Lying can be Good

I’m gonna get right to the point: lying is not always evil/sinful. In fact, there are situations where it would be evil not to lie.

Before the American Civil War, millions of African-Americans were kept in bondage by the monstrous and barbaric practice of chattel slavery. Some Americans refused to stand by while this went on, and acted. Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, Levi Coffin, John Fairfield; all heroes who freed humans from slavery, but who did so using lies and deception.

A century or so later, the world was ingulphed in The Second World War. Nazi Germany was rounding up Jews and other “undesirables” by the millions and murdering them in cold blood. Again, many saw this going on and refused to stand for it. Oskar Shindler struggled to keep the Jews in his factory alive, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz secretly warned politicians in Denmark about the planned holocaust, giving the country time to evacuate 99% of it’s Jews to Neutral Sweden. Even Pope Pius XII, while remembered for not speaking out, still helped get thousands of Jews out of Europe. Again, all three of these Heroes saved human lives by lying.

These are situations where lying is not evil, and where telling the truth would have been. Dishonesty is not sinful when it is used to save human life.

It’s not so much that lying isn’t evil in these situations (Augustine argued that lying is always evil, regardless of the outcome). It’s that betrayal of an innocent person (or a person who would be considered innocent but is guilty of breaking an objectively unjust law) is a greater evil than lying - especially when the innocent person would suffer certain (or near-certain) death if turned in. When a person is given the choice between two ( or more) choices that are, on their faces, objectively evil, the requirement is for the person to discern which is the greater evil, and then choose the lesser one. And the choice of the lesser evil would be considered a venial sin, at worst, because the individual was not able to discern a choice that was not objectively evil.

Both assertions are false. BornInMarch’s examples are instances in which we recognize that not all people are entitled to be told every truth (because of how they would use it for evil purposes). In those cases, we are called not to lie, but rather, to avoid sharing the truth. The two aren’t identical.

On the other hand, powerofk’s assertion that we have a “requirement… to choose the lesser” of two evils is likewise erroneous. We are called to never choose an evil deliberately. Rather, in that case, we are called to choose neither evil… greater or lesser.

Catechism:

2483 Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord.

2484 The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity.

2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray.

scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a8.htm#2483 (more there).

My assertion had to do with if one cannot discern a way to avoid choosing between two evils, one being greater and the other lesser.

(ok a bit more-- please follow closely)

Lying is an evil (no matter how small)

Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned…

(and Paul said the idea that one could do evil for good was justly condemned in his letter to the Romans)

scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a8.htm#III See the whole section there.

But - surely you can lie to protect someone? Surely the good intention makes it ok?

No that would not make it “good”.

Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. …

scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c1a4.htm#II

Now please follow the rest closely.

It can be said though that one can use certain licit “mental reservations”…or “discreet language”. (see the CCC).

But what if one does not in that extreme example? One is put on the spot with that life or death request?

Now lets say one is in the very serious event of the Nazi at the door… and one can not find those discreet words…and others lives are at stake …and one thus ends up lying. What then? Well of course one should have found the other way. But in our weakness we sin …indeed we commit venial sins daily …hence they are called at times “daily sins” for which we pray daily “forgive us our trespasses”…and certainly ones culpability will likely be even further reduced by the event of the Nazi’s with the guns at your door…so ones venial sin will be reduced to an even smaller venial sin (if there is culpability at all)…which God in his knowing mercy can wipe away as one glances at the Crucifix with prayer after the Nazi’s leave…

God knows that in our seeking to live the varied virtues in our lives we will have venial sins in the process…that we being “saints” …being a new creation in Christ in the state of grace…in charity …living in Christ will still have “daily sins” to pray for (and work against daily). He loves us and continues to purify us with his love. (Not that such is an excuse to not seek to overcome our sins more and more in our lives …nor ought we seek or plan to lie in this case …but rather seek to find the right way).

Now all this does not make it “good” to lie. Or make it not a sin to lie (be it ever so slight). Nor does the ends in this circumstance “justify” the means of the lie.The end does not “justify” the means (see CCC etc) It remains a lie. A sin. But so too does the intemperance that one exhibited that morning at breakfast with too many eggs or the little anger one expressed at ones spouse that afternoon. If one falls here too…it will be another venial sin. Another weakness (I am not encouraging sin here --but it is a reality in daily life). Something that ought not have happened. That is: One ought to have found a good way.

But it is somewhat understandable that it may happen in such events of Nazi’s at the door… even to Christians. To saints.

