No. Really. The Logic is Quite Easy to Follow

No. Really. The Logic is Quite Easy to Follow July 6, 2012

God is truth. Lying is opposed to truth. Therefore, lying is opposed to God.

That’s why lying, by its very nature, is to be condemned.

Honest. Augustine says that too.

And Aquinas leaves no loopholes whatsoever. Though he is certainly sensible enough to know that lying is not always a mortal sin, he is not foolish enough say that it is ever a virtue. It is not. Ever.:

Article 3. Whether every lie is a sin?

Objection 1. It seems that not every lie is a sin. For it is evident that the evangelists did not sin in the writing of the Gospel. Yet they seem to have told something false: since their accounts of the words of Christ and of others often differ from one another: wherefore seemingly one of them must have given an untrue account. Therefore not every lie is a sin.

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.

Objection 3. Further, the deeds of holy men are related in Sacred Writ that they may be a model of human life. But we read of certain very holy men that they lied. Thus (Genesis 12 and 20) we are told that Abraham said of his wife that she was his sister. Jacob also lied when he said that he was Esau, and yet he received a blessing (Genesis 27:27-29). Again, Judith is commended (Judith 15:10-11) although she lied to Holofernes. Therefore not every lie is a sin.

Objection 4. Further, one ought to choose the lesser evil in order to avoid the greater: even so a physician cuts off a limb, lest the whole body perish. Yet less harm is done by raising a false opinion in a person’s mind, than by someone slaying or being slain. Therefore a man may lawfully lie, to save another from committing murder, or another from being killed.

Objection 5. Further, it is a lie not to fulfill what one has promised. Yet one is not bound to keep all one’s promises: for Isidore says (Synonym. ii): “Break your faith when you have promised ill.” Therefore not every lie is a sin.

Objection 6. Further, apparently a lie is a sin because thereby we deceive our neighbor: wherefore Augustine says (Lib. De Mend. xxi): “Whoever thinks that there is any kind of lie that is not a sin deceives himself shamefully, since he deems himself an honest man when he deceives others.” Yet not every lie is a cause of deception, since no one is deceived by a jocose lie; seeing that lies of this kind are told, not with the intention of being believed, but merely for the sake of giving pleasure. Hence again we find hyperbolical expressions in Holy Writ. Therefore not every lie is a sin.

On the contrary, It is written (Sirach 7:14): “Be not willing to make any manner of lie.”

I answer that, An action that is naturally evil in respect of its genus can by no means be good and lawful, since in order for an action to be good it must be right in every respect: because good results from a complete cause, while evil results from any single defect, as Dionysius asserts (Div. Nom. iv). Now a lie is evil in respect of its genus, since it is an action bearing on undue matter. For as words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 7) that “lying is in itself evil and to be shunned, while truthfulness is good and worthy of praise.” Therefore every lie is a sin, as also Augustine declares (Contra Mend. i).

Reply to Objection 1. It is unlawful to hold that any false assertion is contained either in the Gospel or in any canonical Scripture, or that the writers thereof have told untruths, because faith would be deprived of its certitude which is based on the authority of Holy Writ. That the words of certain people are variously reported in the Gospel and other sacred writings does not constitute a lie. Hence Augustine says (De Consens. Evang. ii): “He that has the wit to understand that in order to know the truth it is necessary to get at the sense, will conclude that he must not be the least troubled, no matter by what words that sense is expressed.” Hence it is evident, as he adds (De Consens. Evang. ii), that “we must not judge that someone is lying, if several persons fail to describe in the same way and in the same words a thing which they remember to have seen or heard.”

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.

Reply to Objection 3. In Holy Writ, as Augustine observes (Lib. De Mend. v), the deeds of certain persons are related as examples of perfect virtue: and we must not believe that such persons were liars. If, however, any of their statements appear to be untruthful, we must understand such statements to have been figurative and prophetic. Hence Augustine says (Lib. De Mend. v): “We must believe that whatever is related of those who, in prophetical times, are mentioned as being worthy of credit, was done and said by them prophetically.” As to Abraham “when he said that Sara was his sister, he wished to hide the truth, not to tell a lie, for she is called his sister since she was the daughter of his father,” Augustine says (QQ. Super. Gen. xxvi; Contra Mend. x; Contra Faust. xxii). Wherefore Abraham himself said (Genesis 20:12): “She is truly my sister, the daughter of my father, and not the daughter of my mother,” being related to him on his father’s side. Jacob’s assertion that he was Esau, Isaac’s first-born, was spoken in a mystical sense, because, to wit, the latter’s birthright was due to him by right: and he made use of this mode of speech being moved by the spirit of prophecy, in order to signify a mystery, namely, that the younger people, i.e. the Gentiles, should supplant the first-born, i.e. the Jews.

Some, however, are commended in the Scriptures, not on account of perfect virtue, but for a certain virtuous disposition, seeing that it was owing to some praiseworthy sentiment that they were moved to do certain undue things. It is thus that Judith is praised, not for lying to Holofernes, but for her desire to save the people, to which end she exposed herself to danger. And yet one might also say that her words contain truth in some mystical sense.

