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Apr 18, 2018

Is It Ever Morally OK to Lie?

Matt Dunn

In this article I will answer the following question “from the parking lot”:

“The church claims to be absolute. It also claims that a morally wrong action is always evil no matter the circumstances. The church says lying is a morally wrong action. It has also said at a different time that it’s okay to lie to save a life and even occasionally obligatory. So how can the church be absolute? Please explain.”

The Church has plenty to say in this matter. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has no fewer than forty-nine paragraphs dedicated to the importance of telling the truth, and what that means.

Before getting into the meat and potatoes of this question, let us look at the initial claim, that “the church claims to be absolute.” Merriam Webster gives several definitions of absolute, including: “free from imperfection,” “positive, unquestionable,” “fundamental, ultimate,” and “being, governed by, or characteristic of a ruler or authority completely free from constitutional or other restraint” (which, when it comes to the pope and his authority over The Vatican City State, is relevant). Most of these do not seem to apply to the question. The Church does claim that it’s dogmas are unchanging, and that they must be absolutely believed by all in the Church.

Where Does the Truth Lie?

But the definition of a lie (unlike, for example, the definition of the Immaculate Conception) is not dogma. Before we go further, let us continue with the questioner’s next sentence, “a morally wrong action is always evil no matter the circumstances.” True. While the culpability of the person committing an act may be mitigated or aggravated by extenuating circumstances, the morality of an act itself is not dependent on circumstances. “The church says lying is a morally wrong action.”  Also true: “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned” (CCC, 2485).

Before wrapping up, our questioner states, “It has also said at a different time that it’s okay to lie to save a life and even occasionally obligatory.” In this case, if the blog were a game show, I’d have to break out a buzzer and flash an X on the screen. I am aware of no case in which the Church has said at any time that “it’s okay to lie to save a life,” let alone it ever being “obligatory” to lie.  

Might it have occurred that a Catholic perhaps explained to our questioner that there may be cases where a lie was less harmful than other actions? Perhaps, but the Church is clear that “Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils” (CCC, 2486).

What Is a Lie Exactly?

So what, according to the Church, is a lie? “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving. The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil” (CCC, 2482). Therefore, every time someone speaks untruthfully so as to deceive someone, their action “is to be condemned,” as it “does real violence to another,” and the speaker is doing “the work of the devil.” I’d say this is pretty clear (and, dare I write it: absolute).

Please note again, the definition of a lie is “speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving.” Therefore speaking a falsehood unknowingly is not a lie. If I get a part in a school play, and my role is “Tree #3” (a role fit for my acting talent if ever there was one), I am not lying when I step forward and say “I’m a Tree with branches wide, My leaves give shade and a spot to hide.” No one is being deceived, because everyone knows that I’m in a play. Also not a lie would be speaking a falsehood, even knowingly, if that is not meant to deceive. So myths and symbols which describe a greater good in a more understandable way could be acceptable.

The Gestapo Scenario

Now the example that is always given in this case is one I hate: the hypothetical question of hiding Jewish neighbors during World War II era Germany. “What if” one inquires “you had a neighbor hiding in your house, and the Gestapo came to the door asking if there were any Jews in the house? Wouldn’t it be OK to lie then?”

I hate this question for several reasons. First, because it seems like an excuse to find a way to lie. If someone asks this today, I find it hard to believe it is because they are concerned about the state of the soul of a homeowner seventy-two years ago. (In fact, this is another slippery slope: we should be more concerned with the state of our own souls than others’). My guess is there are two reasons one would ask the question about the Gestapo: Either to challenge the authority of the person (or Church) who says lying is always wrong, or to find a claim that sometimes it could be OK to lie, and then once that is the case rationalization follows.

The other reason I dislike the question is that, if dealing with the Gestapo, if they believed there was a reason to enter the house, it’s fair to say—I believe—they would simply enter it.

But for the sake of argument, let us say that there is a scenario in which I am placed where I believe if I lie, it could lead to a greater good. Do I have any choice? Well, the Catechism has this to say:

“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” (CCC, 2488).

What does this mean? Put simply, not everyone has a right to have the truth communicated to them.  In other words, if a hypothetical Nazi asks if there are Jewish neighbors in my house, I could say, with good conscience “I have not brought anyone into my house,” even if my wife or children did sneak them in. I know the truth. I don’t have to reveal it. That is not immoral. The act of not sharing the truth is not inherently sinful. Just like there is no obligation for me to walk down the street saying “The temperature is eighty-four degrees!”

