The Doctrine of "Mental Reservation"

From the Irish Times :

One of the most fascinating discoveries in the Dublin Archdiocese report was that of the concept of “mental reservation” which allows clerics mislead people without believing they are lying.

According to the Commission of Investigation report, “mental reservation is a concept developed and much discussed over the centuries, which permits a church man knowingly to convey a misleading impression to another person without being guilty of lying”.

It gives an example. “John calls to the parish priest to make a complaint about the behaviour of one of his curates. The parish priest sees him coming but does not want to see him because he considers John to be a troublemaker. He sends another of his curates to answer the door. John asks the curate if the parish priest is in. The curate replies that he is not.”

The commission added: “This is clearly untrue but in the Church’s view it is not a lie because, when the curate told John that the parish priest was not in, he mentally reserved the words '…to you’.”

“Well, the general teaching about mental reservation is that you are not permitted to tell a lie. On the other hand, you may be put in a position where you have to answer, and there may be circumstances in which you can use an ambiguous expression realising that the person who you are talking to will accept an untrue version of whatever it may be – permitting that to happen, not willing that it happened, that would be lying. It really is a matter of trying to deal with extraordinarily difficult matters that may arise in social relations where people may ask questions that you simply cannot answer. Everybody knows that this kind of thing is liable to happen. So mental reservation is, in a sense, a way of answering without lying.”

Example of how they experienced the use of such ‘mental reservation’ by Church authorities in Dublin were supplied to the commission by Mrs Collins and fellow abuse victim Andrew Madden.

In Mrs Collins’s case, the Dublin archdiocese said in a 1997 press statement that it had co-operated with gardai where her complaint of abuse was concerned. She was upset by it as she had reason to believe otherwise. Her support priest Fr James Norman made inquiries and later told gardaí he that when he did so, the archdiocese replied “we never said we co-operated fully” - placing emphasis on the word ‘fully’ - with gardaí.

In Mr Madden’s case, Cardinal Connell emphasised he did not lie to the media about the use of diocesan funds for the compensation of clerical child sexual abuse victims.

He explained to Mr Madden he had told journalists “that diocesan funds ARE (report’s emphasis) not used for such a purpose; that he had not said that diocesan funds WERE not used for such a purpose. By using the present tense he had not excluded the possibility that diocesan funds had been used for such purpose in the past. According to Mr Madden, Cardinal Connell considered that there was an enormous difference between the two.”

Given this doctrine, how can I possibly trust any Church official’s pronouncement in any civil matter ever again? “No, the murderer is not hiding in the vestry” (he’s there with my knowledge, not hiding at all). “No, of course we don’t condone the murder of that arbortionist” (except in private). “We keep the police fully informed” (about what time it is, nothing else).

I fear the Church has lost its way.


You may be interested in this opinion piece also from the Irish Times. The author, Breda O’Brien, is a practising Catholic and committed pro-life activist.

"in the Church’s view it is not a lie because, when the curate told John that the parish priest was not in, he mentally reserved the words '…to you’.”

“No, of course we don’t condone the murder of that arbortionist” (except in private).

“We keep the police fully informed” (about what time it is, nothing else).

The above examples are all of ‘strict mental reservation’, which the Church teaches is lying.

Mental Reservation

For a time, some theologians used the term “strict mental reservation” to refer to a statement which is directly and deliberately false, but which is modified to become true by an unstated (mentally-reserved) qualification. However, this idea was subsequently condemned by Pope Innocent XI [Santissimus Dominus, n. 26, 27.]. Since then, strict mental reservation has been held to be merely a type of lying. For in strict mental reservation, the assertion is directly and deliberately deprived of truth. And the unexpressed qualification does not affect the deprivation of truth in what is expressed (or asserted), because that qualification is unexpressed (not asserted). This act is entirely unlike true mental reservation, which asserts one truth, while reserving another truth. An act of strict mental reservation asserts a falsehood, and therefore is not true mental reservation, but is merely a lie. The proper definition of mental reservation excludes strict mental reservation, since that act fits the proper definition of lying.