Reply to Objection 4. A lie is sinful not only because it injures one’s neighbor, but also on account of its inordinateness, as stated above in this Article. Now it is not allowed to make use of anything inordinate in order to ward off injury or defects from another: as neither is it lawful to steal in order to give an alms, except perhaps in a case of necessity when all things are common. Therefore it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says (Contra Mend. x).

Reply to Objection 5. A man does not lie, so long as he has a mind to do what he promises, because he does not speak contrary to what he has in mind: but if he does not keep his promise, he seems to act without faith in changing his mind. He may, however, be excused for two reasons. First, if he has promised something evidently unlawful, because he sinned in promise, and did well to change his mind. Secondly, if circumstances have changed with regard to persons and the business in hand. For, as Seneca states (De Benef. iv), for a man to be bound to keep a promise, it is necessary for everything to remain unchanged: otherwise neither did he lie in promising–since he promised what he had in his mind, due circumstances being taken for granted–nor was he faithless in not keeping his promise, because circumstances are no longer the same. Hence the Apostle, though he did not go to Corinth, whither he had promised to go (2 Corinthians 1), did not lie, because obstacles had arisen which prevented him.

Reply to Objection 6. An action may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, secondly, with regard to the agent. Accordingly a jocose lie, from the very genus of the action, is of a nature to deceive; although in the intention of the speaker it is not told to deceive, nor does it deceive by the way it is told. Nor is there any similarity in the hyperbolical or any kind of figurative expressions, with which we meet in Holy Writ: because, as Augustine says (Lib. De Mend. v), “it is not a lie to do or say a thing figuratively: because every statement must be referred to the thing stated: and when a thing is done or said figuratively, it states what those to whom it is tendered understand it to signify.”

And though Augustine and Thomas lived before Nazis and Planned Parenthood, as Objection 4 makes clear, they did not live before bad people harmed innocents. The delusion that it is the discovery of Baby Boomers that bad people threaten innocents and that Catholic morality therefore has changed in order to accomodate this startling new moral insight of the Pepsi Generation is of a piece with the amazing vanity of Generation Narcissus. indeed there has never been a time since Cain murdered Abel that bad people did not try to harm innocents. And yet the Church has never said “As long as it is for a good cause, go ahead and lie.”

That’s the truth.

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  • suburbanbanshee

    Don’t get mad… but St. John Chrysostom did have a discussion of benign deceits (apatai) in his “On the Priesthood.” (Part 1, section 6 onward and a bit of Part 2.) However, the example he gives (himself lying to a buddy about how they’ll both become priests if the local church presses them to do it, when he actually thought his buddy was worthy whereas he needed to get his fleshly temptations conquered first) doesn’t have a very happy consequence, as he pretty much ruins his friendship and his reputation in Antioch with most other Christians. (Somewhere it says that he couldn’t go anywhere without getting reprimanded, and that people even assumed his buddy had been in on it and reprimanded him too.) So he wrote this dialogue, but it didn’t salvage things. In the end, he headed off to barren Mount Silpios to train with monks and live down his apatai.

    It’s possible that this “apatai okey-doke for the sake of oikonomia” idea was something he picked up in rhetoric class, because some rhetorical devices stretched the truth a lot. In which case, it’s possible that St. Augustine was particularly hard on it because he’d been a rhetorician too.

    Disclaimer: Haven’t read “On the Priesthood” in Greek, but have read it in English. It’s a dialogue with his former buddy, which he must have written before he headed out to be a monk. He still thinks he was pretty cute, and casts his buddy as the dialogue partner who is “simple-minded” and needs to be persuaded of the glories of the priesthood. So yeah, digging hole deeper is not new.

    • suburbanbanshee

      I’ve been looking to see if we have stuff later in life showing that he repented of the idea and haven’t found it yet, but of course that’s more likely to be a lack of my knowledge than a lack of him growing out of the young and stupid and unsaintly stage.

  • suburbanbanshee

    Well, darn it, I thought I’d found something new, but Bran Emrys already covered it very fully over on his blog.

  • Bl. John Henry Newman summed up the matter this way in his Apologia: “I think the historical course of thought upon the matter has been this: the Greek Fathers thought that, when there was a justa causa, an untruth need not be a lie. St. Augustine took another view, though with great misgiving; and, whether he is rightly interpreted or not, is the doctor of the great and common view that all untruths are lies, and that there can be no just cause of untruth. In these later times, this doctrine has been found difficult to work, and it has been largely taught that, though all untruths are lies, yet that certain equivocations, when there is a just cause, are not untruths.”

    None of which is the position taken by many defenders of Live Action — that, when there is a just cause, an untruth cannot be a lie.

    • Newman also said: “it is better for sun and moon to drop from heaven than that one soul should tell one wilful untruth”.

      The fact is there is more consensus on the position taken by the Catechism (the condemnation of lying in any and all circumstances) than Defenders of Lying would care to admit.

  • o.h.

    So what about people who are mentally unprepared for the truth because of a defect in the reason – and I’m thinking here of small children and drunk people. When they must really be convinced to do something, right now, for their own welfare, and telling them something untrue seems to be the only useful way of achieving an outcome they would want for themselves if they were sober/mature. Does the rationality of the object of a lie have a bearing on the permissibility of a lie?

