’ doesn’t seem exact enough. The relevant link is that of intention.”

                      I’m fine with that more precise statement.

                      “The second half, as written, doesn’t seem to help”

                      My point was that intention is what makes deception sans falsehood a sin. But it is practically a tautology.

                      “But if I achieve my purposes whether or not you believe or rely on the statement, then there is no lie.”

                      I don’t think we can shift the responsibility to the hearer that way. And I reiterate that when you really examine the actions, the falsehood has not accomplished the goal at all. The goal was accomplished by silence, the falsehood is just uttered in the same episode.

                      “If I utter a falsehood, and you have no idea whether or not it is true, then you arenot deceived.”

                      And that is irrelevant. Whether the hearer is deceived or not is immaterial, only the intent to deceive matters. And I simply do not agree that a person can tell a falsehood without intention as to deception. Due to the nature of communication, I think that either the intention to deceive or the intention to not deceive must be present. The Church makes a very strong connection between what we speak and the truth, between intent in speaking and the morality of speaking. I simply think that anyone who says that they are uttering a falsehood without intentionality as to deception or non deception is also telling a falsehood to themselves about the truth of their intent.

                      I suppose ultimately that is where we part ways. But I have to say that I have appreciated the exchange as it has allowed me to examine Church teaching on this much more and really add clarity to my thoughts and opinions.

                    • Paul Connors

                      Paul Connors: “But if I achieve my purposes whether or not you believe or rely on the statement, then there is no lie.”

                      wineinthewater: “I don’t think we can shift the responsibility to the hearer that way.”

                      I just don’t see why you say that. I’ve shown that under appropriate circumstances, I can successfully intend the goal of hiding information without my plan relying on deception taking place. So I don’t see the relevance of your reply.

                      It’s as if I were to say to someone that I was going to eat a burger for lunch, and they replied that I was surely intending to do that while it was raining. I then carefully point out that while it may possibly rain, that is not a practical obstacle to me eating a burger for lunch, so the presence or absence of rain would be irrelevant. The other person nevertheless insists that I surely intend to eat the burger while it is raining. What useful response can I make to clarify things?

                    • wineinthewater

                      Perhaps that one sentence was confusing to the conversation.

                      Communication is not eating a hamburger. I do not see how you can make a statement without an intent as to its reception. I think a person who claims to do so intends to try to deceive both his listener and his own conscience. You can make a statement without being able to control its reception, but I don’t think you can make one without an intent as to its reception. I think that is fundamental to communication. I don’t see how you can utter a falsehood without the intention to either deceive or to not deceive. Everything that I’ve read from the catechism and all of the Fathers seem to speak in those terms: you either utter the falsehood with the positive intent to deceive (lie), or you utter it with the positive intent not to deceive (fiction). I certainly don’t see them ever touching on a scenario with deception-neutral intent. They all proceed from the premise that falsehoods are generally lies, and then proceed to identify specific situations where they are not. Considering this very conservative approach, I think it spiritually unwise to try to create a novel philosophical structure to permit a falsehood.

                    • Paul Connors

                      “I don’t see how you can utter a falsehood without the intention to either deceive or to n ot deceive.

                      “…you either utter the falsehood with the positive intent to deceive (lie), or you utter it with the positive intent not to deceive (fiction).

                      Speaking very generally: Suppose I set out on a plan to achieve some end. And suppose there is some event that may or may not happen as a result of executing that plan.

                      Then there are three possibilities:
                      (1) The plan was aimed at making the event occur;
                      (2) The plan was aimed at making the event not occur;
                      (3) The plan was independent of the event.

                      Taking into account these possibilities is an everyday kind of reasoning. For example: (1a) I drive my car so I can get to the supermarket. (2a) I drive my car to the supermarket so that I won’t get hungry. (3a) I drive my car to the supermarket so that I won’t get hungry, but I have an unexpected accident on the way.

                      In case (3a) the accident is simply not part of the plan, however foreseeable it might be. (The distinction between plan and foresight is central to double-effect.)