All Lies Matter

Paragraphs 2484 and 2485 of the Catechism imply there may be some cases where a lie is a venial sin. However, The fact that something is “only” a venial sin doesn’t make it OK. We should never strive for “only” venial sin. In fact, the attitude that leads to this often leads to the repetition of venial sins, which leads to other problems.

“Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin … Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetition of the same acts … The repetition of sins – even venial ones – engenders vices, among which are the capital sins.” (CCC, 1863, 1865, 1867).

So to get back to where we started, the original question was flawed in that it was based on a premise that the Church teaches it is OK to lie. It is never OK, it should always be avoided.

If anyone has other questions about the Catholic Faith that you would like our writers to answer, let us know in the comments. 

You May Also Like:

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Why Do We Have to Follow Some Biblical Laws and Not Others?

Why Follow the Rules When You Can Follow Your Heart?

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  • The Church teaches that it is wrong to kill and yet it acknowledges that there are times, to save the life of another, it may be necessary to stop the assault by killing the attacker. Why is there no such qualification for lying?

    • That is a very good question. One I will be researching more but here is what the CCC has to say about self defense. “killing” is not prohibited. It is the killing of “innocents” that is prohibited. How can that be compared to lying? Not sure but the author of this article indicated that prevarication is not lying. When a friend asks me if the dress looks good on her and I say I love that COLOR on you, knowing it makes her not look her best but she has no choice but to wear it for some reason. This is not lying it is just not telling the whole truth. What good would it do to make her feel bad?

      2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…. The one is intended, the other is not.”

      I think many times it is in the intent not the “law”. In self defense is the intent to preserve your life or another innocent or is it vengeance? Vengeance is always a sin.

      You made me think! I love that! Thank you.

    • The Church doesn’t teach that it is always wrong to kill. It does teach that it is always wrong to lie. Three things have to be taken into account when evaluating a act. The object of the act (what’s being chosen by the will), the intention of the one performing the act, and the circumstances surrounding the act. If the object is evil, then neither the intention nor the circumstances can make the act not evil. If the object is evil, the act is *intrinsically evil*, that is, evil because of what it is and not because of something extrinsic to it. Killing is not intrinsically evil. It it were then the death penalty would always be wrong, self-defense that ended in the killing of another would always be wrong, etc. etc. Thomas Aquinas’ position is that lying, unlike killing, is intrinsically wrong and can therefore never be justified by the surrounding circumstances or one’s intention.

    • Thank you, Sue. I apologize for the delay in replying. First of off, your initial statement, like that of the person who asked the question that prompted my question, is inaccurate. The church does not teach that it is wrong to kill. It teaches that it is wrong to kill the innocent. The catechism states in paragraph 2258 “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.”

      So the first thing to consider is the word “innocent.” It is not okay to kill someone to save a life if that person is innocent. I may not, for example, throw a person in front of a train, to kill them, if it means that I will save the life of someone else who is further down the track. This may seem obvious, but it is important to understand that if your statement that there can be times where it is okay to kill someone to save a life is made, and believed, that this would also logically follow as acceptable (I am NOT saying you believe this, I am saying it could follow if your hypothetical was accepted). This is important to establish the fact that killing to save someone’s life is not allowed by the church. What can sometimes matter is the situation.

      Aside from the adjective “innocent,” the other key word there is “directly.” If I am in self defense, I DO NOT have the right to kill someone. The Catechism (in paragraph 2264) is clear on this. If I am protecting a life (mine, or another’s) and I can do so without a lethal blow but choose to kill them, this is wrong. “If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful.” I may, however, in an effort to save my life, use force that could be deadly, if I believe this is the only way to save a life. In this case, provided I am not looking for a reason to kill them, it would not be sinful.

      (An interesting case to consider would be the morality of using deadly force to protect the life of one whom I was angry with, and whom I would like to kill. Perhaps it would even be more important to me that I kill them than that I save a life. I believe this would cancel out the case of double effect, but I would have to consider this more.)

      So no, killing to save a life is not ok. It is tragic, and must be avoided if possible. However, the intent matters too. If I am angry with someone, and they attack me, it would be sinful were I to deal them a lethal blow if I could have either escaped or subdued them.