    • If lying is only evil because of the harm that comes to someone who believes you, then sure, lying would be permissible when the benefit outweighed the harm.

      If, though, trying to get someone to believe something that isn’t true is wrong in itself, regardless of motive or circumstances, then no, you can’t lie to children or drunks.

      Mark provides the Catechism’s answer: “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.”

      • o.h.

        But it’s not the case that “trying to get someone to believe something that isn’t true is wrong in itself.” As Mark has observed, the moral tradition is okay with deceit as long as it isn’t actually a *lie* (which I have to say really bothers me; it’s like a special dispensation for those who are quick-witted enough to come up with a deceitful technically non-lie).

        What I’m trying to get at is the locus of the sin. If it has nothing to do with the rationality of the hearer, then what about non-human hearers? Is it a sin to say “walkies!” to your dog to get him into the car when he’s run into traffic? Is it a sin to tell HAL 2000 that you’re some other user? What about Koko the gorilla – does she have to be told the truth?

        I’m not trying to be frivolous; it just seems like we have, in those cases, a strong intuition that it’s not a lie if the hearer isn’t human. And frankly I have likewise a strong intuition that when a demented person is wandering on the freeway looking for the Queen of England, it’s not a lie to say “hey Grandma, I want to find Her Majesty too, hop in this ambulance because I think she may be at the hospital.”

        But the “profanation of peech” argument, I agree, seems to put the locus of the sin in the speech act itself. Which seems to put lying to HAL, Fido, Dementia patient, and Baby Below-the-age-of-Reason all in the Sin category.

        And frankly, I’m unhappy with a faith that tells me I can come up with weasel words to get myself out of trouble as long as it squeaks by the “p is true” test, but I’m facing damnation for deliberately telling an irrational small child in a burning house that daddy is right outside if only she’ll crawl through that window.

        • Steve P

          I think part of the issue that these writers get at is not to reward the quick wit or clever words, but to recognize that deliberately telling a lie is an offense against truth, and is damaging– if not to the one lied to– then to the one telling the lie.

          Certainly the examples you give would provide mitigating circumstances for the gravity of the sin, and I don’t know that anyone would condemn someone for that. But you have to recognize that the premeditated lying and plotting around deliberate untruths is a different matter entirely than trying to rescue a child from a burning house on the spur of the moment.

        • “As Mark has observed, the moral tradition is okay with deceit as long as it isn’t actually a *lie*.”

          I think it’s better to say the tradition features two contrary streams of thought, one asserting and the other denying that speaking contrary to what is in the mind is always sinful. The Catechism comes down unequivocally on the side of the former, going so far as to state(as St. Thomas did) that lying is an unnatural act.

          Granted, within the “lying is intrinsically evil” stream there’s a lot of casuistry, some of which seems like it manages to meander all the way over to the other stream. But that’s what you get for basing morality on rules instead of virtue.

          As for non-human hearers, I haven’t given that much thought, but it might not be altogether wrong to say that, if “the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others,” then “speaking to animals” isn’t the kind of speaking that can be a lie.

          • Tom K., there is no casuistry in the “lying is intrinsically evil” stream at all. And how dare you suggest that this is “basing morality on rules instead of virtue”. Being honest IS a virtue, and that’s what this is all about.

            I am damn tired of the Lying Apologists painting the Defenders of Catholic Teaching as casuits or Pharisees. Our argument is not, “play with words and justify yourselves by works”, it’s “virtue is demanding so don’t play games with it.” It’s exactly the opposite of arguing that ethics are situational – which is what casuists and Pharisees do – at least the Pharisees who saw no harm in unjustly condeming Jesus.

            The fact is that there may be two tendencies in theology concerning lying, but there are NOT two traditions. The magisterial sources, such as bishops (Augustine) and popes (Gregory) and catechisms (Trent and JPII’s) are universal in their condemnation of lying as sinful in and of itself, to say nothing of the Angelic Doctor, quoted above.

            The tactics of the Lying Apologists in this debate have gone from screaming that our side is wrong and that the Catechism can be ignored to smirking and saying, “Well there are two traditions here and the issue is not settled,” which is baloney. There are indeed two streams of theological debate, but there is one tradition, and it is Magisterial, and it begins with what Aquinas calls “Holy Writ” and it continues to this day – and it unequivocally condemns lying as wrong in and of itself, in any and all circumstances.

            I recently posted a rebuttal to Jeff Mirus who makes the Two Traditions claim as well as some other illogical arguments (though, to give him credit, not in a smirking way) here –

            This has been a long and rather fruitless debate, but it is at least edifying to see how people without a legitimate case can settle into innuendo and condescention – I suppose it’s the only weapons they’ve got left. I know a certain cleric who led the way down this slope, I’m sorry to say. And it’s sad to see so many people following in his glib self-satisfied footsteps.

            • Sorry, I was unclear.

              There is no casuistry in the doctrinal statement, “Lying is intrinsically evil.”

              But lots of moral theologians who taught (and teach) that lying is intrinsically evil were (and are) casuists. Concepts like “moral reservations” and (more recently) adding “to someone who has the right to the truth” to the definition of a lie are casuistic developments to the moral tradition.

