Monday, 7 February 2011

Of course you may lie........

There has been some discourse, of late, as to whether a lie is ever justifiable. So many bloggers seemed to come down on the side of righteousness and said: "NO" in a clear and certain fashion.

I disagree. I believe that there are many instances where a lie may be told without a sin ever being committed. If a person involved in a car crash asks in their dying breath if their wife/husband/child is safe; you answer: "Yes, certainly". Whether that is true or not.
If you were in wartime Warsaw and knew where a Jewish family was hiding from the Nazis, if asked would you say: "Yep, I know the basement they are in."

One of my favourite paintings is the one below, 'And when did you last see your Father?' by William Frederick Yeames. I find the picture strangely poignant and, of course, there are a number of situational rationales that one could weave from the characters depicted.

The scene depicted is from the English Civil War and shows a Royalist household with the son of the family being interrogated by the Parliamentarian official. In the background his sister, is being a bit girly and having a blub while Mama (?) and companion look on in grave apprehension. The boy is standing on what appears to be two tomes or, possibly, some form of low stool; a nice touch, it adds a slightly sinister air, making allowances for small children to testify.

And the question that we know has been uttered:

"Look at me boy - and when did you last see your Father?"

The answer is for us to imagine but, judging from the lad's stiff back and steady gaze, my guess is that he ain't going to tell the truth, no way. And he will not have committed a sin in so doing.


  1. You and I are one on this. I feel less lonely now :)

  2. I definitely agree with the examples you gave. They help to put it in perspective.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    I think the question to be answered first is this: Do we owe the interrogators the truth? Are they in a position to demand a truthful record from us?

    Viele Grüße aus Bremen

    PS: Please, excuse my awkward English. I´m far better in readingt the language than in writing it.

  4. Like you, I don't feel every lie is a sin. Had I read your post before writing my most recent post on the same subject, I would have mentioned your blog.

  5. Absolutely!

    Give a hypothetical situation. French Revolutionaries attack a Church in the reign of terror. The priest has already been hideously murdered. The Sacristan hides the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance, buried in the churchyard.

    The Masonic Revolutionaries ask if there is a consecrated host hidden [so they can abuse it]. Do you tell them where it is? Or lie?

  6. The truth is owed to God. We cannot commit an evil so that by it a good may come of it.

    Further, not giving an answer, or giving an answer which withholds information, is far different than giving a false answer. One is reservation, the other is deception.

  7. I wonder: What does St Thomas say?

  8. St. Thomas Aquinas held that all lies are opposed to truth, all lies are evil and matter for sin, but not all lies are grave matter for sin.

    "An action that is naturally evil in respect of its genus can by no means be good and lawful... Now a lie is evil in respect of its genus, since it is an action bearing on undue matter... Therefore every lie is a sin." (II, 2, Q110, art 3)

    A lie is only mortal when it causes injury to a person or to God. According to St. Thomas, jocose lies (told to give some little pleasure; example #1 in the original post above) or officious lies (the intention of the lie is the good of one's neighbor; example #2 in the original post above) are still sinful, but venial in nature (II, 2, Q110, art 4).

    This is not dogmatic or definitive Church teaching, but it is the most brilliant of Catholic minds. Allow me to add, the Magi avoided telling Herod where Our Blessed Lord was to be found, not by telling a lie, but by returning home via a different route.

    In the second example above, wouldn't it be more virtuous to let the Gestapo know that I won't tell them anything at all, come what may? The sufferings that follow would be a chance to make reparation.

  9. Thinking about this some more, I'm reversing myself. A father's duty to protect his family would supersede his duty to not tell a lie.

    As David Werling notes, the lie would be of the kind whose intent is of the highest good.

    And sometimes mental reservation is simply not possible to have the desired effect. And so I put it this way, would a man who refused to lie to save his family from virtually certain violation and death be viewed as heroic & saintly, or as worthy of being thrown into a bottomless well. I would say the latter. Common sense tells me there's more to the argument, and that the lie should be told and that it would not be a sin to lie in that circumstance. But would probably be sinful not to lie.

  10. I know common sense is not often considered, but God gave it to us for a reason which we in turn appeal to it when we explain to our children why they were wrong and why they also knew what they were doing was wrong. In this instance, the opposite of common sense is what I like to call the vice of being overly cautious

  11. God also gives us the Holy Spirit:

    "But when they shall deliver you up, take no thought how or what to speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what to speak. For it is not you that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you." (Mtt 10.19)

    The gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to everyone in baptism, exactly for the kind of situation when we need direct guidance from the Holy Spirit, for those times when our habits of wisdom, prudence, etc, are not enough.