                      Now for some reason you are denying that this kind of everyday reasoning applies to spoken falsehoods. But I see no reason at all to think you are correct.

                      The Fathers…

                      I know of nothing whatsoever that the Fathers have said which denies the impossibility of types of (3).

    • chezami

      What Mark says here is direct quotation from the Catechism. Spin it how you like but lying never has anything but the character of sin. And a lie does not cease to be a lie when you pretend it isn’t.

      • Silverback

        Yes, but the Catechism was directly reversed precisely on this issue. This is a subject that is not as clear cut as you make it. I appreciate your efforts to work through this subject. I suspect the Church is also still working through this subject.

        • Scott W.

          Fair enough. It is fine to say that the x and the y in the equation x+y = z are not clear cut or spelled out by the Church. As long as one understands that z (that lying as a chosen act is always wrong) has been unambiguously taught by the Church.

        • chezami

          Rubbish. It was not “directly reversed”. It was clarified *precisely* because sophist used the fuzzy language t make excuses for lying. Now the sophists ignore the clarification in order to go on making excuses for lying–in the teeth of a tradition that harks back to Augustine.

        • wineinthewater

          The catechism was not directly reversed. A minority opinion that had been injected in the draft version of the Catechism was removed before the Catechism was published. The revision is actually evidence of the *error* of the minority position, since the Pope felt it had to be removed before the Catechism could be promulgated.

    • wineinthewater

      Saint Alphonsus Liguori was a rigorist verging on scrupulosity about lying, so I’d be curious as to which writings you are referring.

  • http://robertfking.wordpress.com/ Roki

    But God hates all sin and would prefer we didn’t commit even venial
    sin. Does that mean He’d have preferred me to tell the truth? Because
    that seems monstrous to me.

    I’m not sure I see what is “monstrous” about this.

    Let’s say you’re a high school music teacher. You have students of various levels of talent. You’d like them all to play like professionals, of course. You hate all the mistakes they make, even little ones, even ones they are unable to avoid. You’d prefer them to play perfectly, even brilliantly. But they don’t. They’re imperfect musicians, and they’re learning. So you continue to teach and encourage them to improve – not in spite of their mistakes, but exactly because their mistakes demand greater teaching and encouragement to correct.

    So with the moral life. This life is not for perfection in any respect: it is a messed-up mess, and even the best of us are muddling through as if half-blind. But we have the grace of forgiveness, and the grace of communion drawing us ever deeper into God’s own perfection till we do reach it – not here, but only in the new heavens and new earth.

    • http://hjg.com.ar/ Hernán J. González

      > I’m not sure I see what is “monstrous” about this.

      Let me know if I get this right. Do you imply that the following is true:
      - “The perfect thing to do in the above situation (that what God prefers) is to tell the truth: plainly tell the abusive husband where his wife is hidden. Nothing monstrous in that.”
      - “To do otherwise is a mistake – a sin, albeit a venial one.”

      • http://robertfking.wordpress.com/ Roki

        No. You seem to be under the false impression that the only options in such situations are to reveal the truth as fully and plainly as possible, or to tell a deliberate falsehood. There are many more possibilities than these, as Mark lists above.

        The perfect thing is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. This will look different depending on the situation and relationships involved. It is impossible to say what “the perfect thing to do” is. It may involve calling the police, or talking the abusive husband down, or incapacitating him yourself. It may involve standing there in silence and letting him beat you up. It may even be to tell him where his wife is, though I can’t imagine it would be to give him access to her.

        In any case, love is creative. It is not about solving the puzzle of the one and only one right thing to do. It is about seeking in every situation what fulfills God’s desire for his creation.

        However, just because there is no single absolute “right” or “perfect” action does not mean that there are no wrong actions. It is wrong to lie to anyone under any circumstances. So, to lie to the abusive husband is indeed a sin, albeit most likely a venial one.