              This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (“Casuistry is a noble science” – Bl JHN), but such teaching can (and, I’d suggest, has) come unmoored from the from its doctrinal foundation. Rather than starting with an understanding of the virtue of truth, too many people view the question as a matter of following a heuristic: “If I can work my way through a series of logical wickets, I can say pretty much anything without it being a ‘lie’ as such.”

              This casuistry and its subsequent unmooring from virtue is not a special defect of the Church’s teaching on truth, but one example of the general tendency toward manualism and [what I call] rule-based morality that dominated moral theology in the centuries following the Reformation.

              • To clarify my clarification: By “such teaching can (and, I’d suggest, has) come unmoored from the from its doctrinal foundation,” I mean that there are instances in which such teaching has come unmoored, not that every instance of casuistry has come unmoored.

            • Having read the link you provided, I can add “Santa Claus” to the casuistry built up on top of the doctrine.

              • DK, are you saying that rationalizing the Santa Claus Myth is an example of casuistry?

                Do you not accept the common sense realization that children are of limited intellectual capacity and that a myth may more easily lead them to the truth than literal facts?

                If this is your position (I’m guessing), then do you not see the distinction between fiction and lying? Do you not comprehend the difference between a falsehood that does not intend to deceive and a falsehood that does? I’m sure you see this difference, since you’re obviously an intelligent man.

                Santa Claus (as opposed to St. Nicholas) is just that kind of fiction. This is without even taking into consideration the limited capacity of children to perceive truth directly. You’ll note from my post that I think the Easter Bunny does not fit this “Myth which conveys a truth to children” definition; elsewhere I have said that I think it’s wrong to continue the Santa Claus myth once the child begins to question it, showing that he has entered the age of reason and such a story can become one that no longer conveys truth.

                But it seems you’re setting our side up.

                If we point out that Santa Claus is essentially different from lying to make a sting video, you call us casuists. However, if we were to say that we should not tell children about Santa Claus, I suspect you would call us rules-based Pharisees who strain at gnats and are just like the uptight Puritans.

                So we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we excuse Santa, we’re casuists. If we condemn him, we’re Pharisees.

                Meanwhile, I suggest everyone read’s Prof. Tollefsen’s article which Mark links to. He quite patiently points out that a willingness to lie, even for a good cause, damages our relationship with God and with our neighbor. He’s entirely right.

                • We seem to be using different definitions. By my definition, “Easter Bunny, no; Santa Claus unquestioned, yes; Santa Claus questioned, no” is an example of casuistry.

                  I’m not sure, though, why you think to be a casuist is to be damned. Do you disagree with Bl. John Henry Newman calling it a noble science?

                  As you say, I do comprehend the difference between a falsehood that does not intend to deceive and a falsehood that does. Your argument on that point is not with me, but with St. Thomas, who blows it to pieces in his Reply to Objection 6 above.

                  “However, if we were to say that we should not tell children about Santa Claus, I suspect you would call us rules-based Pharisees who strain at gnats and are just like the uptight Puritans.”

                  Why do you suspect that?

                  • Tom, the word casuistry is used almost exclusively in a derogatory manner. If you mean it in some other way, then be frank about your meaning. Most people take it to mean convoluted rationalizations to prove a point that contradicts common sense.

                    And to argue as I have is not casuistry in the common sense of that word. I am making simple distinctions that you should be intelligent enough to follow; at least you would be if you were arguing in good faith. If you think it’s casuistry to define things by recognizing differences in their natures, then all of philosophy is casuistry.

                    You seem confused when you say that St. Thomas Aquinas somehow is in disagreement with me on weather a jocose lie or fiction is indeed a lie; since neither is told with the intent to deceive, they are not lies. That is plain, at least regarding “jocose lies” from the Reply to Objection 6. Aquinas and I are in agreement there.

                    You’re too smart really to be confused by what I’m saying, Tom.

                    And the reason I suspect you would call me a Puritan if I were anti-Santa Claus is first because I would indeed be, and second because it would fit your template that you use in arguing your point.

                    Your template is this –

                    1. There is no Magisterial Catholic Tradition on lying.
                    2. Those who object to lying are over-rationalizing jesuitical casuists.
                    3. Those who object to lying are rules-based Pharisaic Puritans.

                    You will mold anything to fit that template. For example, if I discern the obvious distinction between a falsehood told to deceive (a lie) and a falsehood told to entertain or to elucidate a truth, which the hearer knows is false and which is not told to deceive (a joke or a myth or fiction), you tell me that making such a distinction is casuistry – a word you claim to be using in a neutral sense when all the world understands it in a derogatory sense.

                    Instead of labeling my methodology, why don’t you engage the argument?

                    Specifically, how can there be two traditions in Catholic teaching on lying when the more restrictive one has been voiced by the Old Testament, the New Testament, bishops, popes, Augustine, Aquinas, Trent and the modern Catechism? This is a strong prima facie indication of one Magisterial tradition. Granted, theologians and saints have voiced contrary opinions, but I’m talking Tradtion here, which seems to come down on the side of the Catechism. As you must know, you will find saints and theologians throughout the history of the Church giving a variety of contradicting opinions on every subject, from the Trinity on down – but such common variety of opinion does not make for multiple Traditions.