Mental reservation is the expression of one truth, with the reservation (i.e. the omission) of a related truth. There are two types of limitations that may cause a statement to be a type of mental reservation: (1) the expression of a truth with the omission of a related truth, or (2) the expression of a truth with the omission of the true manner of interpretation. In the first case, there are two related truths; one is expressed and another is omitted. In the second case, the related truth that is omitted is merely the proper manner of interpretation of the expressed truth. Human language often has multiple possible meanings; this commonly-understood feature of language does not cause what is expressed to be a lie.

It is similar to the Doctrine of Double effect. This doctrine is based on the claim that there is an intrinsic moral distinction between intended and foreseen harms.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia provides four conditions for the application of the principle of double effect:

1.The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
3.The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect“ (p. 1021).
In a similar vein, there is a moral distinction between intended and involuntary foreseen lying.

So are you saying that Cardinal Desmond Connell is being economical with the truth here?

His testimony was that the following was an example of “mental reservation”.

n Mr Madden’s case, Cardinal Connell emphasised he did not lie to the media about the use of diocesan funds for the compensation of clerical child sexual abuse victims.

He explained to Mr Madden he had told journalists “that diocesan funds ARE (report’s emphasis) not used for such a purpose; that he had not said that diocesan funds WERE not used for such a purpose. By using the present tense he had not excluded the possibility that diocesan funds had been used for such purpose in the past. According to Mr Madden, Cardinal Connell considered that there was an enormous difference between the two.”

In May 1995, Cardinal Connell denied that diocesan funds were used in paying compensation to abuse victims. When it emerged on RTÉ in September that year that Ivan Payne was loaned €30,000 by the archdiocese to pay compensation to Mr Madden, Cardinal Connell still insisted this was not compensation by the archdiocese. He threatened to sue RTÉ, but did not do so.

Please explain to me exactly how his Eminence’s views are in accordance with the New Catholic Encyclopedia and for that matter, His Holiness Pope Innocent XI’s views.

If they are in accordance with Church Doctrine, then so is the following:

“No, I didn’t give the gun to the murderer” *(it was only a loan, not a gift, and I did it through an intermediary anyway) *

In which case the doctrine lacks integrity, and all who follow it do so too.

If they are not, but even Cardinals (plural) routinely engage in such immoral behaviour when it comes to “protecting the Church”, when they see nothing wrong with it, then how can we trust any spokeperson for the Church in any capacity? Because church doctrine is routinely, blatantly and egregiously violated by even the most senior people.

Look, I know that the Church is composed of fallible human beings. Sinners. At some time though, the excuses about “isolated incidents” wear thin. Four successive princes of the Church have been involved in this scandal, covering more than 3 decades. At some point, the number of people involved, and their seniority, is such that you have to say that the problem is systemic.

I’m a safety-critical systems engineer. If mistakes are made in the systems we build, people die. Possibly lots of people. Yet all working on the project are fallible. all are human, all make mistakes. So we put in place procedures, methods and systems that will detect errors, and make sure they are corrected, with a demonstrated 99.999999% chance that no fatal error will get through. What we don’t allow is an aircraft crash, or a missile destroying a city, or a nuclear power plant melting down, and say “Oh, it’s just an isolated incident, everyone makes mistakes sometime”, while claiming that we are the best people in the world for making safe products. To do that would be a systemic failure, a failure in the way of doing things, not just the inevitable failures of the individuals concerned.

It appears to me that the Church is riddled with systemic failures. Systemic moral failures. That it has indeed “lost its way”.

Note also - that unlike Catholic-Bashers, I do not say that this problem is inherent. I believe it is fixable. I believe that the Church is at least potentially a power for great good, and that it does many good things.

I’m not sure I even have the right to criticise, anyway. I’m not even Christian, let alone Catholic. I’m far too aware of the beams - the entire deciduous forest - in my own eye to feel comfortable at criticising the speck in others’. And yet it’s because I think the Church is inherently Good that I must speak out at this … perversion… of Christianity. Not by the faults of individual members, but by flaws in the system itself.

The first stage of solving a systemic problem is to recognise that you have one.