        It is most likely a venial sin because I am trying to love, and falling short. I know that the safety of the abused wife is paramount, and I protect that great good. I am not experienced enough, or courageous enough, or clever enough to discern the best way to love the abusive husband and protect his abused wife at the same time. So I do the best I can within my limits.

        But the fact that I have limits does not make my sinful actions somehow perfect or righteous. It makes them understandable, perhaps excusable. But the object of the act remains sinful. My shortcomings do not change the nature of my actions.

        • sez

          “love is creative. It is not about solving the puzzle of the one and only one right thing to do. It is about seeking in every situation what fulfills God’s desire for his creation.”

          so well put – thank you!!

  • LJ

    One point that everybody is missing is that moral actions (ALL of them) depend on receiving the “actual” grace (the grace to act) at the moment you need it. You don’t get it ahead of time, it doesn’t “stick around” after the fact, and you certainly don’t get it from making up imaginary, highly emotional daydreams. Jesus specifically told us not to worry about what we’re to say, that the Spirit would speak through us at the moment needed. Believe in Him, and you won’t be stampeded by your emotions.
    If the drunken husband bursts in and demands to know where his battered wife is, the Spirit might just prompt you to say: Get out of my house or I’m calling the police.
    The point is, don’t get yourself into a situation where you are planning to lie (even a little lie) to get out of the consequences or to manipulate people into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise do. That has no place in His kingdom. And yes, that means you might sometimes have to face evil consequences or not be able to get people to do something you want. That’s why he warned you ahead of time that you would be mistreated like He was if you follow Him.
    The other point is, just because somebody asks you a question doesn’t mean you need to answer it. Only in cases where you have a positive duty to inform someone of something do you have to answer the question– otherwise, silence IS an option, and so is changing the subject, providing partial information, etc.

  • Julian Barkin

    Hey Mark, what about application of the Principle of Double Effect? Did you consider that? It is what I was taught in high school morality class with regards to unavoidable acts (e.g ectopic abortion, nazi empire raids on houses hiding Jews).

    • chezami

      It’s not double effect to do evil that good may come of it. Double effect is when you, for instance, hit a man to stop him from attacking a kid. If he dies from the blow, your purpose was not to kill him but to stop him. If, on the other hand, you deliberately shoot through his victim to kill the attacker, you are choosing to do evil that good may come of it. When you lie, you are *choosing to lie* for some good end.

      • Julian Barkin

        So I take it the answer is No, PDE does not apply here?

        • wineinthewater

          No it does not. PDE requires a good intention to be joined to a morally good or morally neutral that results in an intended good effect that outweighs an unintended evil effect.

          An intrinsic evil can never be involved in PDE.

  • SteveTirone

    One other option: don’t address the question, change the subject, as in, when drunken abusive ex breaks in and demands to know if his wife is here, respond “Get out of here now, or I’m calling the cops! Get out!”

  • SteveTirone

    Whoops. Didn’t read LJ’s post. Apologies!

  • Frank McManus

    Very interesting discussion. When I read the CCC quote I thought, okay, this is yet another area where I think the Church is wrong. Of course I’d lie in the situation described, and of course that would be the right thing to do. But the way you talked about it is raising questions for me. As so often, I wonder if there isn’t a way to get into the spiritual guts of the traditional ethical language used here — virtue, merit, intrinsic, culpable, etc. — because I think this language carries baggage for modern readers that may not be what the Church (or Aquinas) intends. I wonder if we don’t implicitly read this kind of thing as more Kant than Aquinas, because we’ve lost the theological and metaphysical vision of Aquinas, which for him and the Church are the context for understanding this teaching.

    The CCC quote you use says that “the purpose of speech is to communicate known truths.” Yet later you quote Jesus using speech in ways that seem to have a purpose other than “communicating known truths.” It feels like a contradiction. Or perhaps we have to broaden what we think we mean by “communicating known truths,” so that it can encompass evasion, ambiguity, equivocation, etc.