                    And what do you make of the selection quoted from the Summa? Do you find fault with any of Thomas’ reasoning?

                    And what do you make of Tollefsen’s article?

                    Engage the issue, Tom, and quit commenting on methodology.

                    • “You seem confused when you say that St. Thomas Aquinas somehow is in disagreement with me on weather a jocose lie or fiction is indeed a lie; since neither is told with the intent to deceive, they are not lies. That is plain, at least regarding “jocose lies” from the Reply to Objection 6. Aquinas and I are in agreement there.”

                      Here you are mistaken.

                    • Mark Shea

                      Kevin: Chill. Tom K. does argue in good faith. He’s one of my best and most thoughtful readers. Get to know him. You’ll like him.

                    • “Your template is this –

                      1. There is no Magisterial Catholic Tradition on lying.
                      2. Those who object to lying are over-rationalizing jesuitical casuists.
                      3. Those who object to lying are rules-based Pharisaic Puritans.”

                      The above is false.

                    • “You will mold anything to fit that template.”

                      Please retract this slander.

                    • “Do you find fault with any of Thomas’ reasoning?”


                      St. Thomas writes that “a jocose lie, from the very genus of the action, is of a nature to deceive; although in the intention of the speaker it is not told to deceive, nor does it deceive by the way it is told.”

                      In my opinion, “the way it is told” is part of what the jocose liar is signifying. The overall signification of a jocose lie told in a way that does not deceive, then, includes a disavowal of the truth of the words that are included in the signification. Such an action, then, is not a formal falsehood, contrary to St. Thomas’s reply, and therefore isn’t necessarily a sin, contrary to what he says in the previous article.

                      Otherwise, though, I think he basically nails it. And even his condemnation of jocose lies can serve as a useful caution against a habit of ironic speech.

                    • “And what do you make of Tollefsen’s article?”

                      No complaints. I had the sense his previous “Lies and Truth” essay could have better developed the distinction and relationship between love of truth-the-virtue and love of truth-the-correspondence-with-a-thing, but maybe it was sufficient.

                    • Tom, I don’t mean to be slandering you, and so I retract what I said about your arguing to fit a template. Since Mark gives you his vote of confidence, that’s good enough for me. Allow me to apologize if I have slandered you or your arguing style. Perhaps I’m over-reacting, since this particular issue has not revealed much good faith argumentation over the internet.

                    • Kevin, I appreciate the retraction, and apologize for getting pissy about it.

        • Ted Seeber

          You bring up an entirely tangential subject. I recently watched _For Greater Glory_. Blessed Jose could have saved his own life merely by uttering “La muerte de Cristo Rey”. This would have been a lie from his point of view- at 14 he was a very committed zealot. They cut the soles of his feet with a knife, and through it all- “Viva Christo Rey” is all he’d say.

          When is martyrdom worth the cost?

          • suburbanbanshee

            Martyrdom is the best bargain in the world – infinity for the price of one.

        • O.H., what makes you think the Church allows “deceit” but condemns “lying”? You write: “But it’s not the case that ‘trying to get someone to believe something that isn’t true is wrong in itself.’ As Mark has observed, the moral tradition is okay with deceit as long as it isn’t actually a *lie*” Where do you get this? The moral tradition is not wrong with deceit, for deceit is lying. And “trying to get someone to believe something that isn’t true” is, in fact, wrong in itself. It’s intrinsically evil. That’s what this whole discussion has been about for over a year now. Mark has never asserted that deception is OK if it’s not “lying” – except for “deception” as used in the loose sense, such as in fiction or stage magic or the like, which is not truly “deception” for the audience has suspended disbelief and knows that fiction is not being sold as fact.

          The act of lying consists of deliberately leading someone away from truth. “Someone” would certainly not include non-rational creatures, such as animals; and it would never include machines, which have absolutely no rational capacity at all, despite what seems to be your odd notion of artificial intelligence.

          And lying to children or drunks or madmen is a difficult thing to do, for the intellectual capacity of the hearer may prevent you from leading them into truth at all – and if you can’t lead to truth, you can’t lead away from truth. So your examples are both a bit strained and not on point – we can not witness to a God Who is truth by means of a lie.

  • You know, it strikes me how typical these comments are to how issues are argued on the internet, particularly in this debate.

    The bulk of this post (not counting the links) is a long quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas, in which the Angelic Doctor blows to pieces no less than six – count ’em, six! – objections to the position that lying is always sinful. We’ve heard variations on all six of these arguments during the 18-month history of this debate. Jeff Mirus himself for Catholic Answers uses the “lesser of two evils” argument, which is Argument Four, which Aquinas deftly devestates in a few brief words.

    But how do the commenters comment? Do they read the Summa quote and deal with anything Aquinas says in it? Do they engage the actual point of this post?

    Well, let’s see.

    DK smirks and says there are multiple traditions in contained in Tradition, and we may rest assured that the Church is unsettled on its own Tradition. He also says Critics of Lying use casuistry all the time. I’m wondering where the casuistry is in the selection quoted from St. Thomas Aquinas. Where are the interlocking rationalizations, the jesuitical twists and turns, the rules-based Phariseeism to be found in Aquinas’ arguments and rebutals? Hm. Well, DK does not mention this section from the Summa quoted above, even though it constitutes the heart of this post.

