Monday, 14 March 2011

Another comment on the lie debate - it is not a lie to conceal a truth for a good reason!

October 1591 and the Pursuivants are on the hunt! The time 5am, the place, a small country manor in Warwickshire called Baddesley Clinton, home to the Catholic Ferrers family, now living as recusants under Queen Elizabeth I.
Baddesley Clinton - house of lies but also of safety for the priests

A hammering on the door alerts the household; Fr Robert Southwell was about to celebrate the first Mass of the day, in secret for fear of Elizabeth's men who hunted priests as dogs hunt their prey. Seven other priests are in the house which was used as a planning meeting place for priests on the run. All is uproar as the priest hunters (Pursuivants) hammer on the door demanding entry with a string of foul oaths. The servants at the door employ delaying tactics but the Pursuivants are enraged at the time taken to unlock the door, meanwhile Fr Southwell has dis-robed and the other priests are busy hiding their clothes, satchels and swords (yes, swords, not so much for assault as for disguise, a man in Elizabethan times who walked the highways sans sword would have stood out like a sore thumb).

A Priest's hiding hole is hidden in the ceiling
above this fireplace
 Finally, all is stashed away and the priests hurry to the various priest holes dotted around the house. The Vaux sisters are in residence and one of them has her two young children with her. These too must be hidden lest childish answers to inquisitors' questioning gives the game and the lives of the priests away.
At last the door is opened and the hunters fall through it like "leopards" and rush frantically around the house.

The servants are mustered and questioned one by one:

"Are there priests hidden in this house?" "No"

"Have you seen any Popish priests here recently?" "No"

"Do you know where we may find these priests who are guilty of treason?" "No"

Eventually, the Pursuivants give up and leave the property without discovering any of the hidden priests who included, Fathers  Gerard, Southwell, Garnet, Stanney, Oldcorne, two others and, quite possibly, Nicholas Owen, master carpenter and creator of most of the priests' holes in country houses of the time.

Did the servants lie? Of course they did. If they had given up the priests about a quarter of the English Mission would have been wiped out instantly and their lives made forfeit after torture and final hanging, drawing and quartering.
Was the lie a sin? No, most definitely not!

Did the priests lie when they disguised themselves in secular dress? Yes

Did Nicholas Owen lie when he constructed priests' holes to deceive the Pursuivants? Yes

Did the craftsmen who created hiding places for the Blessed Sacrament out of everyday objects lie? Yes

But no sins were committed by these deceptions. It would be unthinkable for any man or woman to have owned up to the deceit of concealing the Sacrament or the Priests and so give up good men and women to evil.


  1. Frankly, that's nonesense. Is lying a sin, according to the Ten Commandments? Yes. Did they lie? Yes. Therefore, they sinned.

    The good cause may lessen the gravity of the sin - I know not - but it's deeply spurious and thoroughly un-Catholic to claim it as not a sin at all.

    Christ and His Apostles could have lied their way out of the crucifixion.

  2. Just finished reading the Diary of an Elizabethan about Fr John Gerard..wonderful & we recently visited Baddesley Clinton..

  3. Seth,
    The Catechism (No 2483) makes this important distinction:"To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth." In the case outlined so clearly by Richard, the Pursuivants had "no right to know the truth". So, although those questioned certainly lied they did not necessarily sin. However, although they were not morally obliged to answer truthfully, neither were they morally obliged to lie. These are never easy situations, but the teaching of the Church is clear that lying to those who have "no right to the truth" is not, per se, sinful.
    Fr Mark Lawler

  4. Here are the relevant passages from the Catechism:

    2488 The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. Everyone must conform his life to the Gospel precept of fraternal love. This requires us in concrete situations to judge whether or not it is appropriate to reveal the truth to someone who asks for it.
    2489 Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication. the good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. the duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.

  5. Grand Priory,

    All that those passages reveal is that you are not obliged to reveal the truth. That much is obvious. They do not say that it removes sin from the act of lying, which is impossible. Difficult circumstances can affect the gravity of sin.

    They could have just not answered the question, after all. Almost certain death, perhaps, but still a valid (and indeed more heroic) course of action. Broad (not strict) mental reservation is also an option.

    I would direct you to the several essays on New Theological Movement which deal with these matters more fully, and really should put to bed these attempts to de-sin sin.

  6. GP - thank you for your clear appraisal.
    Seth - I have read most if not all of the relevant essays but I come to the same conclusion, that which Grand Priory commented on so clearly. I also recall the words of Christ "Spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law".
    Thanks for your comments.

  7. But Mr Collins, to come to that conclusion is come to the opposite of the witness of the Tradition of the Church! That is a dangerous place to be, and used to justify all kinds of modernist heresies.

    I thought I had added an extra comment after my first in which I pointed out that Fr Lawler's quotation was from an now obsolete edition of the Catechism. The 'right to know' has been, quite correctly, removed from the text, as it was not at all the understanding of lying passed on through the Tradition of the Church.

    Nobody is obliged to lie: mental reservation or no answer at all is possible, and both of these leave open the chance for the grace of God to take effect, rather than presuppose that one has to take matters into one's own hands (as I argued on my own blog a while back).

    No amount of emotional situations such as this can override the Law of God: Our Lord also condemned traditions that subvert the Law,after all.