    If I understand you correctly, Mark, you would say that telling the Bad Guy where his intended victim is to be found would be immoral, even if it’s the truth. But the reason is not that the truth was told, but that a commitment to defending the innocent was lacking. Perhaps a better response to the Bad Guy would be, “You wanna know if she’s here? I’ll tell you — with my fist!!” LOL And I thought I was a pacifist.

  • Dave G.

    I think one thing we often miss in these debates is this: if the only time I ever lied in my life was to save a person from imminent death and suffering, I’d sleep like a baby. My problem are the times I lie (or in other ways sin) with not the least bit of concern about others.

  • Andrew Law

    Everything below is mere conjecture and fodder for discussion.
    Furthermore, I have the highest respect for the moral seriousness of
    Mark’s position on lying, but I nevertheless disagree rather strongly.

    I worry that Mark’s absolutism (absolutism, I concede, apparently shared by some of the most brilliant saints in Christian history, not to mention the entire Kantian tradition of ethics, for what that’s worth) on the issue of lying threatens to legitimate sin as occasionally necessary. Sin, by its very definition, can never be laudatory. Of course, Mark recognizes the distinction between objective sin and subjective guilt, but I’m not sure that gets him out of the woods on this issue.

    Asserting that those heroic individuals who lied to Adam Lanza or the Gestapo sinned venially by lying, or even committed an objective wrongdoing for which they were not culpable given their situation and intention, seems an outlandish conclusion. The act of defending the Jews in the attic/children in the closet consisted- entirely- of lying to the men with the guns who intended to do innocent people harm. It seems, intuitively at least, that lying- at the risk of torture and death- to the Gestapo about the presence of Jews in ones’ attic is in fact a virtuous action, not just a venial sin or an objective wrongdoing for which one
    may not be culpable. One can easily imagine situations in which the sort of “acceptable” finagling Mark posits as an alternative to actively telling untruths, using Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin and Pilate as an example, would just not work.

    The first thing to point out is that Jesus, in giving his cryptic answers, was not in the situation of defending the lives of innocent children from crazed murderers- obviously, this is in no way to denigrate what Our Lord was in fact doing, it’s just to point out a rather glaring dissimilarity between Jesus and moral heroes like Victoria Soto. When defending the safety of others, one can easily imagine cases in which equivocating, keeping silent, speaking in paradoxes, etc etc would imply- as, indeed Jesus does seem to do- that the accusing party’s statements are true, or at least partially true. (eg, “Are you the King of the Jews?” “Thou sayest.”)

    It’s one (very heroic and awe inspiring) thing for a martyr, or for the lord and savior of the world, to use irony and paradox to deflect the accusations of their enemies. But the situation of the person defending jews from the Gestapo or children from a maniac is fundamentally a different moral situation.

    Perhaps it would be useful to think of lying on analogy with killing in
    Catholic moral theology. We may never do evil that good may come of it,
    and killing another human being is, by the nature of the act, to be
    condemned, according to the sort of teleological framework Aquinas
    adopts from Aristotle and that much of the Catechism assumes. However,
    there are certain situations in which- according to the logic of
    Catholic political philosophy and just war theory- the killing of
    another human being is not evil- but is in fact a positive duty. Assuming we
    are soldiers fighting in a truly just war, or policemen legitimately
    executing our duties, it may sometimes become a positive moral duty to
    kill another human being. These are extraordinary circumstances, to be
    sure, but circumstances in which a species of action that is normally
    morally evil (eg killing humans) becomes not a venial sin or an
    objective wrong for which the soldier/policeman is not subjectively
    culpable, but a positive moral demand upon the soldier or policemen. (The CCC seems to justify this according to the doctrine of double-effect, but it is not clear to me that this is the only way in which the tradition discusses legitimate killing in war.)

    St Thomas recognizes a just war as a situation in which normal moral norms are not suspended, but changed because of the radically altered circumstances in which moral agents are forced to act. As a (just) soldier, one is permitted actions which in peace time would be wholly unacceptable, and these actions are not necessary evils but positive duties. I wonder if the same logic could be extended to lying, especially in situations of violence and danger.