    O.H., meanwhile, seems to think that Critics of Lying are saying lying is bad but deceit is fine and dandy. O.H. also asks the penetrating question, “Is it OK to lie to your computer?” Wow. We can meditate on that for a while. Should I tell a half truth to my abacus? Should I only put one foot on the scale so that I can fool it? Should I deceive my pillow, especially since we’re sleeping together? And is it OK to tell my dog I’m talking him for a walk when I’m only going to slam him in the crate? And is this on the same level as telling a fib to your smart phone or letting a lunatic wander into traffic because naturally the only way to save him is to dress up like a pimp and put him on a sting video.

    And where’s Aquinas, O.H.? What do you make of his arguments, of his answers to objections? And what of the links Mark put up? Do they have any bearing on this or should we continue to smirk at the Pharisees who say that deliberately misleading another human being is no way to witness to God?

    Well, God bless us all, sinners that we are, on this crazy place called cyberspace. But how can we argue about Lying when people won’t even read what’s in front of their faces and respond to it?

  • cowalker

    A difference between lying and deceit?

    How do you like my new dress?

    A lie: Say “It’s beautiful,” while thinking “You look like a fussily made up bed in motion.”

    A deceit: Say “I’ve always liked that color on you,” while thinking “You look like a fussily made up bed in motion.”

    The second is as deceitful as the first, because you’re hoping that the asker assumes you like the dress because you complimented one aspect of it. You have not communicated the truth in either instance.

    I’m no theologian, so maybe I’m not grasping the subtleties here, but to me that’s the dilemma.

    I once read in a book about living with a person with dementia that it would be the greatest cruelty to put a demented person through the grief of learning for the first time every day, many times a day, that his spouse was dead. I could live with telling that lie, but Thomas Aquinas would certainly call it wrong. However even just answering “She’s not here right now” would be a deceit, wouldn’t it?

    • Cowalker, this is a huge distinction.

      If you tell a truth, you are not lying. If the hearer makes a greater inference from the truth you’ve told than is warranted, that is not your business.

      Now, granted, this may lead to “equivocation” or “mental reservation”, both of which are smarmy things, but they are not technically lies. But to deceive with the truth is, as you’ve noted, pretty much one step away from deceiving with a lie. So I’m not advocating that, nor am I trying to say we’re OK if we avoid the letter of sin while engaging in the spirit of sin.

      But with your example of a dementia patient, “she’s not here right now” is neither a lie nor deception. It is a truth, though not the whole truth. We must acknowledge that not everyone has a claim on being told the whole truth – not those whose mental capacity is compromised, nor children, nor Nazis, etc.

      • cowalker

        I agree with you that there is a distinction. But it is this attitude “If the hearer makes a greater inference from the truth you’ve told than is warranted, that is not your business,” that people are referring to when they say the Catholic Church “allows” deceit.

  • John

    So it follows that Christians cannot be spies or undercover cops, inasmuch as they routinely have to pass themselves off as people they’re not.

    Nor can Christians honorably be involved in military psych-ops to confuse or mislead the enemy.

    How about actors? Stand up comedians? They say things that aren’t true – while perhaps their intent is not to deceive, nevertheless, they utter falsehoods knowingly.

    I think the issue is one of distinction….. most of us know the difference between being misled (i.e. white lie/clever mental reservation) and being lied to. And further in the latter case of being lied to, we commonly distinguish malicious lies (that can kill/destroy reputation) as in “false witness” as opposed to lies that serve to lessen some harm (Your daughter is asleep, not dead). Or even trick someone into doing what’s good for them (come on in, the water’s fine) or “It’s gonna be OK, just relax and breath” (when the person in question is bleeding to death but you don’t want them to panic…)

    Most of us get these distinctions. Hence the arguments. Most of us get that a malicious lie has to be evil and thus immoral but that other species of falsehoods are not evil at all…. unless you want to make the moral case that the EMT must tell the grieviously hurt person “yeah, you’re a mess and will probably bleed out”. Truth that leads to panic will kill someone. A falsehood that leads to them not panicking can – and commonly does- lead to the same person surviving.

    But see, we get this in real life. Take it out of real life into a theoretical setting “on paper” and suddenly it looks like a mortal sin to tell a falsehood that saves a person’s life, that is not “false witness” leading to someone’s execution or the ruin of their reputation.

    • Not quite, John.

      First, you are right to note distinctions here – that’s what this kind of thing is all about.

      Second, a falsehood told without the intent to deceive is not a lie. It may be fiction or myth or acting or so forth – I touch on that above.

      But most importantly, “Your daughter is not dead, she is asleep” is quoting Our Lord. Jesus DID NOT LIE when He said this. He woke the girl up by bringing her back to life. Perhaps He was speaking metaphorically, or perhaps he was telling us the true nature of death, but in any event He did not lie. He did not lie because lying is always and everywhere a sin, and Jesus did not sin. So don’t go there.

