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

A reader struggles with the whole “lying in a desperate situation” problem April 5, 2014


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.

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