He explained to Mr Madden he had told journalists “that diocesan funds ARE (report’s emphasis) not used for such a purpose; that he had not said that diocesan funds WERE not used for such a purpose. By using the present tense he had not excluded the possibility that diocesan funds had been used for such purpose in the past. According to Mr Madden, Cardinal Connell considered that there was an enormous difference between the two.”

Use of the present tense to make a true statement solely about the present situation, reserving another truth about a past situation, is an example of mental reservation, not ‘strict mental reservation’.

The use of mental reservation is not always moral; it depends on intention and circumstances as to whether or not it is moral. I’m not going to be the judge of whether or not that particular use of mental reservation by a Cardinal was moral, but it is not lying and is not an example of strict mental reservation (which is actually a type of lying, not a type of true mental reservation).

If that is the case… then no trust is possible. In my reading of the Bible, there’s a lot of criticism of those who follow the letter of the law, while perverting the spirit. Jesus roundly condemned such legalistic dishonesty. If what you say is true, then legalistic dishonesty is an integral part of Church teaching.

I really hoped this wasn’t the case, and I will reserve judgement until I get more responses.

Doesn’t part of you cringe when you see something like this? Some part, call it “conscience” or “gnosis”, whatever you will, say “there’s something terribly wrong here”?

Jesus used mental reservation, by saying that he was not going to the feast because the time was not yet right.

{7:1} Then, after these things, Jesus was walking in Galilee. For he was not willing to walk in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him.
{7:2} Now the feast day of the Jews, the Feast of Tabernacles, was near.

{7:6} Therefore, Jesus said to them: “My time has not yet come; but your time is always at hand.
{7:7} The world cannot hate you. But it hates me, because I offer testimony about it, that its works are evil.
{7:8} You may go up to this feast day. But I am not going up to this feast day, because my time has not yet been fulfilled.”
{7:9} When he had said these things, he himself remained in Galilee.
{7:10} But after his brothers went up, then he also went up to the feast day, not openly, but as if in secret.

See this article on mental reservation in general

Ron Conte:

Interesting, I did not know about the doctrine of mental reservation. I was always confused about what to do in a situation similar to Nazi Germany where the Gestapo knocked on the door to ask if there were any Jews in the house. Mental Reservation helps to answer that question. Thank you for that info.

I’d lie through my teeth if there were. I wouldn’t pretend I wasn’t lying though, not to myself.

A more apt question, given the circumstances, is if someone asked you if you were an informant for the Gestapo, and you said “no” to protect your family from reprisals, then used a “mental reservation” defence to say that you weren’t really lying, because it was in a good cause - would that be correct? I’d say no, it’s a lie. Possibly justifiable though in self-defence, and definitely so if it would save your children from being killed.

What seems to me to be the thinking behind this:

  1. The Church does a great deal of good.

  2. If this scandal came out, much of the good would be undone.

  3. Therefore it would be a bad thing to expose the scandal, and morally justified to cover it up.

  4. The Bible says that a slave beaten by a bad master earns a reward in heaven.

  5. Therefore persecuting the victims, lying to absolve the church and incriminate the victims rather than the evildoers is permissible. In fact, you’re doing the victims a favour.

  6. And as any moral burden for doing this is taken on by the priests who raped, and those who covered up, and only they would suffer in the hereafter because of that, they’re the real victims here, who should be sheltered and granted compassion.

I don’t believe that many of the bishops, archbishops and cardinals who lied did so to protect themselves. Some did, as in Canada, but most did not. They lied to protect the Church, and prevent its good from being undone. And to protect their brothers in Christ, those who had so grievously fallen.

I don’t see how any other charitable interpretation is possible, but please comment if you think I’m wrong.


Dear Zoe Brain (if that is your real name ;))
By definition, mental reservation is not lying; it is the assertion of a truth, while reserving another truth. This is moral because it is not possible to include every truth within every single assertion. We are always only speaking some truths, and not speaking other truths. What distinguishes mental reservation from other truth telling is that a truth related to the assertion is withheld. This reservation of truth is not always moral; it is sometimes immoral. However, it is by definition not lying.