    • Käthe

      This introduces the amusing if somewhat dark proposition that perhaps it would be more technically morally upright by these standards to shoot the rampaging abuser than to lie to him. Oops.

      • Dave G.

        I didn’t get that in what he wrote. In fact, one objection has been that, according to the Church, it would be better to kill a rampaging maniac than lie to him. In some circumstances, the killing would be OK, yet it would never be OK to lie. That has led to some pretty chilling conclusions by some I’ll admit. And I think Andrew did a good job presenting a different approach. One worth kicking around, and one showing that not everyone wrestling with the question is just disregarding the authority of the Church.

        • Käthe

          I was being somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I do find it both troubling and darkly amusing that the Thomist type scholastic tradition has no trouble finding a way for killing to be perfectly fine in certain circumstances, but agonizes over how to classify lying to save a child from a madman.

          • Andrew Law

            I’m not sure if that’s a fair characterization of Thomas’ philosophy and ethics, though it may be of some subsequent forms of “Thomism”. Aquinas set out a rigorous set of criteria under which violence might be acceptable, but he is more notable for the extreme limits he puts on legitimate violence than for being overly permissive in its use. Despite some well-known absurdities that arise from Thomas’ reading of the natural law (no great philosopher is without great mistakes), it’s not clear that one can have any system of ethics, theistic or otherwise, without a teleological conception of human nature of the sort he posits. The problem of permissible lying bedevils almost any system of ethics, Catholic or otherwise, with the possible exception of utilitarianism. Kant, for example, is even more extreme than Augustine and Aquinas on the total impermissibility of deception. The question of when and if lying is permitted simply is one of the more difficult questions in the western traditions of ethical reflection. I disagree strongly with Mark’s conclusion, but a) his opinion is one backed up by more than just the Thomist tradition, b) I am not sure his position is, in the final analysis, quite so aligned with the logic of Thomistic ethics as he seems to think.

    • freddy

      Well thought and well said. This is a subject I’ve been pondering for some time, and one I find particularly bothersome.
      .
      I wonder if another way one might think about verbal deceptions is as sometimes they are material sins but not sinful. In other words, missing Mass on Sunday would be an example of a material sin (the material of sin — missing Mass — is present). However, you may miss Mass through no fault of your own: broken car, ill health, bad weather, etc., so you are not culpable; you have not, in fact, sinned.
      .
      Perhaps some “lies” are like that. They are material sins — words used to deceive — lies; but they are not sins. Deceiving someone bent on evil, comforting a frightened child, expressing pleasure over a gift from your crazy aunt may involve deception, but they do not rise to the level of sinful lies.
      .
      I dunno. I just think the Church has some more thinking to do on this one.

      • Andrew Law

        I think it’s important to note that MArk’s opinion on lying is not, as far as I know, the official teaching of the church, though it is certainly a theological opinion within the stream of orthodox opinion. As some other ommentators have pointed out,theres more diversity on this topic in Catholic thought than the post above implies. it’s also worth pointing out that Aquinas’ opinions on deception where more complex than they are often made out to be- see him on the permissabilty of ambushes, for example.

        • freddy

          Thank you. Yes, your points are important to note. In charity, it’s important for all of us troubled by this, or any issue within Catholic thought to do our best to think with the mind of the Church. I see that in what Mark is doing as well as those of us who charitably disagree with some part of his thinking. When I say that the Church has some more thinking to do I mean that indeed within the catechetical teachings and tradition there is room for differences of thought, and that may lead to clarification on teaching.

    • wineinthewater

      Aquinas addressed quite directly the topic of killing in self defense. He held that killing the person cannot be the means by which you defend yourself. The person’s death must be the unintended consequence of defending yourself, it cannot be the means.

      In most cases of self defense, the person is flailing for their lives, so there is not even the opportunity to consciously choose the other’s death as the means.

    • wineinthewater

      “Asserting that those heroic individuals who lied to Adam Lanza or the
      Gestapo sinned venially by lying, or even committed an objective
      wrongdoing for which they were not culpable given their situation and
      intention, seems an outlandish conclusion.”

