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The obvious example of a justified lie comes from the third Reich’s hunt for Jews. Should we lie in order to protect the Jews hiding in the persons home?

According to Catholicism, is lying in a circumstance like this ever justified? Or should we be more of strict kantians and never lie?

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According to Catholicism, is a lie ever justified?

This conundrum has affected theologians, moralists, philosophers, Catholics and other Christians for centuries. There is no clear cut rule either way.

Sometimes we must simply make a decision of choosing the lesser of two evils, when we have no other option.

A Promising Lead?

I referred earlier to the difficulty of conceptualizing a perfect definition of lying that might reveal a solution to our dilemma. The magisterium of the Church has not endorsed any such definition, but it recently came very close to taking a small step in that direction. Over the past hundred years there has been a growing movement among moral theologians to tweak the definition of lying as follows: “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.” This very sentence, in fact, is taken from the initial edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2483, 1994 edition).

When the Catechism was first published in French in 1994, and translated into other languages from the French, it contained the sentence quoted above, and so there was some speculation that the Holy See had finally decided to throw at least a modicum of magisterial weight behind this solution to our dilemma. This very precise definition, with its inclusion of the right to know, enables us to handle lying and falsehood in a manner very similar to the way we handle murder and killing. Through a person’s intention to use particular knowledge for an evil end, that person would presumably forfeit his right to know. Thus it would be morally acceptable to speak a falsehood to the murderous thugs. But we would no more call this “lying” than we would call an act of self-defense “murder.”

Alas, the matter is not so easily resolved. For, as it turns out, when the official Latin text of the Catechism was released in 1997 after a process of revision, the right to know was dropped. The operative sentence now reads simply: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error.” Of course, the Catechism is intended as a basic compendium of Catholic doctrine, assembled with due ecclesiastical care, and not as a collection of definitive infallible pronouncements permanently settling every question on every topic it covers. In other words, the change in definition does not mean the original formulation was wrong. But it does mean that the editors of the Catechism were not prepared to endorse it in an official Catholic reference work.

Our Intentions

In the end, then, the current Catechism does not directly address our problem. Still, after all the consultation which preceded the few changes that were made, the Catechism represents a considerable weight of ecclesiastical opinion on the side of a definition which incorporates both objective reality and human intentionality: “A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving” (a citation from Augustine), and “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error” (CCC 2482, 2483). Perhaps the very emphasis on the intention to deceive in this definition suggests another possible line of thought. For, when we speak falsely to our murderous thugs, we may at least question whether our intention is to deceive. Presumably, that intention—if it exists consciously at all—is very secondary. What we primarily intend is to prevent them from doing evil.

It would satisfy a well-formed conscience, I think, to permit the speaking of falsehood when it is the only means we can think of to prevent someone from committing an immoral act. But if so, it is hard to reach such a conclusion only by denying the intention to deceive. There must be something more than that, for we could also say that when we lied to our boss last Wednesday, our intention was not to deceive but to save our skin. Clearly this is just one more possibility for exploration, and so far all the possibilities in history have not led to a formal doctrinal development to settle the matter. It remains the case that, despite our instincts, we don’t quite know how to justify deceiving our proverbial thugs, or telling jokes that involve deception, or doing undercover police work, or engaging in military counter-intelligence activities during wartime.

Happily, the Church’s imprecision on this question does not seem to have led to a great heresy or to widespread and dangerous confusion. Perhaps the reason is simple: For most of us, the moral challenge is to find the courage to tell the truth instead of “spinning” it for petty purposes. Our most common problem is not deciding grave questions of life and death but purifying our own questionable intentions. So while lying is a fascinating subject, we are wise to remember the kinds of cases which make it so are very different from the ones we ourselves typically face. If we ask whether Augustine and Aquinas were right in condemning all falsehoods, we may well choose to answer in the negative. But if we ask whether they were right in condemning our own weak and typical lies, only one answer is possible. On these lies, every saint agrees.

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