It’s not the name on my birth certificate.

The name on my UK passport, Australian passport, Australian Citizenship certificate and Drivers License is not Zoe Brain either.

The point is, that since it appears that the statements by His Eminence are not viewed by the Church as lying, no statement by any Church Leader, no matter how senior, can be trusted. They show a lack of honesty, and a lack of Integrity. While no statement can possibly be the “whole truth”, nor incapable of misinterpretation by the wilfully perverse, to deliberately allow with a high probability a misleading connotation to be drawn by a reasonable person is fundamentally dishonest.

In practical terms, it means no such statements can be trusted. They are not made in Good Faith.

You have no idea how much this saddens me.

Post scriptum:The name on those documents is Zoe Ellen Brain. But I don’t wish to mislead, hence this clarification.

How could twisted accounts of truth be let obscure the protection of children from abuse?

AFTER ARCHBISHOP Martin’s press conference following the release of the Dublin diocesan report on Thursday, I commented to a senior journalist that the whole saga was utterly depressing. To my amazement, he said that, on the contrary, it was a tribute to the courage of so many people who doggedly kept on refusing to be put down and silenced.

And he is right. Andrew Madden, Ken Reilly, Marie Collins and so many others who were violated, worked tirelessly for justice. And then there are people like the young garda, Finbar Garland, who had less than one year’s experience when he was told of altar boys being abused. In 1983, on advice from a sergeant, he conducted extensive interviews before the other young people involved could be “got at” or silenced. He could recognise evil and react appropriately.

There are priests who acted with courage, and refused to duck below the parapet. And there is this statement by the commission which compiled the report, at once inspiring and damning: “The commission has been impressed by the extraordinary charity shown by complainants and their families towards offenders. It is very clear to the commission that complainants and their families frequently behaved in a much more Christian and charitable way than the church authorities.” And then there is the other side – the buck-passing, the chronic indecisiveness, the active choice to cover up scandal rather than protect children. At times while reading the report, I felt that some of the senior clerics inhabited a kind of weird parallel universe that apparently made sense to them, but is utterly incomprehensible to anyone outside it.

I truly believe that no parent, confronted with evidence that children were being abused, would think first of preventing scandal, and not of the pain and terror of a child. And what about “mental reservation”? As a practising Catholic who also has a degree in theology, completed a stone’s throw from Clonliffe, I have never heard of this idea.

The concept of “mental reservation” means that you can believe nothing from someone who thinks it is an acceptable practice, because at any moment, that person may be allowing you to “accept an untrue version of whatever it may be”, while comfortably absolved from the guilt of lying.

How could anyone, much less one of the most senior churchmen in the country, believe that to be acceptable? What kind of training and formation allowed people to justify lying, albeit passively?

I’m so sorry for you. The Catholic Church has lost its way.

Fortunately, not all Catholics have. Just the senior members of the clergy. I hope the laity can help them find the Integrity that they’ve lost, the innate Good that called them to their vocation.

I’m not a believer, but I’m still going to pray for them anyway. Not that I can ever enter heaven, because of my medical condition, no matter what I do.

Mexican Cardinal Javier Barragan, a former Vatican official who recently retired, made his comments yesterday.

Referring to one of St Paul’s epistles, he said: ‘Trans- and homosexuals will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s not me who says it but St. Paul.’

*"[T]rans e omosessuali non entreranno mai nel Regno dei Cieli, e non lo dico io, ma San Paolo." *

Barragan’s comments were posted on conservative Catholic website

I note that the Vatican disagrees - but perhaps what they say is with “mental reservations” so how can I believe them?

Zoe - what the Cardinal discussed isn’t by definition lying, that doesn’t make it morally correct, and it doesn’t mean that either the Church or we condone the cover-up of child abuse in any way shape or form.

It would be one of those circumstances where there is no justification that I can see, and none that I am aware of in Church teaching, for anything other that total honesty, and where anyone who pretends there is is guaranteed, as far as I know, to be wrong and inexcusably misrepresenting Church teaching.