      Not within the sphere of Catholic moral theology where there is a distinction between intent and action. In our modern relativistic society, intent is the only standard for sin. But in Catholic moral theology, either the intent or the action can be evil. Some actions are sinful or not based on the intent of the actor. Some actions are sinful despite the intentions of the actor (thus intrinsic evils). But even with intrinsic evils, a person can still have a good intent, and that good intent can be laudatory and can have an effect on their culpability for the inherently sinful act.

      So, for the school shooting or the Gestapo, you can have the laudatory intent of saving human life simultaneous with a sinful action. Because of the laudatory intent and the high-stress situation, such liars most likely have a culpability for their sin approaching zero, but it is still a sin.

  • Silverback

    How do you reconcile your comments with the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on mental reservation?

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10195b.htm

    *Properly applied* mental reservation seems to address most of the difficulties in the gestapo/Lanza situations.

    The key is that most people might be inclined to a broad application of the doctrine when it is in their “best interests’ to do so. Cops in Hawaii, for example. But that is that examinations of conscience are for.

    It appears, though, that the issue has been discussed by Church theologians in some depth and, apparently, not as one voice. Not surprisingly, people have questions.

    • wineinthewater

      I don’t really see anything to reconcile. Mental reservation is not a lie, it is a nothing, it is to remain silent.

      • Silverback

        No, mental reservation is stating a technical truth while withholding key information so that the partial truth acts as a deception.

        For example

        Nazi officer: Are you hiding any Jews?

        Spoken answer: “No.” Mental reservation: “No, they are in plain sight behind the basement trap door.”

        I noted earlier that the Catechism was revised on the point of what constitutes a lie:

        http://catholicexchange.com/second-edition-revision-of-the-catechism

        The language in the first version would treat statements made to Lanza or to Nazis as “non-lies.”

        That interpretation avoids the pretzel analysis offered here, where a particular type of lie is somehow a sin but not culpable.

        It is not clear whether the Catechism’s removal of the words “person entitled tot he truth” is deliberate, or is intended to be a revision or even a full statement of the Church’s teachings.

        • wineinthewater

          There are two kinds of mental reservation, broad and strict. A broad mental reservation is where you say something that can be reasonably interpreted two ways, knowing that the person is likely to interpret it the wrong way. A strict mental reservation is where you make a statement, part out loud and part in your head. The part out loud is untrue and it is only when you add the part in your head that the statement is true. Strict mental reservation has been condemned, but not broad. Your example is strict mental reservation and it is telling that it is the only form of “deceptive truth” that has been outright condemned (by Pope Innocent XI).

          I don’t think the first edition of the catechism should be used to contradict the second. The definition of lie in the second edition expands on the definition in the first. But the exception that the definition in the first edition seems to allow is not allowed by the definition in the second. So, for the exception to be valid, the definition in the second edition must be wrong because it is absolutist, providing no qualifications for a lie based on the hearers “right to know the truth.”

          The “pretzel analysis” is basic Catholic moral theology. When considering sins, Catholic moral theology differentiates between the moral character of an act and the actor’s culpability. So, you can commit a sin, but can be more or less culpable. For instance, this is why a mortal sin requires “full consent of the will.” Its about culpability.

          • Silverback

            I don’t think your analysis works. I am not sure at all that the Catechism first and second editions are in actual conflict. In light of the first edition, and in light the two papal pronouncements on the publication of the Catechism, it is reasonable to conclude that both expressions are valid–make of them what you will. The Vatican appears to take the position that they are congruent.

            I did use an easy example of strict mental reservation to demonstrate that mental reservation is not “silence” as was stated above.

            It would be just as easy to set out a broad form of mental reservation in response to the Nazi’s question:

            here’s one: “Of course we are hiding Jews! They’re down in the cellar! What to do take me for? A fool? Be on your way, my good man!’ (Nazi and hero high five each other and part company)

            Still an attempt to deceive. Still not a sin.

