An article in Slate describe "Noble Lies" as:

When experts or agencies deliver information to the public that they consider possibly or definitively false to further a larger, often well-meaning agenda, they are telling what is called a noble lie.

This would seem to bad at odds with Catholic moral principles against lying

But I can't see which category of lie "noble lies" fall into. I'd assume a noble like is not a joke (even the president would tell you that), and it's not a white lie (it's a big lie, repeated ad nauseam), and it's definitely not funny. Neither is it an accidental falsehood, it's just a falsehood. It is incorrect and deliberate.

But, if it were wrong and one worked for an administration that told these kinds of lies, what level of formal cooperation would one have with these lies? Should someone merely resign or be a whistleblower?

  • Are you hoping that there is actually a government out there that does not lie! Do not all regimes lie!
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 15:33
  • Another point is that some states allow police to lie during interrogations, yet to lie to police is a crime! That has always made no sense to me morally.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 15:36
  • The concept of "Noble Lie" originated from Plato's Republic. Since it's ancient, I'm sure early church fathers steeped in Plato would have commented on it from natural law or other Christian morality framework, which would then form the basis of the answer. Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 15:44
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    @ken yeah, I'd have a hard time with that one if I were an officer. That can be a form of torture, I hope nobody qualifies it as a Noble Lie. I'd prefer the kind of lie where they say one thing and do another rather than the kind of lie that is just grandiose Neurolinguistic Programming.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 16:10
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    @PeterTurner I found a very pertinent book chapter in the 2018 Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Paternalism covering different kinds of paternalistic lying (this confirms that "paternalistic" is the term that Slate should have used) contrasted with the more general "altruistic lie" or your view (Absolutism), Anti-Absolutism, and various issues related to it: Manipulation, Paternalism without deception, Lying and interfering, Right to Autonomy, Obligations, Consequences. Good for exposing all angles to form the Catholic teaching on it. Commented Aug 4, 2021 at 1:19

1 Answer 1


St. Vincent Ferrer, following Gratian's Decretals (an early corpus iuris canonici, "body of canon law"), defended the notion of simulated authority.

Philip Daileader, Saint Vincent Ferrer, His World and Life, p. 22:

Vincent also cited the Decretum in defense of the cardinals who, rather than allowing themselves to be killed, had elected Urban [during the Great Western "Schism"] and pretended to be happy to do so when in truth they were deathly afraid; as the Decretum says, there was biblical precedent for “useful simulation.” [Tractatus de moderno ecclesie scismate, 36, 69.]

Tractatus, 69 cites the biblical evidence given in Gratian's Decretals:

Gratian's Decretals, Second Part, Cause XXII, question II, ch. 21, col. 873: Likewise St. Jerome. [Commentary on Galatians 2:11-13], pp. 106-7.]:

For another example of how temporary deception can be expedient, let us consider Jehu, the king of Israel. He would not have been able to kill the priests of Baal unless he had feigned a desire to worship this false god, and he said, “Assemble all the priests of Baal for me, for Ahab served Baal in a few respects, I shall serve him in many.” [2 Kgs 10.18-19.] Another example is when David altered his appearance, pretending to be somebody else in Abimelech’s presence, and Abimelech dismissed him. [Cf. 1 Sm 21.13.] That even very righteous men resort to temporary dissimulation for the sake of their own or others’ salvation is not surprising when we recall that our Lord himself, who was free of iniquity and whose flesh was not sinful, pretended to take on sinful flesh so that by condemning sin in his flesh he might make us the righteousness of God.

Decretum Gratiani, Secunda Pars, Causa XXII, questio II, c. 21, col. 873 : Item Ieronimus. [in epist. ad Galatas, c. 2.] : Utilem simulationem et in tempore assumendam, Ieu regis Israel nos doceat exemplum, qui, cum non potuisset interficere sacerdotes Baal, nisi finxisset se idolum velle colere, dicens: "Congregate mihi omnes sacerdotes Baal. Achab servivit ei in paucis, ego serviam sibi in multis." Et David, quando mutavit faciem suam coram Abimelech, et dimisit eum, et abiit. Nec mirum quamvis iustos homines tamen aliqua simulare pro tempore ob suam et aliorum salutem, cum et ipse Dominus noster, non habens peccatum, nec carnem peccati, simulationem peccatricis carnis assumpsit, ut, condemnans, in carne peccatum, nos in se faceret iustitiam Dei.

Gal. 2:11-13:

But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that some came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision. And to his dissimulation the rest of the Jews consented: so that Barnabas also was led by them into that dissimulation.

Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas's commentary on this.

Dissimulation is "a lie told by the signs of outward deeds" (Summa Theologica II-II q. 111 a. 1 co.).

For how Abraham saying Sarah was his sister, Jacob saying he was Esau, and Judith deceiving Holofernes to kill him were not really lies, see Summa Theologica II-II q. 110 a. 3 "Whether every lie is a sin?" arg./ad 3: Abraham "wished to hide the truth, not to tell a lie, for she is called his sister since she was the daughter of his father"; "Jacob's assertion […] was spoken in a mystical sense"; Judith's "words contain truth in some mystical sense."

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    I'm rather surprised St. Jerome didn't include Abram and Sarai pretending to be brother and sister, that was a useful deception - but probably a wrong-headed one once they got caught. Seems like there may be contexts where it's sinful.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 18:01
  • @PeterTurner St. Thomas discusses Abraham saying Sarah was his sister (and Jacob saying he was Esau and Judith lying to Holofernes) in Summa Theologica II-II q. 110 a. 3 "Whether every lie is a sin?" arg./ad 3. St. Jerome probably doesn't mention these examples because they're not cases of a political leader saving his subjects (Abraham and Jacob weren't kings; Judith wasn't a queen). The apostles had authority over many people.
    – Geremia
    Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 18:07

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