      So we have two acts. Killing, which though always tragic, is not always inherently sinful. And Lying, which, while seemingly “less serious” than killing, is in fact inherently sinful. But trying to compare “which is worse” is a game I don’t think is really all that useful, as I mentioned in the Gestapo section of the above article. If I lie to someone, even if I believed it could avoid a worse outcome, I would still go to confession. The reason is that this to me would be comparable not with killing in self defense, but in the example I started with, killing an innocent person on the train tracks.

  • Lets look at what sin is. An offense against God. While there are legalistic qualifications that will qualify something sinful (venial or mortal). Circumstances are always taken into account and based on those circumstances God may determine the act mortal, venial, or not sinful at all because of the mitigating factors. While it is an absolute truth that to lie is sinful, like with all other acts, mitigating circumstances determine whether guilt is incurred or not.

    So lets take this scenario. What you are talking about is dissimulation. Bet lets say the nazi understands that you are dissimulating? Would it be ok, as in overlooked by God based on the circumstances, to lie? Lets say the victim does not possess enough intelligence to dissimulate or is caught in the moment of “it’s go time” as well. The person could lie and it would be overlooked.

    Because here’s the alternative route if the victim did not lie or dissimulate. The victim tells the truth or is figured out to be dissimulating and then the Nazi goes into the persons house now, the honest man must kill the Nazi for the safety of the innocent and the Nazi runs a huge risk of being sent to hell or he lets the Nazi kill the victims.

    Now if the person lied (because of the heat of the moment or because of lack of intelligence to dissimulate) or dissimulated (and wasn’t figured out), the vicitm and Nazi’s lives are spared and the Nazi may be able to convert later on down the road.

    Keep in mind I am not saying lying is ok. I am saying situations such as these can be overlooked and out Mercy culpability of sin may not exist all whatsoever because of the circumstances.

  • Have commented with this question:

    Forget the Nazis, is it okay to lie in this (more relevant for today) scenario?
    If I have a pregnant friend (who doesn’t want to get an abortion) staying in my house and her boyfriend (who does want her to get an abortion & wants to take her to an appointment for one) comes to my door and asks if my friend is with me, surely it is okay to lie and say, “no”, right?
    (and, just to be clear, my friend doesn’t want the boyfriend to know where she is)

    • “This is because it is possible for governments to go tyrannical as we live in a fallen world and temptation exists for people who are in positions of power to seek more power.” This applies to the Roman Catholic Church too. The millions of children’s minds have been destroyed because of a tyrannical church. (it ain’t just governments!). When dealing with the Roman Catholics it is always best to “act as if they will put you on Inquisition at any moment they gain sufficient power”. Catholics are just failed Nazis.
      Besides, Jesus himself lied. Behold:
      Luke 18:18-19
      “18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
      19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good – except God alone.”
      Luke 23:50
      50 Now there was a man named Joseph [of Arimathea], a member of the Council, a good and upright man,…”
      This implies strongly that Joseph [of Arimathea] is god.
      So I’d go on lying like Jesus, pretty much all the time if it made life easier, than it is moral. #YOLO. No Heaven, No Hell.

  • I partially disagree with some of your theories as to why people are asking the Gestapo question.

    You say, “My guess is there are two reasons one would ask the question about the Gestapo: Either to challenge the authority of the person (or Church) who says lying is always wrong, or to find a claim that sometimes it could be OK to lie, and then once that is the case rationalization follows.”

    But I would argue there is at least one more reason people ask this question, which you have not considered, and the reason I myself ask the question. The reason is this: I think it is possible that I will find myself in a similar position to the person that was protecting the Jews. This is because it is possible for governments to go tyrannical as we live in a fallen world and temptation exists for people who are in positions of power to seek more power.

    So myself and others ask the questions for practical (and hopefully more virtuous) reasons than the other cases you cited. We ask it to be prepared for the situation if it does occur, rather than to be in a philosophical “deer in the headlights” position if we ever have to make such a decision.

  • What about killing an ‘active shooter’ in a Church who has killed people and you a CCW licensee has the opportunity to stop (kill) the active shooter? Thereby, stopping their sinful act of murder.
    Is the CCW licensee guilty. Remember Perter in the Garden of Gethsemane.

  • What if deceiving is a part as the game ? Like the werewolf game, or game in which one should tells true stories and among them one false that the players must find out

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