On Lying: A Moral Guide Based Upon Lombard’s Sentences. A Brief Conclusion

On Lying: A Moral Guide Based Upon Lombard’s Sentences. A Brief Conclusion April 7, 2009

Part I                                                                        Part II

Part III                                                                     Part IV
Part V                                                                       Part VI
Part VII                                                                    Part VIII

Part IX                                                                     Part X

The question which we started with was a simple one, what does it mean to lie? From there, the moral value of lies was brought up. If a lie is intrinsically evil, does that mean all lies are of equal significance? Through an examination of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, we have already answered the first question and can offer a response to the second. While there is always some moral culpability involved with a lie, it would be too simplistic to assume that if a person lies they necessarily commit a grave offense. Peter Lombard, through his reading of tradition, provided several examples of people who lied and yet are still praised as exemplars of moral integrity, such the handmaidens who protected Moses from the pharaoh. While there was a stain of sin associated with their action, they were also capable of being praised for the good which they did. A lie can be associated with a good action, and the person who lies in doing a greater good could well deserve the praise they get. This must not be used to justify the lie itself, which is a sin and must be atoned for, but it does show how we are to read the action holistically, where the weight of the sin is found not in whether or not it is intrinsically evil, but in the circumstances surrounding the deed itself. Unlike the simplistic, manualistic, approach to morality, the culpability and amount of guilt associated with an action cannot be assumed from the fact that a specific kind of act is always considered it a sin, but must be gauged from a more difficult, but necessary, examination of the facts through prudential reason.

The question about lies should serve as an example to the question of morality in general. Peter Lombard has shown us the difficulty involved with lies, and has led us to see examples where, in certain situations, a person might be forced to lie, and the moral culpability associated with the action is less than any other possible option. He also has shown us where the value of one’s word, and the expectations associated with that word, differ with context; one who swears and oath is expected to be more straightforward in what they say (or do not say) than one who is going about in casual conversation. This could raise the question of St Thomas More. For the rigorist, that St Thomas More stood beside and supported Henry VIII, that he always worked to be the best servant to the king he could be, and that he was unwilling to make a public spectacle against Henry could be more than enough to condemn him and his actions. He was asked to take an oath, and he did not; yet, in the legal courts, he said his silence must be used to indicate assent to the contents of the oath, unless he officially repudiated it. This also could be used by rigorists to condemn him. But there is more to the situation, which helps eliminate his moral culpability. He was being forced to make a bad oath, and his silence was understood as a repudiation of it, even if, legally he did not do so. This serves to justify his actions, even if one could, in the strict sense, show there was a slight fault involved, because he would, in the courts, be giving a false report of his beliefs based upon legal technicalities. The expectations in a court of law, with the implications he wanted to bring out of his silence, is enough to say he broke the letter but not the spirit of the moral law. And why not? Because of the situation itself, and the subjective dimension in it allows us to read it differently from merely the objective account. He was put in a bad situation which was out of his control; while his silence was of virtual consent, the silence was known by all to be an actual denial of the oath itself. Lombard would consider this to be deceitful, but he would also consider the forced oath itself to be bad, and swearing it would have been also “perjury” according to the Latin meaning of the word. While he could have made an active, vocal opposition to the oath itself (which he eventually would do), that could also have been seen as morally damaging to him, since it could be said he would then have been provoking the state to kill him (which one is not to do, either). He was caught in a situation where his silence was his best option, as long as he had it, and whatever taint involved with it, was more than atoned for through his suffering and actual, unprovoked martyrdom.

Any legalistic understanding of morality, which merely looks upon sins objectively, without a subjective element, leads to error, the kind associated with Jansenism. And what is true in associated with the question of lies as presented in this guide is true with other moral positions and difficulties which come up in our daily lives. Through the lens of Lombard’s discussion concerning lies, we are now able to look at the question of morality in general, to point out why the rigorist, Jansenist approach has to be rejected wherever it is to be found.

Jansenism, often considered the Catholic equivalent of Calvinism, looks at the world in an objective manner. It creates moral codes with such an extreme objectivism that the subject is denied. “Jansenius’ work represents a whole system of theology, which is, of course, very close to Calvinism and predestinationism in general.”[1] Is it any wonder this is the case? Its cold, predestinational logic must lead to the radical elimination of the subject in all matters. It turns all people into mere objects, the playthings of God. Sadly,  Jansenist theological positions have continued to influence Catholic moral theology, at least with the common person, because objectified morality is beguiling in its simplicity, which is what many people want.[2] Indeed, Jansenism, with its rigor, and looking to the letter of the law, can seen whenever the world is objectified and all knowledge is seen as capable of being put down in books where no interpretation will ever be needed.[3] Theologians who wrestle with morality, look to the subjective dimension, and point out that there are no simple solutions to moral dilemmas. They tell us we must use prudential reason to determine a proper moral response in any given situation. Of course, we must acknowledge an objective dimension, but we must not limit morality to it. Answers are not to be had by lists, but rather, through reasoning, when one looks for the best answer and follows it according to one’s conscience. The rigorist wants a cold, spiritless morality; they have no real room for free will. To them, everything is absolute and understood in an absolutely objective sense. Catholic thought, on the other hand, allows for diversity of opinion, even in moral questions, and tells us to follow a well informed conscience when trying to act out of prudence.[4] Peter Lombard properly reminded us in The Sentences the true heart of morality is the law of love.[5] Because morality is based upon love, it cannot be reduced to objectifications. Love is not love when there is no real free subject involved. For morality to be taught, one needs to be taught the way of love.[6] And, because we often feel unsatisfied with our decisions, examples of moral leaders employing prudential reasoning should be given; this will alleviate the concerns of the over-scrupulous, showing them that even the exemplars of moral perfection can and do wrestle with moral activity without being condemned when they honestly make a mistake. And, because of the examination he offered with the question of what it means when one “gives false witness,” Lombard’s Sentences is a fit and proper work for this. It shows people that morality is not done through lists but in real world situations, where answers are not always easy to come by, even for the best of us. As long as we work by the spirit of the law, which is love, and not the letter, we can be assured that our spiritual journey will continue to lead us to God, who is love. Those who turn morality to a thing of the letter, of rules and obligations which we can easily dictate to others, love is lost, showing they really are not as moral as they claim