            I do not grasp the mental gymnastics to say that some sins carry no culpability. I do not know where that is taught in the Catechism.

            • wineinthewater

              I don’t think the two editions are in conflict. The first edition offers a definition of lie, and the second offers of broader and clearer definition of lie. It is not that the first edition is wrong, but that it’s wording might lead a person to a wrong interpretation. And so, I do think that a certain *interpretation* of the first edition is in conflict with the second edition. The reading of the first edition that allows one to utter a falsehood to one who “has no right to the truth” is, I think, at odds with the second edition.

              “I do not grasp the mental gymnastics to say that some sins carry no culpability. I do not know where that is taught in the Catechism.”

              Read what the catechism has to say about conscience (especially Section 1, Chapter 1 Article 6) and just look up the definition of culpability, especially in an ethics reference. It is not that the sin has no culpability, it is that the *sinner* has more or less culpability for the sin committed. It is really fundamental Catholic moral theology. It is one of the issues at the heart of the differentiation between mortal and venial sin.

  • BHG

    Like so much discussion in the area of ethics, this depends on how narrowly one defines the question at hand and what the words mean. The Catechism states: The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity.

    I think what constitutes deliberately leading one into error means–and of course, Mark takes the position that it means believing something to be true when it is not–or vice versa. But what if leading into error means permitting by one’s actions another’s grave error in behavior–an even more immediate and grave sin such as mass murder? And what about the competing needs to protect the innocent and preserve life when we can? We “solve” these issue by making them very narrow so that we can come to a clear, bright line– but in fact, they are not and it’s the context that makes them difficult.

    I really do get the point Mark is making but it seems to me that ethics is neither linear nor tis mathematical with respect to principles alone but primarily relational with respect to God and each other. That means that firm, clear answers are sometimes hard to come by and it always means that there are competing goods–of which there is a hierarchy.

    Lying is to be avoided–and lying is a sin. But there are circumstances when lying is the best we can do for God and each other, sinful folks that we are. Sometimes, not to lie is the greater sin. Sandy Hook leaps to mind. It was a lie, it was a sin and in my mind, in this fallen world where we cannot help but sin in what we do, it was exactly the right choice because to have failed to do so would have been to fail to protect the lives under that young woman’s care. Discussions like this keep us from getting too cavalier with our actions–but they should not lull us into thinking that we can be on the “right” side of the line of sin. We can’t.

    The question in my mind is not so much how we fail in relationship to the ideal–for we always fall short–but how we relate to the souls we come in contact with and whether we, by our actions, help them move closer to God or farther away (and, of course, we never really know in this life). All we can do it make the best decisions we can in the context of the situation, take responsibility for them before God and man, ask forgiveness, and be open to the call of the Spirit to change how we act the next time. We need the ideals, of course, to guide us and pull us on and up–but those ideals are many and often in tension– it is folly to believe that we ever achieve them, even when we think we do.

    • wineinthewater

      Sin is *never* the best we can do.

      It may be the best thing we can think to do in a moment faced with even worse alternatives, and thus we may be readily forgiven for it, but holiness is always the best we can do. And sin can never be holy.

  • BHG

    A bit missing–:”I think what constitutes deliberately leading one into error might well mean several different things and not just simple error of fact.” Sorry.

    • wineinthewater

      It seems you are using the exposition to confuse the plain meaning of the primary teaching of the catechism:

      “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 statement about deliberately leading one into error is an explanation of *why* lying is a sin, not *when* lying is a sin. For lying, by its very nature, is to be condemned.

  • BHG

    Let me put it another way: sometimes none the potential solutions to a problem are entirely moral. Dignitatis Humanae recognizes this with respect to management of frozen embryos. I think this is an analogous situation. It is not moral to lie. Nor is moral to fail to save a life–or to prevent evil– when it is within your power to do so. It is all very well and good to admit that lying is sinful for it is. But in some situations, sin stands at every turn. In those circumstances, you choose the sin you can live with and leave the rest to God’s mercy.


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