      The issue here is that Catholic Tradition is clear that lying is a sin; and recently it has been especially clear that it is inherently evil, or always and everywhere a sin; that nothing justifies it.

      But this leads to confusion, since people don’t always want to admit what is and is not a lie. Being silent is not lying. Telling a truth that is not the whole truth is not lying. Fiction and drama is not lying.

      Dressing up like a pimp and telling someone you are in order to trap them in a video sting is lying.

      This may make undercover work problematic, as you’ve noted. Or maybe not, depending on how it’s done.

      As it stands however, the Church is clear on lying; and if you spend some time thinking about it or reading the vast amount of material on the internet about it, you’ll realize it’s not that hard to grasp what is and is not a lie.

  • John

    And if you want to argue from the Summa, then let’s go…start with Objection 4…he DISTINGUISHES stealing (always wrong) from taking what suddenly is held to be “in common” in the circumstance of “necessity”.

    There thus being an exception to the rule (thou shall not steal) based on the urgency to defend human life in one area, it follows from Thomistic logic that there are exceptions to other rules (thou shall not bear false witness”) on the same premise: human life is worth more to God than the right to truth of the would-be murderer, whether it be the Pharoah or Holofernes…or the Nazis on your doorstep.

    This exception is what most of us in the real world understand and why it’s outrageous to be called liars when obviously, plainly evil people who have no right to the truth are fooled in a sting operation – an operation commonly employed by the Police or our Intelligence or Media agencies to ferret out law breakers – into spilling the beans on unlawful practices.

    Misleading or “lying” by presenting oneself as something one is not (pregnant) to people who are evil and lawbreakers so as to stop them, is not the same species of event as lying to someone who does have a right to the truth, is no threat to anyone, and indeed could be injured by falsehood.

    So there you go, right there in Objection 4, Thomas Aquinas himself provides the exception to the rule.

    • John, nice try – but wrong.

      Taking someone else’s bread when you are starving and that person has abundance is not stealing because we have no clear title on property; we hold all property conditionally. The goods that come from God are common to all men, and so you can make a legitimate claim on bread that another man is holding if you are in serious need. Thus that is not stealing. Aquinas is clear on this.

      Lying is a different matter. We know that not all men have a claim to the whole truth (I touch on that above), but telling a falsehood in order to deceive another is, in fact a lie, and this violates God and your neighbor both.

  • John

    Oh, and speaking of Logic….. arguments based on authority – unless that authority be Scripture – are not the strongest of arguments….

    So was St. Thomas wrong in his reply to Objection 4 by overlooking his own loophole? I think so, based on his own argument.

    If “thou shall not steal” has a loop hole based on human need…. and “thou shall not commit adultery” similarly has a loophole from St. Paul (Pauline privilege) and Our Lord (Fornication is another matter i.e. common law marriage is not sacramental marriage), and “thou shall not kill” actually reads “thou shall not murder” (which would make much of the Old Testament and much of the new including Catholic Just war theory understandable) also has a loophole (in that not all killing in murder)…. it follows from the same logic Mark is invoking that not all lying is a mortal sin or even a sin. HIS INTEPRETATION is that the mid-wives and Ester were not praised for lying but for other reasons. However that interpretation is stretched because if not for their misleading/lying they’d not have been able to save Moses or the People from a murderous tyrant. Their lying wasn’t accidental to the accomplishment of God’s plan but crucial to it.

    Thus the only logical way to understand it is that – like in the case of taking what doesn’t belong to you in normal times, or in the case of killing an unjust aggressor (whom you’d not lawfully harm in any other circumstance), a loophole must exist in the circumstance of someone whose object is the destruction of the innocent.

    That’s the only Logical read. That St. Thomas missed it, is obvious. That St. Thomas’ own argument leads us to a conclusion at odds with his conclusion is also obvious.

    • John, quit strutting.

      You don’t know the basics of Moral Theology 101.

      These acts do not come with “loopholes”. Murder and self-denfence are two different things. The marital act and fornication are two different things. Lying and being silent are two different things.

      Read up on this before you congratulate yourself for having outwitted theologians who have pondered these issues for 2,000 years. Or don’t. If you’d rather be content in your belief that lying is OK, depending on the cirucmstances (contrary to what Augustine, Gregory, Aquinas, Trent and the Catechism say), then be as content as you’d like. But don’t strut in a combox about it; you’re showing your ignorance and your superficial thinking.

    • “…a loophole must exist in the circumstance of someone whose object is the destruction of the innocent.”

      This is a version of the material lie / formal lie distinction some theologians make — though, admittedly, “loophole” is not a word they use.

      St. Thomas, however, distinguishes between material and formal *falsehoods* — “falsehood of what is said” and “the will to tell a falsehood,” respectively — and says that a lie is a formal falsehood (ST-II-II, 110, 1). He goes on in Article 3 to argue that “it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind,” and concludes that all formal falsehoods — all lies — are sins.

      That is a valid argument. If telling a falsehood really is unnatural and undue, then willing to tell a falsehood really is always and everywhere a sin (even, pace Kevin, absent the desire to deceive! See Art. 1, ad 3).

      In other words, St. Thomas argues that to choose to tell a falsehood is objectively evil. An objectively evil act remains evil regardless of circumstances — including the circumstances of a life at risk.