And there is really no point in trying to argue too much about such…

(PS: perhaps one could argue that there is a different “object” involved-- (hence not be a lie–similar to where taking say food by a starving person may be not “theft” by reason of the object…the definition of theft being something different and the universal destination of goods being in effect etc --see CCC 2408–such is a change in the object --it is a different thing than theft)…but again I leave that to the professional theologians to argue out and to the Magisterium to decide scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c1a4.htm#I and scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a7.htm#II)

PS #2:

Catholic Answers Apologist’s answer – similar to mine: catholic.com/quickquestions/is-lying-a-sin-if-done-to-protect-someone-from-death

It can’t be good. Most of us will not be in situations where lying will supposedly save lives. In the case of World War II, if Jews, for example, were being sought, a single lie would not stop the pursuer. If his mission was to find these people, he, and those he worked for, would use all the resources at their disposal. The same with looking for spies, resistance fighters and others, like saboteurs.

In everyday life, including in business, honesty is the best policy.

Ed

(ok a bit more-- please follow closely)

Lying is an evil (no matter how small)

Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned…

(and Paul said the idea that one could do evil for good was justly condemned in his letter to the Romans)

scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a8.htm#III See the whole section there.

But - surely you can lie to protect someone? Surely the good intention makes it ok?

No that would not make it “good”.

Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1753 A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just. The end does not justify the means. …

scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c1a4.htm#II

Now please follow the rest closely.

It can be said though that one can use certain licit “mental reservations”…or “discreet language”. (see the CCC).

But what if one does not in that extreme example? One is put on the spot with that life or death request?

Now lets say one is in the very serious event of the Nazi at the door… and one can not find those discreet words…and others lives are at stake …and one thus ends up lying. What then? Well of course one should have found the other way. But in our weakness we sin …indeed we commit venial sins daily …hence they are called at times “daily sins” for which we pray daily “forgive us our trespasses”…and certainly ones culpability will likely be even further reduced by the event of the Nazi’s with the guns at your door…so ones venial sin will be reduced to an even smaller venial sin (if there is culpability at all)…which God in his knowing mercy can wipe away as one glances at the Crucifix with prayer after the Nazi’s leave…

God knows that in our seeking to live the varied virtues in our lives we will have venial sins in the process…that we being “saints” …being a new creation in Christ in the state of grace…in charity …living in Christ will still have “daily sins” to pray for (and work against daily). He loves us and continues to purify us with his love. (Not that such is an excuse to not seek to overcome our sins more and more in our lives …nor ought we seek or plan to lie in this case …but rather seek to find the right way).

Now all this does not make it “good” to lie. Or make it not a sin to lie (be it ever so slight). Nor does the ends in this circumstance “justify” the means of the lie.The end does not “justify” the means (see CCC etc) It remains a lie. A sin. But so too does the intemperance that one exhibited that morning at breakfast with too many eggs or the little anger one expressed at ones spouse that afternoon. If one falls here too…it will be another venial sin. Another weakness (I am not encouraging sin here --but it is a reality in daily life). Something that ought not have happened. That is: One ought to have found a good way.

But it is somewhat understandable that it may happen in such events of Nazi’s at the door… even to Christians. To saints.

And there is really no point in trying to argue too much about such…

(PS: perhaps one could argue that there is a different “object” involved-- (hence not be a lie–similar to where taking say food by a starving person may be not “theft” by reason of the object…the definition of theft being something different and the universal destination of goods being in effect etc --see CCC 2408–such is a change in the object --it is a different thing than theft)…but again I leave that to the professional theologians to argue out and to the Magisterium to decide scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c1a4.htm#I and scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a7.htm#II)

PS #2:

Catholic Answers Apologist’s answer – similar to mine: catholic.com/quickquestions/is-lying-a-sin-if-done-to-protect-someone-from-death

Lying is **always **sinful and is a violation of the 8th Commandment.

You should read St. Augustine’s treatise on lying called De Mendacio. It contains a true account of a bishop who hid a wanted fugitive and refused to lie.

In it [St. Augustine’s, *De Mendacio

] he cites the case of a holy bishop, Firmus of Thagasta, who wished to protect a man who had sought refuge with him. The bishop was so careful of the truth that, rather than lying to the imperial officers who pursued the fugitive, he told them frankly that he would not reveal the man’s location. Firmus maintained this resolve even under torture, with the result that he was eventually brought before the emperor himself. But the emperor was so impressed with the bishop’s virtue that he both praised the bishop and pardoned the fugitive.

Augustine tells this story to provide a saintly witness for his argument that lying is always morally wrong, regardless of the circumstances, and to note that God is perfectly capable of extricating from trouble those who stand fast in the truth. …]

In the monumental Summa Theologiae, [St.]Thomas states the same position: “Therefore it is not lawful to tell a lie in order to deliver another from any danger whatever. Nevertheless it is lawful to hide the truth prudently, by keeping it back, as Augustine says” (II:110:3).

Also, I don’t know about the others, but regarding Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz I can’t find an account anywhere which states that he lied. Secretly warning politicians is not lying. If anything he risked his life to reveal the truth. Please correct me if I’m wrong. I would also note that hiding someone in and of itself is not lying.

And remember, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”(Jn.14:6) Satan on the other hand is “a liar and the father of lies.” (Jn. 8:44).

Choose wisely.

God bless,

Josie

How about defining it as something other than a lie?