It’s like the Cardinal justifying rape by saying ‘The Church teaches it’s ok because rape isn’t adultery’. Well, it isn’t, at least for the victim, but that doesn’t mean the Church condones rape or says it’s OK!

Your situation is analagous to, say, the Justice Minister coming out with some stupid statement like ‘child pornography is OK’, and you hearing that and saying ‘I can’t trust anything any politician ever says again’. Surely you’re intelligent enough to realise that the fact that SOME people within an institution are wrong or stupid (it’s guaranteed in any instutition) doesn’t mean you should tar the whole thing with the one brush. :shrug:

How about 4 consecutive Justice Ministers from the same party - it would be reasonable to say that you can’t trust senior politicians of that party.

If it was just one Cardinal, in one place, at one time, then yes, an individual error. But 4 in Ireland, and numerous Archbishops, Bishops and prelates - it’s a systemic problem.

If you examine the behaviour of senior clergy in the US and Canada, the same kind of story emerges. Cover-ups.

It appears that the Church does not condemn this behaviour - only the original crime. Though even that’s not entirely true, nor just. They just allow dishonesty in the cause of protecting the Church’s good name as a general principle, not necessarily in every case here.

Like a moderator moving this thread into “secular news”, as if it had nothing to do with Church Doctrine, or even the Church generally. Yes, it’s news, and yes, it has a secular aspect. But that’s not exactly the primary issue, is it?

When that party has over a billion members and goodness only knows how many politicians? Not at all reasonable. You’re still talking a tiny percentage.

Even the Vatican admits that between 1 on 60 and 1 in 20 priests have molested children worldwide. Not exactly a “tiny percentage”.

Totally off topic. The question is about use of mental reservation as a technique to (wrongly) justify coverups of abuse. If your statistic related to how many priests do so, then it would be relevant. Statistics as to frequency of abuse are irrelevant - we don’t know how many of them have (wrongly) used mental reservation or not.

Besides which, a good three-quarters of all child abuse occurs from with the child’s own immediate family. In other words (assuming the abuser is male) from the child’s father, stepfather, grandfather, brother or stepbrother.

Not from outsiders such as their teachers, priests, doctors or whatnot.

So logically the percentage of ordinary Joes who abuse their own (step)children, grandchildren or (step)siblings must be as high as or higher than that of priests who abuse the children they come into contact with.

Gives food for thought. All your bluster is about much less than a quarter of the problem. Do something that’s relevant to the three-quarters (ie monitoring grandparents, parents and siblings) and you’ll get somewhere.


I would be very interested in where you find that statistic. Can you provide a source?

Thank you!

Of course! Such an outrageous claim would need very convincing evidence that it’s not just Catholic-Bashing.I found it extremely difficult to believe myself. I still do.

My source is the Vatican’s permanent observer at the UN, quoting a statement from the Holy See, as reported here and as quoted by CathNews USA

The statement, read out by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the UN, defended its record by claiming that “available research” showed that only 1.5%-5% of Catholic clergy were involved in child sex abuse.

There was a thread on this very subject on the Forums some time ago.

While I would not consider any statement by any other sect or denomination very credible, I think this one is.

I ask you to read the article, and especially the document sent sub secretum to all Catholic Bishops on how to deal with this problem discretely, and excluding the involvement of secular authorities.

Some of the other comments by the Holy See are highly reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch:

As a naval officer I abhor the implication that the Royal Navy is a haven for cannibalism. It is well known that we now have the problem relatively under control, and that it is the RAF who now suffer the largest casualties in this area.

Note that one of the two main points of the Archbishop’s defence - that the Catholic Church is no worse than others, and that it’s all the fault of the Gays anyway - has since been undermined:

A study commissioned by the US Roman Catholic Church has found no evidence that gay priests are more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual clergy.

Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice said their full report won’t be available until next year but added so far, nothing had suggested that homosexuality was likely to lead to abuse.

I give extremely high marks to the Vatican for actually conducting the research, and not concealing the scope of the problem any more, nor keeping it a secret when the research shows they’re wrong. Unlike some here.

Unfortunately, while the research is being published, the cover-ups continue.

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