      His conclusions may or may not be true, but his arguments are valid and consistent.

    • As far as the commendation of Judith & Co., St. Thomas repeats St. Augustine’s explanation for why it need not be understood as commendation of lying as such.

      You may or may not find that explanation *persuasive*, but it is *reasonable* to commend someone for a virtuous disposition. So the example of Judith does not, as a matter of logic, disprove the assertion that to choose to tell a falsehood is objectively evil.

  • John

    It comes down to definitions doesn’t it? Jesus didn’t tell a lie because lying is – by definition – a sin.

    But what did Jesus say? The little girl is asleep. Was that true? No. She was dead.
    But then why did he say that untruth? In order to calm down the people (to do them good) and then quietly perform a miracle (restoring the dead girl to life – otherwise it’d not have been a miracle).

    It would follow then FROM LOGIC, that not all untruth is a lie.

    So one what premise or criteria do we draw the moral distinction between an untruth and a lie if not on the premise of what is good for people?

    Just as private property is not an absolute right when human life is at stake, neither is being told “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” an absolute right when human life is at stake.

    Take self-defense….people have a right to life. But is that right absolute? No. If a person becomes an unjust aggressor, the victim or the one responsible for the common good or that victim has the right and duty to stop that unjust aggressor even if in doing so a deadly blow has to be taken. One may not seek to do evil that good come of it, so in the case of self-defense, what one seeks is not death for death’s sake but to stop the unjust aggressor.

    Similarly by an untruth to those who have no absolute right to the whole truth, one does not intend to tell a lie, but to preserve life by fooling an unjust person.

    As for 2,000 years of tradition…. what matters is the argument, not who said what.

  • “But what did Jesus say? The little girl is asleep. Was that true? No. She was dead.
    But then why did he say that untruth? In order to calm down the people (to do them good) and then quietly perform a miracle (restoring the dead girl to life – otherwise it’d not have been a miracle).”

    St. Augustine, St. Bede, St. John Chrysostom, even the New American Bible teach differently, that what Jesus told the synagogue official was true. As St. Bede puts it, “to God who has power to give life, she sleeps only both in soul and body.”

    As to His purpose in so speaking, traditional Catholic teaching is that Jesus meant to teach that He is the Lord of Life (I summarize).

    The premise of your own argument is, according to traditional Catholic teaching, false.

    (Incidentally, I think an excellent argument can be made that, if Jesus’ purpose were “to calm down the people,” then He *would* have been sinning, since telling people who saw the dead girl that they were mistaken is an utterly imprudent means of calming them down, as their reaction to His words demonstrate.)

    “As for 2,000 years of tradition…. what matters is the argument, not who said what.”

    That’s a false dilemma. You, for example, offer a more or less valid argument, but one of your premises — that Jesus told an untruth — is contrary to 2,000 years of tradition. One who thinks with the mind of the Church thinks your argument is unsound.

    • That said, what Jesus told the synagogue official does prove that speaking the truth in a way that others are likely to misunderstand is not always contrary to the truth.

  • John

    Yes, exactly. So if Lila Rose had used her middle and confirmation name and then said she was “pregnant” while meaning something else…. that others are likely to misunderstand…. was she lying or just imitating Jesus during a sting operation to get on tape evidence of illegal activities?

    • Mark Shea

      Why all the tormented attempts to justify lying. Not to mention deliberating tempting somebody to commit a mortal sin. What’s the matter with you?

    • You gin up an elaborate theory of how loopholes and LOGIC obviously prove that not all willed untruths are lies, I show that your theory falls flat, and you answer, “Yes, exactly.”

  • John

    Aquinas himself provides an exception to the Commandment “thou shall not steal” by refering to the higher value of human life vs. private property. When human life is on the line, the otherwise reasonable claim of someone else to their private property becomes relative.

    Similarly with respect to “thou shall not kill”. The Church has always understood that an unjust aggressor forfeits the right to be held inviolate from harm to the degree he is an unjust aggressor against the innocent. This is how we come to distinguish between murder and justifiable homicide in policing and in war: because when innocent human life is on the line, the dignity of the unjust aggressor’s life is relative to the dignity of the innocent would-be victim.

    In cases of obvious evil-doers, obvious unjust aggressors of the innocent (Nazis seeking Jews, Planned Parenthood operatives seeking abortion, etc.) how does it not follow that inasmuch as they are unjustly seeking to harm the innocent that they have no right to expect the truth from someone who would, via false information, steer them away or into a trap?

    In other words, Mark, you insist on calling something mortal sin that is not a sin. To claim it is, you need to avoid reading Thomas Aquinas’ own logic and the logic of Catholic moral doctrine that makes exceptions to the very commandments of God when innocent human life is at stake. You have to stubbornly refuse to see the logic, the historic precedent, and go on insisting that “Thou shall not bear false witness” is absolute where we all know Thou shall not steal and Thou shall not kill are not absolute prohibitions.

    • Mark Shea

      You are flatly ignoring Thomas’ point and, in particular, his reply to objection 4. You are also claiming that I am saying all lies are mortal sins, which I am not saying, nor does St. Thomas. Try again.