A football team doesn’t “lie” by running a play fake against its opponent. A bridge player doesn’t “lie” by making misleading bids. A public defender doesn’t “lie” by litigating in a way to help the defendant. A diplomat doesn’t “lie” by telling an adversary that his army is stronger than the adversary’s army, even if it’s not exactly true.

The idea that every statement we make must necessarily be the the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is too simplistic and not realistic.

Depends how you define the word. The way I learned it is that what those persons did is not actually lying.

I think the “Nazi at the door” scenario is used too often to rationalize lying in less dire circumstances. We lie to avoid social embarrassment or to keep our boss from knowing how much we goof off at the workplace. Then it is not the lesser of two evils, but choosing what appears to be a small evil to avoid harsh consequences for other bad choices we’ve made. If instead we told the truth with tact or discretion, or at least avoided telling untruths, it’s conceivable that we might even benefit socially and professionally.

You remember the story of St Athanasius, fleeing for his life? He was going downriver when they caught up to him, but they didn’t recognise him. They said, “Is Athanasius going this way?” and the Saint replied, “Yes, he is! If you’re quick you’ll catch him!”
Not a lie…

This is wonderfully put, thank you!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear, we must have respect for the truth. However, just because someone asks a question does not entitle them to a complete and truthful answer! If someone asked me how often I have intimate relations with my husband, I do not have to reveal that information, if I go to a restaurant and ask for the recipe they do not have to answer because I am not entitled to that information. If I ask a physician or an attorney private information about their patients or clients they are not bound to tell me the answer.

Nazis asking for the location of Jewish people were NOT entitled to that information. So misleading them or avoiding answering would not be sinful just my two cents.

I was listening to EWTN radio and someone had asked Fr. Mitch Pacwa the “Nazi at the door” scenario. His response was that Catholics are not to lie (because that would be a sin) but it’s ok not tell the whole truth. I’ll try to see if I can find what he said to say, but I remember the theoretical response he said he would give to the Nazi was naive (in that it sounded like something a child would say when his parent asks if he made that mess).

Lying means asserting a falsehood but leading someone away from the truth is not evil in itself and always, so you can use careful language to hide the truth for a sufficient reason.

I used to watch Fr. Mitch (I forget what his show was called). Then one year he was moved onto one of EWTN’s primary shows, and I think he had to bring his discourse down slightly to a level that would appeal to a very broad audience. (Just my impression, I’m not 100% sure.) I still like to watch him sometimes but not as much.

Really?

[quote=powerofk]When a person is given the choice between two ( or more) choices that are, on their faces, objectively evil, the requirement is for the person to discern which is the greater evil, and then choose the lesser one.
[/quote]

Nope… it sure looks like you’re advocating choosing to do an evil. That’s what’s not permitted.

Again, my point is simply if one were forced and could not discern a way to avoid the choice. I do not advocate doing an evil - but I also understand that most people cannot discern every possible option, especially in the heat of the moment. As for hiding the truth, even if one is not explicitly lying, one may be considered to be implicitly lying. And for those who take a strict interpretation of the commandment to not lie, even the case of “hiding the truth” from someone who asks for it - especially if that person is in a place of authority - could be considered to be a lie.

As such, it truly depends on what a person considers a lie. Anyone would consider directly stating something that one knows is untrue to be a lie. But there are those who would consider stating something that one believes to be true but happens to not be true to be a lie. There are others that would consider allowing another to believe something that is not true to be a lie. Etc.

Agreed. But, in the way you’ve framed it up, there is the knowledge that both options are evil. Therefore, choosing evil is explicitly what you’re saying one should do. The Church, I think, would counter, “choose neither.”

[quote=powerofk] As for hiding the truth, even if one is not explicitly lying, one may be considered to be implicitly lying. And for those who take a strict interpretation of the commandment to not lie, even the case of “hiding the truth” from someone who asks for it - especially if that person is in a place of authority - could be considered to be a lie.
[/quote]

No, this is not the case. You might consider reading the Catechism on the eighth commandment, beginning at paragraph 2464. Here’s just a snippet that refutes your assertions (CCC 2488-89):

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.

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. … No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.

The Catechism makes precisely the distinction that you’re talking about; but, rather than calling it ‘lying’ (and the Catechism condemns lying), it calls this “being silent about what ought not be known or using discreet language.” Big difference.

[quote=powerofk]As such, it truly depends on what a person considers a lie.
[/quote]

No: a lie is objectively a lie – it’s not a subjective consideration of what someone ‘considers a lie’!

[quote=powerofk]There are others that would consider allowing another to believe something that is not true to be a lie.
[/quote]

And they would be mistaken. :shrug:

In the canonical case of the ‘Nazi at the door’, allowing the Nazi with evil intent to believe there are no Jews being given shelter – by remaining silent or using discreet language (“Jews? Here? Why in the world would there be Jews here?”) – is not a lie, whether or not someone considers it to be a lie. :wink:

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