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, Bride of the Lamb. Trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2002), 208 n.11.
[2] There are historical reasons as well. It is clear that English speaking Catholics have been highly influenced by Jansenism. The Irish, who helped preserve Catholicism, became infected by Jansenism. Because they took prominence in America, they were able to influence American Catholics by Janensius’ rigor. It blended well with American ideology; the cultural Calvinism of American society easily merged with the “Catholic Calvinism” of Jansenius. And because of America’s current place in the world scene, its thought continues to influence all English speaking world. This has often led American Catholics judge Catholics around the world, who were not tainted by Jansenism, as being lax (just as Jansenists considered them), when the problem lies more in American Catholicism’s inability to account for the subject in its moral considerations. This methodology is tyrannical in its approach to life. And, as Paul Evdokimov points out, even our modern secular thought tends to be deterministic, and this helps reinforce this bitter, objectified view of the world, allowing for Jansenist ideology to easily creep into the minds of the Catholic faithful. “The more a civilization becomes secularized, the more masculine it is, the more desperate it becomes, and the more decentered it is from the truly feminine. With a morbid delight, pessimism discovers condemnation everywhere – with no possible appeal, no ray of hope passing through it. The somber universe of the ‘mass of perdition’ (massa damnata) is refracted in Jansenism; and the modern fatalism of damnation hovers over the world,” Paul Evdokimov, Woman and the Salvation of the World. Trans. Anthony P. Gythiel (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), 152.

[3] Just like a Protestant with a Bible, many feel that with the proper “manual,” be it the Code of Canon Laws, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the works of Augustine, they do not have to do any work to understand the context of the manual itself, that it does not need to be interpreted, and everything is simply placed out before us and what is left for us to do is to follow it without question. But of course, such a simplistic approach quickly leads to errors; Augustine was, for the Jansenists, the authority par excellence. And yet as can be seen, they didn’t know how to read or interpret him properly, and so, taking a simplistic approach to Augustine, they became heretics. The words were not always wrong, but how they used them was. “It is a well-established fact that the crucial theses of Baius, Jansen and Qusenel that the Church condemned can be found, almost word for word, in Augustine and to some extent in the canons of the Council of Orange (527 A.D.). The Church, however, was not contradicting herself here any more than she once did at the Council of Chalcedon (453) when she explicitly rejected the very formula of the one nature of Christ (mia physis) that she had previously approved at the Council of Ephesus (431). For the expression ‘one nature in Christ’ at Ephesus meant: Christ was one single being [Wesen] in whom God and man were bonded not only through love and inclination (“morally”) also ontically (“physically”). But when Eutyches sought to interpret this unity as a fusion of the natures of God and man, the Council of Chalcedon had to refine the conceptual material and distinguish between nature and person in Christ,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth. Trans. Edward J. Oakes, SJ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 270.

[4] This explains why the proposition, “It is not permitted to follow a (probable) opinion or among the probables the most probable” was condemned by Pope Alexander VIII, in his decree against the Jansenists. Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma. Trans. Roy J. Deferrari .  (St Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1957), #1293. We can find Jansenism infecting American Catholicism when people criticize bishops for allowing prudential reasoning to be involved in the process of voting.  They look for voter guides to be objective, not subjective; they think such guides should make for one result or another, when instead, bishops understand that such guides should lead the voter to prudential decisions, and not demand one action or another. If there is any question that we find a Jansenist approach here, remember, moreover, what Pope Alexander VIII condemned when discussing communion, “They are to be judged sacrilegious who claim the right to receive Communion before they have done worthy penance for their sins”  (DZ 1312). Is not the so-called communion wars we found in the last election an example of this error?

[5] See Part II.
[6] Which, as Balthasar points out, is cruciform: “All Christian ethics is therefore cruciform – that is, vertical and horizontal – but this ‘shape’ cannot for a moment be abstracted from its concrete content; namely, from him who stands, crucified, between God and man. It is he who makes himself present as the sole norm in every particular relationship, in every situation,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Nine Propositions on Christian Ethics,” pgs. 77 – 104 in Joseph Ratzinger, Heinz Schurmann and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Principles of Christian Morality. Trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 86.

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