    The Gospel often seens like foolishness, like flying offensively, immorally, in the face of common sense. There is no virtue called common sense.

    Our Lord doesn't call the devil the father of murder, or cruelty, or child abuse, or genocide, but the father of lies.

    Of course it is not always a mortal sin, and of course there are often mitigating circumstances; no-one is suggesting that in the By Now Thoroughly Overworked Nazi Example, saying "absolutely not" in the heat of the moment is equivalent to seducing your neighbour's daughter. [It's a stupid example, because from what I read/hear they usually just stomped in and did your house over.]

    Someone wrote somewhere, apropos St Catherine of Siena's confessions of her sinfulness, that to us the saints' claims to be great sinners seem distastefully exaggerated, but it is because we don't see our sins for what they are. Catherine, seeing herself much more as God saw her, saw her sins for what they really are. Not, as we usually see ours, in relation to what seems reasonable, what it seems a sensible good respectable Christian might be expected to be like, but in relation to God, in their true nature.

  12. To all who advocate that all lies are sinful - a more prosaic example: Your Granny knits you a revolting woolly hat and asks: "Do you like it dear?"
    And you answer truthfully, "No Granny I don't like it?"

    Come on! What is Christ like about that?

  13. Or better yet, "Dear, how do I look in this dress?"

  14. Father John Tracy SJ (R.I.P.)used to say that the truth exists at several levels, and that, for example, what he called "normal commercial falsehood" - untruths told to increase the chances of commercial success (best quality, fresh) is not sinful.

    He was very much against "over-scrupulousness" both in normal life and in confession.

    Jesus, when reproved for winnowing a few grains of wheat on the Sabbath, said that "the Sabbath was made for man, amd not man for the Sabbath".

  15. My name is Christopher Richard Hawker-Dawker and I am an atheist.

    My 9 year old grandson, a cradle Catholic, who is spending the weekend with me, asks me, "Is there really a God, and was Jesus really his Son?"

    So, now, all you Catholics who believe that telling the truth is an absolute duty, above saving life, innocence, virtue, honour, what do you say I should do?

    1. Tell the truth as I believe it to be? Remember, I am very clever and persuasive, and he will believe me.

    2. Prevaricate? Rush for the lavatory?

    3. Say that some people think so, and some do not, leading to more questions?

    4. Lie, and tell your 'truth', which I know to be false, and leave his illusion intact, and my 'immoral soul' in your view, imperilled

  16. They're both pathetic attempts to construct a difficult situation, as you can both see (if not, ask a friend).

    This will be the third year in which someone else's life (not biological life: education, job, not-poverty) in large part hangs on what I will say in a conversation with the police. I have perfectly good existential experience of difficult situations.

    The principle holds. Satan is the father of lies. Of course, this also means that he is keen to beget them, by bringing about situations in which people are brought to lie.

  17. Berenike - They are realistic scenarios, not pathetic attempts. The concept of what is called a "white lie" that is, a lie told in order to protect goodness, is not, in my book, a sinful lie as you may see from the examples quoted.
    A case of spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law.

  18. There is an appendix to Newman’s “Apologia pro Vita Sua”, in which he provides detailed answers to the accusations directed against him by the Reverend Charles Kingsley. The seventh of these answers is headed “Lying and Equivocation”. The depth, complexity and range of Newman’s answer are so great that I don’t think I can sum it up adequately in a few words of my own. Here, instead, are Newman’s own words:

    “Almost all authors, Catholic and Protestant, admit, that when a just cause is present, there is some kind or other of verbal misleading, which is not sin.”

    In this appendix Newman brings together a wealth of historical sources and considered judgments, dealing with moral truths and with specific situations. I strongly recommend it to those of your readers who are not already acquainted with it.

  19. Thank you Dorothy and all.....New Advent have it sorted on my latest post.

  20. Morgenlander - your English is excellent. We owe any interrogators the truth only if our response does not endanger another person or cause.
    We have the option to remain silent, we have the option to deceive (as in time of war) or we have the option to lie in order to lawfully protect. That is my belief, some, as you can see, disagree with that.